The NWSL and its players’ association released the findings from their joint investigation into abuse within the league and its clubs, the second such report finalized in as many months. Like its predecessor—the independent investigation commissioned by U.S. Soccer and conducted by former United States deputy attorney general Sally Q. Yates—the NWSL’s investigation with the NWSLPA uncovered significant systemic failures and “widespread misconduct directed at NWSL players.”
Notably, the joint probe found that these issues were not limited in scope, but present at the vast majority of NWSL clubs from the league’s formation in 2013 and continuing through both investigations. Staff at the Portland Thorns, North Carolina Courage, Chicago Red Stars, Racing Louisville FC, NJ/NY Gotham (formerly Sky Blue FC), the now-defunct Utah Royals, Washington Spirit, Houston Dash, the OL Reign (formerly Seattle Reign FC) and Orlando Pride, the report found, engaged in inappropriate or even abusive conduct at different times in the league’s history.
Owners at many of those clubs were also cited for failing to respond appropriately, none perhaps more so than Red Stars majority owner Arnim Whisler, who announced earlier this month he would sell his stake in the club, and leadership at the Thorns, also now for sale. Similar allegations were made against the NWSL and U.S. Soccer.
The wrongdoing included the widely reported instances of sexual misconduct and abuse. Other recurring problems listed in the report were inappropriate sexual remarks and unwanted advances made to players; body shaming; inappropriate relationships and blurred boundaries between players and staff; emotional misconduct and manipulation; retaliation; and an array of insensitive, derogatory and dismissive interactions that crossed professional boundaries and created “volatile and manipulative working conditions.”
“This report clearly reflects how our league systemically failed to protect our players,” NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman said in a statement. “On behalf of the Board and the league, let me first and foremost sincerely apologize to our players for those failures and missteps. They deserve, at a minimum, a safe and secure environment to participate at the highest level in a sport they love, and they have my unwavering commitment that delivering that change will remain a priority each and every day. I also commend and am grateful for the courage current and former players demonstrated in advocating for themselves, their teammates and the future of our sport. Our players’ bravery prompted this comprehensive and unprecedented investigation, which has left no stone unturned, and will be critical to informing our future as we work to heal this league, take corrective action and implement systemic reform. We are committed to making all the necessary changes to create a safe and positive environment for our players, staff and fans.”
The joint investigation was conducted by the law firm of Covington & Burling, which was hired by the league, and the law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges, which served as the NWSLPA’s counsel. From hundreds of interviews and documents, the firms attempted to distill the causes underlying the pervasive failure to protect women’s soccer players. Amid a myriad of reasons laid out, money was cited as playing a major part.
The report found that the league’s fragility and financial instability was leveraged to create a culture of silence and dissuade players from reporting instances of inappropriate behavior. Clubs weaponized the NWSL’s potential for failure, preying on players’ fear of the league folding, as two prior professional women’s soccer endeavors had in the U.S. The league—which today boasts only a few profitable teams, even amid rising valuations and an influx of new investors—long struggled to find the type of consistent support from sponsors and broadcast partners needed to sustain a professional sports league. Clubs made the league’s financial precariousness known to the players, the report says, and used it as a tool to steer potential whistleblowers away from rocking the barely afloat boat.
“…The looming possibility that the NWSL would fold as its predecessors had done, was never far from players’ minds, in part because clubs explicitly relied on that history to stifle criticism,” the report read. “Players also expressed concerns about the financial viability of their individual clubs.”
Whisler deployed these very scare tactics within the Red Stars. The report says players “were concerned that the club would fold if it received negative press,” a sentiment conveyed directly to players by Whisler himself, who reportedly stated that no one else would be willing to buy the club and assume its debts if he was forced out.
Despite the club making seven consecutive postseason appearances, Whisler struggled to build the Red Stars into a sustainable business. Chicago, one of the league’s founding teams, lagged behind many of its peers in attendance and sponsorship dollars.
Uncertainty around players’ employment also played a role. Given the connections between many coaches within the NWSL and the national team pipeline, the potential loss of a roster spot within the league or on the USWNT was a very real threat. Without livable salaries, which were not always guaranteed during the NWSL’s early years, or autonomy over their careers (the league did not have free agency until the NWSL’s first CBA, ratified this year), players felt bound to team owners and league leadership—which only added to their reporting reluctance.
Beyond that, there was an expectation of unqualified appreciation. The report said a “be grateful” mentality permeated the league alongside sexism and gender biases that disempowered the players and portrayed the NWSL as an act of philanthropy for many of its investors.
As in the Yates report, Chicago was called out alongside Portland and Louisville for withholding key documents and information from the probe until “late in this investigation, and after U.S. Soccer released the [Yates] Report.” The joint report also slammed U.S. Soccer for doing the same, alleging the federation failed to meaningfully respond to inquiries until shortly before and again after its own report was released. When requests were addressed, it accuses U.S. Soccer of producing “limited documentation,” and inhibiting identification of withheld information.
The same institutional failures found by Yates’ team dominated the NWSL’s own investigation. Breakdowns in responding to and addressing reported situations within clubs, at the league level and up to U.S. Soccer were prevalent. Human resources departments were often insufficiently staffed or entirely nonexistent at the NWSL and within many of its clubs. When allegations of misconduct were actually made, the report found that the league, clubs and U.S. Soccer, on multiple occasions, did not adequately investigate or address the issues as needed to protect players. Failures to sufficiently vet coaches, disseminate findings to prevent further abuse and misconduct, and the common absence of transparency around hirings and firings led to the perpetuation of wrongdoing throughout women’s soccer.
Combined with a lack of clear guidance or policies to fall back on, players were left without the tools needed to protect themselves. And while it acknowledged progress made throughout the last year under new leadership, the report said there is still substantial work to be done.
“During this investigation, the Joint Investigative Team received reports of ongoing misconduct at more than half the League’s clubs,” the report read. “To effectuate lasting change, the League must commit to the long-term, critical, incremental work of systemic cultural and structural transformation.”
The report suggested strengthening several league and team policies and procedures, along with better communication of guidelines and enforcement mechanisms, additional trainings and increased coordination between the league, its clubs and U.S. Soccer. With both investigations now in hand, it now falls on the NWSL to accept and implement many of the numerous suggested changes as it looks to move forward and focus on its future—one it hopes is filled with continued growth and coming expansion.