Sexual Misconduct and Abuse Are ‘Systemic’ in Women’s Soccer, New Report Finds

The National Women's Soccer League and U.S. Soccer have allowed a "pattern" of abuse to run rampant, former Attorney General Sally Yates found.

Sexual Misconduct and Abuse Are ‘Systemic’ in Women’s Soccer, New Report Finds
Portland Timbers fans set off red smoke in support of women soccer players during the Major League Soccer playoffs in November 2021. :

The U.S. Soccer Federation and the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) failed to install proper player protections since the league’s inception, prompting a near unchecked pattern of systemic sexual and verbal abuse, according to a new independent investigation released Monday.

The investigation, led by former Attorney General Sally Yates, was commissioned by U.S. Soccer last year following reporting from The Athletic, which detailed how the Portland Thorns failed to protect their players from sexual advances and coercion by former coach Paul Riley. Meleana Shim, a Thorns player whom Riley sexually harassed for months and later benched after she repeatedly turned him down, filed a complaint about Riley’s behavior in 2015. An internal investigation led to Riley’s “departure” from the Thorns. Despite the NWSL’s reported knowledge of the real nature of Riley’s exit, he was allowed to coach another NWSL team, the North Carolina Courage, until his firing in 2021. New information gathered by Yates and her team lays out how this sequence of events wasn’t just tolerated by the League, but institutionalized, often as an “open secret.” By the end of the 2021 season, according to the report, half of the NWSL’s teams had parted ways with their head coaches following player complaints.

Over the span of 319 pages, Yates presents damning evidence of a league-wide unsafe environment for players, in which personnel both from teams and the league “repeatedly ignored players’ allegations of abuse and inappropriate behavior by coaches over many years.” After conducting over 200 interviews with players, coaches, owners, and front office staff, including over 100 former NWSL and U.S. women’s national team players, and reviewing around 89,000 documents provided by US Soccer, the Yates report concluded that verbal and emotional abuse of players was rampant across the NWSL, and that basic reporting structures were broken. After being on the receiving end of “relentless, degrading tirades” or sexual manipulation that took advantage of the sport’s built-in power structures, players were often retaliated against for coming forward.

While the entire report is harrowing and difficult to read, a few new details stick out as particularly egregious. The report states that in April 2021, former Racing Louisville head coach Christy Holly requested that a player, Erin Simon, attend a game film session with him alone. “For every pass [she] fucked up,” Simon recalled, he touched her as punishment, forcing his hands down her pants and up her shirt. On other occasions, Holly reportedly showed Simon pornography and masturbated in front of her, and later sent Simon sexually explicit photos, demanding she send photos of herself back.

But Simon never should have been alone with a man the NWSL seemed to know was a serial abuser. According to the Yates report, if the NWSL’s reporting structures worked properly, Holly would have been fired when reports of verbal abuse and a relationship with a player surfaced at his previous team, Sky Blue FC in New York/New Jersey. Instead, in August 2017, he was simply asked to leave Sky Blue, and allowed to take on another head coaching position. At the time, Holly simply said he “made the decision to step aside,” and Sky Blue president and general manager Tony Novo publicly thanked Holly in a team statement, with no mention of his offenses.

The report later describes another chilling pattern, this time regarding Riley’s coaching tenure on the Thorns and the Courage. At least one complaint regarding Riley’s behavior was brought to the US Soccer Federation (USSF) or NWSL personnel every year from 2015 to 2021, including an anonymous player survey after the 2014 season in which Riley was described as “verbally abusive, sexist and destructive.” According to the Yates report, the results of that survey were shared with then-commissioner Cheryl Bailey, then-USSF president Sunil Gulati, and then-USSF CEO Dan Flynn. Riley was allowed to coach and continue his harassment of women players for another six years after the league’s top brass learned of his behavior.

By the end of the 2021 season, half of the NWSL’s teams had parted ways with their head coaches following player complaints.

As if the allegations themselves weren’t bad enough, Yates makes clear that multiple teams did not fully cooperate with the investigation. The Thorns reportedly tried to withhold the 2015 report about Riley from Yates by claiming it was “protected by attorney-client and common-interest privilege,” despite the USSF already having a copy on hand. Additionally, the Portland Thorns “interfered” with access to witnesses, Racing Louisville refused to produce documents, and the Chicago Red Stars “unnecessarily delayed” the delivery of important documents as requested by the probe.

“This investigation’s findings are heartbreaking and deeply troubling,” said USSF president Cindy Parlow Cone in a statement. “The abuse described is inexcusable and has no place on any playing field, in any training facility or workplace. As the national governing body for our sport, U.S. 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.”

The report makes recommendations to both the governing body and the league, but Yates found that many of the issues facing the league begin in youth soccer, and that the story of systemic abuse in the NWSL is inextricable from the history of U.S. women’s soccer itself. By enabling coaches known to have physically or emotionally harmed players throughout the league to move around without repercussions, the NWSL wittingly exposed dozens of other athletes—if not more—to men who had no interest in protecting them. Both the league and USSF placed more importance on protecting the reputations and job security of individuals who abused their power than on protecting the women players they abused. No story is more American than that.

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