AN investigative report commissioned by the United States Soccer Federation found sexual misconduct, verbal abuse and emotional abuse by coaches in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL)

Disturbingly, it also issued warning signs that girls face abuse in youth soccer as well.

In 2021, the U.S. Soccer commissioned Yates, a former deputy attorney general, and the law firm King & Spalding to conduct an investigation 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.

Ominously, 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.

U.S. Soccer President Cindy Parlow Cone called the findings “heartbreaking and deeply troubling…devastating and infuriating.”

“The abuse described is inexcusable and has no place on any playing field, in any training facility or workplace,” she said in a statement. “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.”

Cone said there are “systemic failures within soccer that must be corrected,” and that the federation would immediately implement several of the report’s recommendations.

These included making public the identities of people 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 behaviour and conduct, and hiring player safety officers, among other requirements.

The report canvassed 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.”

The Yates report has been particularly damning regarding the extent of the abuse and the ignorance if not active suppression by several powerful soccer officials who were told about abuse and their systemic failure to investigate.

Those included 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 remained silent.

Responding, 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.”

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.

The report said the sport neglected 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 behaviours as youth players.”

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

Holly sexually coerced a player, Erin Simon, 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.

Simon, now with Leicester City, said too many athletes suffer in silence because they are afraid they won’t be heard.

“I know because that is how I felt,” the 28-year-old said in a statement. “Through many difficult days, my faith alone sustained me and kept me going. I want to do everything in my power to ensure that no other player must experience what I did. This report allows our voices to finally be heard and is the first step toward achieving the respectful workplace we all deserve.”

That such behaviour has been somehow tolerated by an organisation in today’s climate of equality and gender issues is nothing short of criminal.

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.”

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.

Again, 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 behaviour but largely did nothing to address them or prevent them from occurring elsewhere.

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.

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.

Actually fixing the problems identified in the report is easier said than done. Soccer in the United States is run by several organizations — federations, professional leagues, youth clubs and state soccer organizations — that have overlapping authority which may have played a role in reports of abusive behaviour going unheeded.

Yet there may be more to come.

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.

“U.S. Soccer and the entire soccer community have to do better, and I have faith that we can use this report and its recommendations as a critical turning point for every organization tasked with ensuring player safety,” Parlow Cone said. “We have significant work to do, and we’re committed to doing that work and leading change across the entire soccer community.”


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