Investigation details ‘systemic’ abuse of National Women’s Soccer League players

An independent investigation released Oct. 3 and conducted by former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, on behalf of the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) into abuse in women’s professional soccer found disturbing accounts from players about physical, sexual, emotional and psychological assaults. The abuse ran the gamut from the youngest players to those in national leagues. National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) coaches, owners and executives, as well as the USSF itself failed female players at every level of the sport.

“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,” the report reads. “Abuse in the NWSL is rooted in a deeper culture in women’s soccer, beginning in youth leagues, that normalizes verbally abusive coaching and blurs boundaries between coaches and players.”

The summary report, disseminated to major news outlets and reviewed by PGN, also details what changes the USSF should implement going forward. The 319 page report includes chapters on witness interviews, “confidentiality and anonymity,” “poor conditions at the league,” “recent allegations” and “systemic abuse.” The report included more than 200 player and personnel interviews with first-hand reports of abuse or misconduct at organizations in the 12-team league founded in 2012.

There are sections devoted to three of the most egregious coach offenders: Paul Riley, Rory Dames and Christy Holly. 

As the report explores, coaches who abused players were known to the league and to executives, yet were moved from team-to-team much like abusive priests were moved from parish-to-parish with no regard for subsequent victims and no explanations of their previous actions. On more than one occasion an abusive coach was allowed to go to another team and the owners congratulated him and wished him well.

There were multiple layers of abuse which included manipulation of players into having sex with each other and coercion of lesbian players into detailing their sexual activities. One coach asked a player to review a game tape and instead showed her pornography. Another used a game tape as an excuse to sexually assault a player. 

The executive summary details how in April 2021, Christy Holly asked Erin Simon to attend a game film session with him alone. The report says, “When she arrived, she recalls Holly opened his laptop and began the game film. He told her he was going to touch her ‘for every pass [she] fucked up.’ He did. Simon reports that he pushed his hands down her pants and up her shirt.”

The executive summary states coach Paul Riley left the Portland Thorns in 2015 following an investigation of a complaint by Meleana Shim. Shim publicly came out as a lesbian on August 30, 2013 in an interview with Outsports, the day before the Portland Thorns entered the NWSL Championship.

The executive summary says that “Riley had sexually pursued Shim for months and benched her after she declined his advances.” It also notes that “The League reportedly knew of both Shim’s report [to The Atlantic magazine in 2021] and the investigation [into Riley’s actions] that led to Riley’s departure from the Thorns. The article reported further that the League failed to investigate a 2021 complaint against Riley by another player, Sinead Farrelly, whom Riley coerced into a sexual relationship in a prior professional league.”

Riley “coerced multiple players into sexual relationships,” and his behavior was so egregious and harmful that he was fired. But when Riley was hired by a new team, the Portland Thorns, which had documented his behavior in an internal investigation, did not report their investigation to the new team but rather “publicly wished him well in his new post.”

In 2021, USSL commissioned Yates and the law firm King & Spalding to investigate after reports in The Athletic, The Atlantic and The Washington Post revealed multiple accusations of sexual and verbal abuse against coaches in the NWSL. Those reports led to public protests by players and a game stoppage. At that point, some league executives resigned and others were fired. Five of the then 10-team league’s coaches were linked to allegations of abuse. In addition, world-renowned soccer players revealed their own abuse stories. The series of events mirrored what had transpired in women’s gymnastics.

Cindy Parlow Cone, the USSL president and a former member of the national team, was quoted in multiple media saying the findings were “devastating and infuriating.” Cone said there are “systemic failures within soccer that must be corrected,” and that the USSL and NWSL would immediately implement some of the report’s recommendations.

One element of the report that hinges on that pattern of “systemic abuse” is how young players are groomed to accept being berated, harassed and touched inappropriately — and not complain about those actions — as soon as they enter the sport. The report contends that this predisposes players so they then come to expect abuse and not report it. The reports by Shim, Farrelly and others broke that entrenched code of silence, just as the gymnasts who reported Dr. Larry Nassar and other abusers broke abuse in gymnastics wide open.

But, the report also reveals that just as complaints from gymnasts were dismissed and ignored — even by the FBI — the problem of abuse at the NWSL and systemically at the USSL was also dismissed, with more and more players suffering as a result.

Olympic gold medalist Becky Sauerbrunn, captain of the U.S. women’s national soccer team and a player for the Portland Thorns, told CNN Oct. 4 that players are angry and want immediate changes following the report’s release. 

“The players are not doing well. We are horrified and heartbroken and frustrated and exhausted. And we are really, really angry. We are angry that it took a third-party investigation,” Sauerbrunn stated.

The two-time World Cup winner told the media, “For so long this has always fallen on the players to demand change and that is because people in authority and decision-making positions have repeatedly failed to protect us.”

Sauerbrunn was adamant that “Every owner and executive and U.S. Soccer official who repeatedly failed the players and failed to protect the players, who have hidden behind legalities and have not participated fully in these investigations, should be gone.”

She added, “At the bare minimum, the recommendations that are in the Sally Yates report should be immediately implemented by U.S. Soccer and by the league (NWSL).” 

NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman issued a statement in which she said the NWSL is committed to “implementing reform and disciplinary action” based on the report and investigation.

“While it will take time, we are fully prepared to take the necessary steps to protect the health and safety of our players, staff and other stakeholders in order to create the League that our players, fans, partners and staff deserve and expect,” she said.

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