As the NWSL and its clubs grapple with the fallout from allegations of abuse by a number of its coaches, a series of investigations—from the implicated teams all the way to U.S. Soccer and FIFA itself—were launched, along with calls for better policies and reporting procedures. As part of its initial steps to address the scandal, the league partnered with RealResponse, an anonymous, real-time reporting platform that allows users to share feedback regarding misconduct, policy violations and other issues related to health and safety. Now, the OL Reign, one of the clubs caught in the scandal’s crosshairs, is doing the same.
The Reign’s two-year deal with RealResponse marks the risk-management technology platform’s first professional team partnership and will provide players with a previously absent official reporting system at the club level. The NWSL was RealResponse’s first professional sports league partner, joining clients including the NFL Players Association.
The NWSL only implemented a formal anti-harassment policy and reporting protocol earlier this year, and many teams, still lacking their own, defer to the league’s procedures.
As part of the Reign’s internal review of their policies and protocols, the organization has decided to hire a human resources staffer, who will handle any RealResponse complaints or comments. Human resources departments are also rare among NWSL clubs.
“The events of the last week have shown everybody in the league that we need to make sure there are pathways that exist, that are clear and easy for players to utilize, to communicate with either league staff or with team staff about a variety of issues—some of them might be innocuous, some of them have levels of abuse,” OL Reign CEO and minority owner Bill Predmore said in an interview. OL Groupe, the parent company of French soccer clubs Olympique Lyonnais and Olympique Lyonnais Féminin, acquired majority ownership of the Tacoma, Wash.-based team in 2020 from Predmore.
“While we are proud to partner with the OL Reign and the new leadership of the NWSL in their commitment to their players, we share in the incredible heartbreak for those courageous NWSL women who have come forward to share their stories,” said David Chadwick, the founder of RealResponse. “By providing OL Reign athletes and staff with a confidential resource for sending information directly to team officials on a broad array of needs, we are humbled to play a small part moving forward in the shared commitment to keeping OL Reign and NWSL athletes and staff safe.”
OL Reign head coach Farid Benstiti resigned in July. At the time of his departure, Predmore said the club was appreciative of his “many contributions” over the past 18 months and wished him well in his future endeavors, citing “a collective agreement that new leadership was required to achieve the performances and results needed to satisfy our ambitions.” The statement did not address any misconduct.
Last week, The Washington Post reported that Benstiti was actually asked to resign after players reported he was verbally abusive. Predmore confirmed that Benstiti was asked to leave after a particular incident this summer, telling Sportico the inappropriate comments Benstiti made to players were reported to him immediately in their aftermath, kicking off a “process” that ended with the French coach’s resignation 72 hours later. A player also made a formal complaint about the abuse to the NWSL, which the club said it later learned about.
Predmore said he thinks the Reign has a good track record of dealing with issues brought to its attention and pointed to the “trust” players had in management to address the complaints against Benstiti. The executive also acknowledged the need for formal processes or systems, like RealResponse and an HR manager.
“I don’t think it would’ve changed anything about how I heard about or how we dealt with the situation with Farid, but this is really to address the problems I might not know about and/or problems that could come up in the future that for whatever reason, somebody might feel uncomfortable approaching me directly with,” he said. “What can we do to create a system that is as bulletproof as possible so that we’re catching every single concern that a player might have?”
The truth behind Benstiti’s resignation only came to light after North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley was fired on Sept. 30, following allegations of sexual misconduct during his time with the Portland Thorns. Riley’s dismissal marked the peak of the swelling scandal, coming two days after Washington Spirit head coach Richie Burke was terminated following an NWSL investigation into allegations of mistreatment and verbal and emotional abuse. One month earlier, the contract of Racing Louisville head coach Christy Holly was terminated for cause on Aug. 31.
Along with the investigations, the scandal sparked outcry from the league’s players, calls for ownership changes and several firings and departures, including the resignation of NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird just 19 months into her tenure. Under player pressure, Portland’s general manager and president Gavin Wilkinson was also placed on administrative leave from the Thorns, but not the MLS’ Timbers, pending the results of the club’s current review of its 2015 investigation into accusations made against Riley.
North Carolina has also come under scrutiny after owner Steve Malik revealed the club knew about the Thorns’ investigation into Riley’s behavior in 2015, saying the Courage did its due diligence and was “subsequently assured that he was in good standing.” Washington’s CEO and majority owner Steve Baldwin has stepped down, and Spirit players have called for him to sell his stake in the club to minority owner Y. Michele Kang.
(This story has been updated in the sixth paragraph to include comment from RealResponse.)