Report Details ‘Systemic’ Abuse of Players in Women’s Soccer

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One coach called in a player to review game film and showed her pornography instead. Another was notorious at the highest levels of women’s soccer for alternately berating his players and then quizzing them about their sex lives.

A third coach coerced multiple players into sexual relationships, behavior that one top team found so disturbing that it fired him. But when he was hired by a rival team only a few months later, the original club, which had documented his behavior in an internal investigation, said nothing. Instead, it publicly wished him well in his new post.

Those details and others fill a highly anticipated investigative report into abuse in women’s soccer that found sexual misconduct, verbal abuse and emotional abuse by coaches in the game’s top tier, the National Women’s Soccer League, and issued warnings that girls face abuse in youth soccer as well.

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The report was published Monday, a year after players outraged by what they saw as a culture of abuse in their sport demanded changes by refusing to take the field. It found that leaders of the N.W.S.L. and the United States Soccer Federation — the governing body of the sport in America — as well as owners, executives and coaches at all levels failed to act on years of voluminous and persistent reports of abuse by coaches.

All were more concerned about being sued by coaches or about the teetering finances of women’s professional soccer than player welfare, according to the report, creating a system in which abusive and predatory coaches were able to move freely from team to team at the top levels of women’s soccer.

“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,” Sally Q. Yates, the lead investigator, wrote in the report’s executive summary. “Abuse in the N.W.S.L. 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.”

Last year, U.S. Soccer commissioned Yates, a former deputy attorney general, and the law firm King & Spalding to look into the sport after reports in The Athletic and The Washington Post detailed accusations of sexual and verbal abuse against coaches in the women’s league. After the news media reports, and after games were postponed as furious players protested publicly, league executives resigned and were fired. Within weeks, half of the 10-team league’s coaches had been linked to allegations of abuse, and some of the world’s top players had recounted their own stories of mistreatment.

Cindy Parlow Cone, the U.S. Soccer president and a former member of the national team, called the findings “devastating and infuriating.” Cone said there are “systemic failures within soccer that must be corrected,” and that the federation would immediately implement a number of the report’s recommendations.

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The report made a lengthy list of recommendations that it said should be adopted by U.S. Soccer, and in some cases the women’s league, including making a public list of individuals suspended or barred by U.S. Soccer, meaningfully vetting coaches when licensing them, requiring investigations into accusations of abuse, making clear policies and rules around acceptable behavior and conduct, and hiring player safety officers, among other requirements.

The report also raises the question of whether some team owners should be disciplined or forced to sell their teams, as it recommended the league “determine whether disciplinary action is appropriate for any of these owners or team executives.”

Even with so much of the worst abuse publicly known, the Yates report is stunning in how meticulously it details how many powerful soccer officials were told about abuse and how little they did to investigate or stop it. Among those whose inaction is detailed are a former U.S. Soccer president; the organization’s former chief executive and women’s national team coach; and the leadership of the Portland Thorns, one of the league’s most popular and best-supported teams.

“Teams, the league and the federation not only repeatedly failed to respond appropriately when confronted with player reports and evidence of abuse, they also failed to institute basic measures to prevent and address it,” Yates wrote. She added that “abusive coaches moved from team to team, laundered by press releases thanking them for their service,” while those with knowledge of their misconduct stayed silent.

In a statement, the women’s league said in the report, and an investigation it is undertaking with the players’ union, “will be critical to informing and implementing systemic reform and ensuring that the N.W.S.L. is a league where players are supported, on and off the pitch.” The players’ union said in a statement that players who had spoken to investigators “have shown profound courage and bravery, and we stand with them.”

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The national team players association released a statement saying it was “dismayed” that some clubs and U.S. Soccer staff “impeded the investigation,” and urged U.S. Soccer to implement the report’s recommendations. National team players largely did not respond publicly to the report, as they were on a plane to London for a match against England as the report was released.

The report said the sport does little to train athletes and coaches about harassment, retaliation and fraternization. It noted that “overwhelming” numbers of players, coaches and U.S. Soccer staff members remarked that “women players are conditioned to accept and respond to abusive coaching behaviors as youth players.”

While the report details complaints made about several coaches, it focuses its narrative on three: Paul Riley, Rory Dames and Christy Holly. The accusations against Riley, who last coached the North Carolina Courage, and Dames

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, who coached the Chicago Red Stars, have been well documented in news media reports. The accusations against Holly, who was abruptly dismissed as coach of Racing Louisville F.C. last year with little explanation, have not been aired publicly before.

Holly spoke with investigators and denied some, but not all, of the claims made against him. Through his lawyer, Dames declined to speak with investigators. Riley agreed to provide written responses but never did.

Riley and Dames did not respond to requests for comment Monday. Holly declined to comment.

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Holly sexually coerced a player, according to the report, by inviting her to his home for what he said was a session to watch game film. Instead, he showed the player pornography and masturbated in front of her. Another time, according to the report, after calling in the player again under the pretense of watching game film, Holly groped the player’s genitals and breasts each time the film showed she made a mistake.

While coaching in the women’s league years earlier, the report also found, Holly drew complaints of verbal abuse and mistreatment and had a relationship with a player “that caused a toxic team environment.” Yet little vetting of his past occurred as he moved from job to job.

The report found that Riley “leveraged his position” as a coach to coerce at least three players into sexual relationships while working previously in a different women’s soccer league, and it said that investigators received “credible reports of sexual misconduct with other players” that were not detailed in the final report.

Dames, a longtime youth soccer coach, fostered a “sexualized team environment” that included speaking to youth players about their sex lives, according to the report. That environment “crossed the line to sexual relationships” in multiple cases, which the report says “may have begun after the age of consent.” Dames also screamed at and belittled players, and joked about the age of consent for sexual activity.

In the cases of all three coaches, the report found, the women’s league and U.S. Soccer officials, as well as individual team owners and executives, were repeatedly made aware of complaints of inappropriate behavior but largely did nothing to address them or prevent them from occurring elsewhere.

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Sexual misconduct allegations were brought against Riley each year from 2015 to 2021, for example, and an anonymous player survey in 2014 also identified Riley, then coaching the Portland Thorns, as verbally abusive and sexist. The survey results were seen by U.S. Soccer and league officials, and feedback was distributed to the Thorns owner Merritt Paulson.

In 2015, after the Thorns conducted an investigation, Riley was terminated. But the team said publicly that it had chosen not to extend his contract, and Riley was not disciplined. When he was hired by another team months later, no one from the league or the federation — which at the time effectively ran and bankrolled the league — provided his new team with any of the complaints or information used to substantiate his termination by the Thorns.

Players also complained about Dames for years, beginning in 2014, when they told Sunil Gulati, then the U.S. Soccer president, and Jill Ellis, then the women’s national team head coach, that Dames had created a hostile work environment with the Chicago Red Stars, according to the report. Dames was also called abusive by his players in anonymous surveys, and in 2018 he was investigated after another prominent player complained. Yet while a U.S. Soccer investigation into that case substantiated many of the complaints, the report was not distributed throughout the organization or to the league or the Red Stars, and Dames was not disciplined.

In addition to detailing the behavior of several prominent coaches and the inaction of others, the report also took note of individuals and organizations who were not forthcoming or who actively tried to stymie the investigation — even as some publicly said they were cooperating.

Jeff Plush, who was the commissioner of the women’s league from 2015 and 2017 and is now the head of U.S.A. Curling, did not respond to the investigators, the report said. Dan Flynn, the retired U.S. Soccer chief executive, responded only to written questions and would not sit for an interview.

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The Thorns, meanwhile, “interfered with our access to relevant witnesses and raised specious legal arguments” to impede the investigation, according to the report. Racing Louisville F.C. declined to provide documents about Holly’s tenure, and told investigators that current and former employees could not speak about him because of nondisclosure and non-disparagement agreements the team had signed with Holly when he was fired.

The Chicago Red Stars also delayed production of documents for months.

Rectifying the problems identified in the report will be difficult. Soccer in the United States is run by a number of organizations — federations, professional leagues, youth clubs and state soccer organizations — that have overlapping authority, a tangled web that the report suggested may have played a role in reports of abusive behavior going unheeded.

And the revelations may not be over. A separate joint investigation by the women’s league and its players association has not been completed, and the report also did not investigate youth soccer, even as it made clear that the investigators believe abuse is prevalent there as well.

“The roots of abuse in women’s soccer run deep and will not be eliminated through reform in the N.W.S.L. alone,” investigators wrote.

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