Women’s soccer league investigation finds systemic emotional abuse, sexual abuse

An independent investigation into the scandals that erupted in the National Women’s Soccer League last season found that emotional abuse and sexual harassment were systemic in the sport, affecting many teams, coaches and players, according to a report released Monday.

“Abuse in the NWSL is rooted in a deeper culture in women’s soccer, starting with the youth leagues, that normalizes verbally abusive coaching and blurs the lines between coaches and players,” the former attorney general wrote in her report on the investigation. of USA, Sally K. Yates. .

US Soccer commissioned the investigation to Yates and law firm King & Spaulding after former NWSL players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim came forward with allegations of harassment and sexual coercion dating back a decade in relation to a former coach. Paul Riley. Their account was published by The Athletic in September 2021.

Riley, who denied the allegations, was quickly fired as head coach of the North Carolina Courage and NWSL Commissioner Lisa Bird resigned.

“Our institution has failed us, the system,” Sim told “CBS Mornings” last October. “It’s the people in power, not just the coach who abused us, but the leadership team who enabled him and allowed him to coach elsewhere.”

In the same interview, Farrelly said: “Football for me was my safe space and my world and something that I had such an innocent pure love for since I was a little girl, and that was taken away from me… I was so free when I was playing and I didn’t feel that way anymore.”

The investigation found that it was clear that the problems were widespread. Five of the 10 coaches in the NWSL last season were either fired or resigned amid allegations of misconduct.

“The verbal and emotional abuse described by players in the NWSL is not just ‘hard’ training. And the players affected are no shrinking violets. They are among the best athletes in the world,” Yates wrote.

More than 200 people were interviewed by the researchers. About two dozen entities and individuals provided documents. US Soccer also provided documents and the company reviewed 89,000 deemed potentially relevant.

U.S. Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone called the findings “heartbreaking and deeply troubling.”

“The abuse described is inexcusable and has no place on any playing field, training facility or workplace,” she said in a statement. “As the national governing body for our sport, US 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, to develop and compete”.

The report made several recommendations to prioritize player health and safety. Among them is a requirement that teams accurately disclose misconduct by managers to the league and the Football Association to ensure that managers are not allowed to move between teams. It also calls for effective vetting of coaches and prompt investigation into allegations of abuse.

The NWSL said it was in the process of reviewing the report. The league and the NWSL Players Association are also investigating.

“We recognize the stress and mental strain these pending investigations have caused and the trauma that many — including players and staff — must relive. We continue to admire their courage in coming forward to share their stories and make an impact all the changes necessary to continue moving our league forward,” said NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman.

The investigation focused on three former coaches, Riley, Christy Holly of Racing Louisville and Rory Dames of the Chicago Red Stars.

It recounts a meeting in April 2021 between Holly and a player, Erin Simon, now playing in Europe. Holly invited her to watch game film with him and allegedly told her that for every pass she messed up, he was going to touch her. Simon told investigators Holly “pushed his hands down her pants and lifted her shirt.”

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

“I know because that’s how I felt,” the 28-year-old said in a statement. “Through many difficult days, only my faith has sustained me and kept me going. I want to do everything in my power to ensure that no other player experiences what I did. This petition allows our voices to be is finally being heard and is the first step towards achieving the workplace respect we all deserve.”

Holly was fired for cause, but Racing Louisville declined to publicly state the reason. Yates’ report noted that Racing did not provide investigators with details of Holly’s employment, citing mutual non-disclosure and non-disparagement clauses.

Farrelly said the harassment she experienced began in 2011 when she was a player for the Philadelphia Independence of the Women’s Professional Soccer League. Riley was her coach.

She told The Athletic that Riley’s abuse continued when she was with him Portland Thorns in 2014 and 2015. Sim, a former Thorns player, also said she experienced harassment. No women currently play in the NWSL.

The Thorns said they investigated Riley in 2015 while he was with the team and reported the findings to the league. They did not renew his contract, but did not make public the reasons.

The report said the Thorns were not forthcoming with some information and tried to prevent investigators from using the group’s 2015 report.

“The Portland Thorns interfered with our access to relevant witnesses and advanced bogus legal arguments in an attempt to block the use of relevant documents,” Yates wrote.

Riley went on to coach the Western New York Flash, which later moved to North Carolina and was renamed.

When the scandal broke last year, former Thorns forward Alex Morgan posted on social media: “The league has been made aware of these allegations multiple times and has repeatedly refused to investigate the allegations. The league needs to take responsibility for a process who failed to protect her own players from this abuse.”

Morgan also said Shim and Farrelly asked the NWSL earlier last year for a new investigation into Riley’s conduct, but were denied.

The US Women’s National Team Players Association said in a statement: “All players and employees deserve to work in an environment free of discrimination, harassment and abusive behavior. The USWNTPA commends the courage of the survivors, current players and former players who came to speak out against the abusive practices that have become too normalized in the NSWL and women’s soccer. At the same time, the USWNTPA is disappointed that some NWSL clubs and USSF staff have obstructed the investigation; those who have not should cooperate fully with the ongoing NWSL/NWSLPA investigation immediately.”

US Soccer said the board and a leadership team will immediately begin implementing the report’s recommendations.

“US Soccer and the entire soccer community must do better, and I believe we can use this report and its recommendations as a turning point for any organization charged with ensuring player safety,” said Parlow Cone. “We have important work to do and we are committed to doing that work and driving change across the football community.”

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