Results of an investigation led by former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates into widespread abuse in the U.S. National Women's Soccer League were released Monday October 3rd. The 172-page report detailed emotional and sexual abuse and complicity at the highest levels of U.S. Soccer which in many instances resulted in player complaints being ignored and coaches who had been fired after incidents being rehired by other teams.
A report was commissioned by U.S. Soccer after The Washington Post and The Athletic exposed abuse at several clubs last year. The new report confirms those allegations and includes previously unreported allegations, specifically addressing three coaches: Paul Riley and Christy Holly, both accused of sexual abuse, and Rory Dames, accused of emotional and verbal abuse (including creating an inappropriately sexual environment). However, Yates made it clear that the focus on these coaches was simply to illustrate the severity of the abuse, and that she found numerous other instances of abuse throughout the NWSL, some dating back to previous leagues and youth soccer.
The complicity of the NWSL and U.S. Soccer is well illustrated in Paul Riley's case, who in his time coaching had coerced at least three players into sexual relationships, among other instances of abuse and misconduct. He was originally fired from the Portland Thorns in 2015 after being accused of sexual misconduct by player Mana Shim, later backed up by Sinead Farrelly (both players' accounts were reported in The Athletic last year). However, the Thorns publicly presented the move as a non-renewal of contract, not a dismissal, and Riley soon found another head coach position with the Western New York Flash, after Thorns manager Gavin Wilkinson allegedly told Flash management that Riley "had been put in a bad position" and that he himself would hire Riley "in a heartbeat." Later Riley was hired by the North Carolina Courage. Misconduct allegations were received by either the NWSL, the U.S. Soccer federation or both every year from 2015-2021, but no action was taken and Riley continued to coach until the allegations became public last year.
Christy Holly's case is similar in its illustration of institutional complicity, and equally disturbing. Fired from Sky Blue in 2017 for verbal abuse and having a relationship with a player, the Northern Irish former footballer Holly was soon rehired by Racing Louisville (the reason for his original firing was, again, never made public; in fact Sky Blue publicly thanked Holly:). Former Louisville player Erin Simon described to Yates Holly's targeting of her, repeatedly putting her into sexually abusive situations, including one instance where he called her into a film session (when players and coaches watch and analyze recordings of play) and reportedly told her he would grope her "for every pass [she] f***ed up." Holly was eventually fired in August of 2021, but again, the reason was not made public. Yates reported that both Holly and Louisville had signed non-disclosure agreements.
Complaints of severe verbal abuse and the creation of an unprofessional, sexualized environment by Chicago Red Stars coach Rory Dames reached management as early as 2014, and were consistently ignored. In 2018 U.S. Soccer instituted an outside investigation and according to Yates the "resulting report substantiated many of the players core complaints"; however, the report was not distributed within the federation or even conveyed in its entirety to the NWSL and Dames continued to coach for three more years.
The sexual misconduct is the most obviously heinous, but other abuse appears widespread as well: allegations have surfaced of players being forced to continue while injured, contra medical recommendations, and of weight-shaming to the extent of promoting eating disorders. Yates's report suggests that these issues are not solely due to isolated individuals, but also to a culture of abuse. A psychologist who interviewed the Red Stars players while they were being coach by Dames found that though 70% of the players reported instances of emotional abuse, "many failed to recognize certain behaviors as abusive because they were so ubiquitous in women's soccer."
Today, U.S. Soccer released the full findings and recommendations of Sally Q. Yates’ independent investigation and announced plans to immediately work to implement those recommendations in collaboration with U.S. Soccer members at all levels of the game » https://t.co/deNMfKPxYK pic.twitter.com/2i3Mn92wDA
— U.S. Soccer (@ussoccer) October 3, 2022
Perhaps the most ominous finding of the report for the long term is individual teams, the NWSL's and U.S. Soccer's complicity in either not publicly revealing information about misconduct, blatantly ignoring complaints, or not cooperating with the investigation (Yates named the Thorns, Red Stars, and Louisville all as originally refusing to produce documents). Both the NWSL and U.S. Soccer claim to be in the process of reform. In response to the report, U.S. Soccer is immediately establishing an Office of Participant Safety, among other measures including mandating background checks for all members and the public identification of those who have been disciplined or banned. The NWSL's own investigation is ongoing (and has already led to several suspensions) but it has said it will review and request its investigators to incorporate the Yates report into their work.
These may be appropriate first steps but the depth and prevalence of abuse revealed by the report indicate that a long journey lies ahead for women's soccer in the United States.