An independent investigation into the scandals that erupted in the National Women’s Soccer League last season found emotional abuse and sexual misconduct in the sport were systemic, affecting multiple teams, coaches and players, according to a report released on Monday.
“Abuse in the NWSL is rooted in a deeper culture in women’s football, beginning in the youth leagues, that is normalizing verbally abusive coaching and blurring the lines between coaches and players,” former acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Q. Yates wrote in her investigative report.
US Soccer hired Yates and the law firm King to investigate & Spaulding after former NWSL players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim made allegations of harassment and sexual assault dating back a decade and involving former coach Paul Riley. Her account was published by The Athletic in September 2021.
Riley, who denied the allegations, was quickly fired as North Carolina Courage head coach, and NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird resigned.
But it was clear that the problems were widespread. Five of the NWSL’s ten head coaches were either fired or resigned last season following allegations of misconduct.
“The verbal and emotional abuse that players in the NWSL describe is not just ‘hard’ coaching. And the players affected are not shrinking violets. You are among the best athletes in the world,” Yates wrote.
More than 200 people were interviewed by investigators. About two dozen institutions and individuals provided documents. US Soccer also provided documents and the firm reviewed 89,000 documents deemed likely to be relevant.
US Soccer President Cindy Parlow Cone called the results “heartbreaking and deeply disturbing”.
“The abuse described is inexcusable and has no place on any pitch, training facility or workplace,” she said in a statement. “As the national governing body of our sport, US Soccer is fully committed to doing everything in our power to ensure all players – at all levels – have a safe and respectful place to learn, grow and thrive can measure.”
The report included numerous recommendations to prioritize player health and safety. This includes the requirement for teams to accurately disclose misconduct by league and football association coaches to ensure coaches are not allowed to move between teams. It also calls for meaningful review of coaches and timely investigation of allegations of abuse.
The NWSL said it was reviewing the report. The league and the NWSL Players Association are also conducting an investigation.
“We are aware of the anxiety and psychological distress this pending investigation has caused and the trauma many – including players and staff – are reliving. We continue to admire their courage to come forward to share their stories and influence any changes needed to move our league forward,” NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman said in a statement. “Building trust between the league, its players and others key stakeholders remains a core concern of the NWSL, and we know we must learn from and take responsibility for the painful lessons of the past to steer the league in a better future.”
The investigation focused on three former coaches, Riley, Christy Holly of Racing Louisville and Rory Dames of the Chicago Red Stars.
It tells of an encounter between Holly and a player, Erin Simon, who is now playing in Europe, in April 2021. Holly invited her to watch a feature film with him and allegedly told her that he would charge her for every pass she messed up , would touch. Simon told investigators Holly “shoved his hands down her pants and down her shirt.”
Simon, now at Leicester City, said too many athletes suffer in silence for fear of not being heard.
“I know because that’s how I felt,” the 28-year-old said in a statement. “Through many difficult days my faith alone carried me and kept going. I want to do everything to ensure that no other player has to experience what I experienced. This report is finally making our voices heard and is the first step towards the respectful workplace we all deserve.”
Holly was terminated for cause, but Racing Louisville declined to publicly state the reason. Yates’ report found that Racing did not provide investigators with details of Holly’s employment, citing mutual confidentiality and non-disparagement clauses.
Farrelly said the harassment she experienced began in 2011 when she was a player with the Philadelphia Independence of the Women’s Professional Soccer League. Riley was her coach.
She told The Athletic that Riley’s abuse continued while she was with the Portland Thorns in 2014 and 2015. Shim, a former Thorns player, also said she was harassed. Neither woman plays in the NWSL now.
The Thorns said they investigated Riley in 2015 when he was on the team and reported the results to the league. They didn’t renew his contract but didn’t make the reasons public.
According to the report, the Thorns failed to disclose certain information and tried to prevent investigators from using the team’s 2015 report.
“The Portland Thorns interfered with our access to relevant witnesses and advanced flimsy legal arguments to prevent our use of relevant documents,” Yates wrote.
Riley later coached the Western New York Flash, which later relocated to North Carolina and was renamed.
When the scandal broke last year, former Thorns forward Alex Morgan wrote on social media: “The league has been briefed on these allegations on several occasions and has on several occasions refused to investigate the allegations. The league must take responsibility for a process that failed to protect its own players from this abuse.”
Morgan also said Shim and Farrelly asked the NWSL for a new investigation into Riley’s behavior early last year but were turned down.
The US Women’s National Team Players Association released a statement: “All players deserve to work in an environment free from discrimination, harassment and abusive behavior. The USWNTPA commends the courage of the survivors, current players and former players, who have come forward to speak out against abusive practices that have become far too commonplace in the NSWL and women’s soccer in general. At the same time, the USWNTPA is dismayed that some NWSL clubs and USSF personnel obstructed the ongoing NWSL/NWSLPA investigation immediately.”
US Soccer said its board and a leadership team would begin implementing the report’s recommendations immediately.
“US Soccer and the entire soccer community must do better, and I believe we can use this report and its recommendations as a critical turning point for any organization charged with keeping players safe,” said Parlow Cone. “We have a lot of work to do and we are committed to doing that work and driving change across the football community.”
“Once someone finally tells their story, other people will come[to the front],” said Durham-based therapist Ashley Gilmore. She believes now that other women have made their encounters with Riley public, more players could share their experiences.
In several instances, players recall Riley cutting or holding back game time due to their weight or reacting with fear when they did not respond positively to his alleged sexual advances. “It’s a power dynamic when you have someone who is an authoritative figure who basically tells you, if you do this, here’s what happens,” Gilmore said.
Copyright © 2022 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
https://6abc.com/womens-soccer-nwsl-abuse-league/12291461/ Emotional abuse, sexual misconduct were systemic in professional women’s soccer league NWSL, investigation finds