‘Sorry’ Isn’t Enough for the Women Abused By the National Women’s Soccer League

A damning report reveals that soccer officials knowingly protected serial abusers. Systemic change is needed, but no one is rising to the moment.

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‘Sorry’ Isn’t Enough for the Women Abused By the National Women’s Soccer League
A game between the Chicago Red Stars and Portland Thorns FC on November 14, 2021. Photo:Amanda Loman/ISI Photos/Getty Images (Getty Images)

The worst may be over for National Women’s Soccer League players who were abused, harassed, or sexually coerced by their own coaches, following the release of a report that found “systemic” abuse and sexual misconduct in the league. At last, what was considered an “open secret” has been thrust into the international spotlight and, at the very least, perpetrators no longer have the ability to exploit their power over players. But that’s not the same as justice, and the NWSL’s so-far tepid response has not come with any logical steps toward preventing such abuse from continuing into the future.

The investigation, led by former Attorney General Sally Yates and released Monday, was commissioned by the U.S. Soccer Federation last year, following reporting from The Athletic that detailed how the Portland Thorns failed to protect their players from sexual advances from former coach Paul Riley. Yates found that the USSF and the NWSL failed to install proper player protections since the league’s inception, citing nonexistent HR departments, broken reporting structures, and even things as basic as lackluster training facilities.

We now know that, as suspected, many of the men and women in charge of the players’ safety and livelihoods knew what happened to them and chose to turn a blind eye.

Arnim Whisler, the chairman of the Chicago Red Stars who dismissed concerns from players about the abusive behavior of former coach Rory Dames, released a statement Tuesday announcing he would be stepping down, adding he was “so deeply sorry for what our players experienced.” That same day, Portland Thorns owner Merritt Paulson said he was stepping away from decision-making until the findings of a concurrent investigation by the league and the players’ union are released. And as of Wednesday, Portland Thorns president of soccer Gavin Wilkinson and president of business Mike Golub have been relieved of their duties, according to ESPN.

But sorry isn’t taking ownership or holding an entity accountable. Sorry isn’t “you’re right, we knew, and we did nothing.” The only plausible way forward is to weed out the rot, which, according to the Yates report, goes all the way back to youth soccer. The entire NWSL needs to be overhauled. That means not just firing figureheads, coaches, and general managers, or those who are most outwardly to blame, but truly starting fresh—with new executive searches to replace all those who laid eyes on a misconduct report and dismissed it, or heard an allegation about a coach but didn’t look into it. If the abuses were structural, then the structure needs to be demolished and rebuilt. Apologies are nice, and promises of “doing better” are good, if unspecific. But survivors will never get justice or the reassurance of safety until the rules are rewritten from scratch.

Justice also requires solidarity, which has so far come from NWSL players’ international colleagues, including one English player who said bluntly, this is “not a new thing.” But, unsurprisingly, solidarity has been lacking beyond the players themselves (who are “not doing well”). Adweek contacted 19 brands that sponsor the NWSL and its teams—including the Portland Thorns, the Chicago Red Stars, San Diego Wave FC, and Racing Louisville FC—to ask how the Yates report impacted their relationships with the teams. Many of the sponsors said they were “deeply disturbed” and are “anxiously awaiting changes” the league might introduce. But, Adweek wrote, they’re “punting the responsibility back to the league, instead of using their influence to push the NWSL into changing.”

The Yates report seems to have sent a chill down the spines of every NWSL fan and the reporters covering the league. There are significant parallels to what USA Gymnastics allowed Larry Nassar to get away with—ignored reports of misconduct, silencing of underaged abuse victims, the swift relocation of the perpetrator where he would, again, be able to freely sexually harm victims. But that horrific pattern of events surfaced nearly six years ago. It’s difficult to stomach the fact that we are having the very same conversation today, let alone within another professional league of women athletes.

After numerous Nassar victims gave harrowing testimony about what he’d done to them and how he’d ruined their lives, Nassar was convicted of sexually abusing minors who came through the USA Gymnastics program. At the time, there was hope in the air that the structure of women’s sports might actually change—that people in charge might listen to women and use their power to prevent such abuse from happening again. But that’s one of the particularly chilling things about the Yates report: the number of times these incidents were reported and then brushed under the rug, all while Nassar’s trial was publicly playing out. It’s a haunting reminder that our institutions, despite saying they have learned, are still willing to go to great lengths to protect men in power—to give them second, third, fourth chances; to let them walk out the door a free man, not unlike Johnny Depp. This was always bigger than soccer and bigger than women’s sports, even. This widespread abuse is emblematic of everything equitable that we are still so far from achieving.

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