An independent investigation into allegations of misconduct in US women’s soccer released Monday found “systemic” abuse and sexual misconduct by coaches.
The probe by former acting US attorney general Sally Yates and the King & Spalding law firm uncovered verbal and emotional abuse and sexual misconduct, including a pattern of “sexually charged comments, unwanted sexual advances and touching and coercive sexual intercourse.”
The 172-page report included interviews with more than 200 National Women’s Soccer League players — many of them members of US national teams — and detailed patterns of abuse from team coaches, manipulation and tirades plus retaliation for those who complained.
“Our investigation has revealed a league in which abuse and misconduct — verbal and emotional abuse and sexual misconduct — had become systemic, spanning multiple teams, coaches and victims,” Yates wrote in the report’s executive summary.
“Abuse in the NWSL is rooted in a deeper culture in women’s soccer that normalizes verbally abusive coaching and blurs boundaries between coaches and players,” she added.
“The players who have come forward to tell their stories have demonstrated great courage. It’s now time that the institutions that failed them in the past listen to the players and enact the meaningful reform players deserve.”
The investigation began after a 2021 report by The Athletic about abusive behavior and sexual misconduct by former Portland Thorns manager Paul Riley.
That report said complaints were brought to former US Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati but no action was taken by USSF against Riley. Although he eventually was fired by the Thorns, Riley was hired to coach another NWSL team.
“The verbal and emotional abuse players describe in the NWSL is not merely ‘tough’ coaching,” Yates wrote.
“And the players affected are not shrinking violets. They are among the best athletes in the world. They include members of the US Women’s national team, veterans of multiple World Cup and Olympic tournaments.”
Rory Dames coached the Chicago Red Stars from the NWSL’s start until resigning last November. The report outlined his obscenities and verbal abuse and insults to players, saying a sexualized workplace led to multiple improper sexual relationships with players.
Christy Holly was a coach with Sky Blue for half a season in 2016 before departing after complaints of verbal abuse and an improper relationship, the report said.
Holly was hired last year by expansion club Racing Louisville, where verbal and emotional abuse was repeated and he was fired after sexually coercing and groping a player.
The NWSL, in a statement, promised “systemic reform” to make the league one “with safe and professional environments to train and compete” and acknowledged the “anxiety and mental strain” for women reliving traumatic incidents.
“We continue to admire their courage in coming forward to share their stories,” it said. “We know we must learn from and take responsibility for the painful lessons of the past in order to move the league into a better future.”
The report found teams, league officials and the USSF “repeatedly failed to respond appropriately when confronted with player reports and evidence of abuse,” and “failed to institute basic measures to prevent and address it, even as some leaders privately acknowledged the need for workplace protection.”
That allowed abusive coaches to move from club to club with positive remarks that concealed misconduct.
“Those at the NWSL and USSF in a position to correct the record stayed silent,” the report said. “And no one at the teams, the league or the federation demanded better of coaches.”
– ‘Heartbreaking’ –
USSF president Cindy Parlow Cone, a former US women’s national team player who took charge in 2020, said measures are already underway to prevent such violations from happening again.
“This investigation’s findings are heartbreaking and deeply troubling,” Cone said. “The abuse described is inexcusable and has no place on any playing field, in any training facility or workplace.
“US Soccer is fully committed to doing everything in its power to ensure that all players –- at all levels –- have a safe and respectful place to learn, grow and compete.”
Federation initiatives include online and text systems for reporting incidents, tighter verifying of coaches and referees, and background screening.
“US Soccer and the entire soccer community have to do better,” Cone said. “I have faith that we can use this report and its recommendations as a critical turning point for every organization tasked with ensuring player safety.”
A new office of participant safety will be established to address the findings and act on recommendations.
“We’re taking the immediate action that we can today,” Cone said. “We can create meaningful, long-lasting change throughout the soccer ecosystem,” Cone said.
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