An investigative report on abuses in women’s professional soccer castigates the National Women’s Soccer League, several of its teams and the U.S. Soccer Federation, citing a system-wide failure to respond to player allegations of sexual misconduct, verbal harassment and retaliation by prominent coaches.
The report, commissioned by U.S. Soccer and authored by former Deputy U.S. Attorney General Sally Q. Yates, not only casts a harsh spotlight on the women’s professional league, it points to systemic problems involving coaching abuse down to the youth levels. “Abuse in the NWSL 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,” the report said.
Yates’ report was commissioned in the wake of last year’s widespread NWSL scandal, initially brought on by investigative media reports about former Portland Thorns and North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley. The revelations drew in a widening number of coaches and teams, and led to a brief suspension of play, the replacement of the league’s commissioner and new ownership of the Washington Spirit.
Yates makes several recommendations for more transparent discipline of coaches, clear codes of coaching conduct, and for “putting teeth” in the U.S. Soccer coaching licensing system.
The NWSL and its players association are in the midst of their own investigation, which they said was “ongoing” in a joint statement. “We have asked the Joint Investigative Team to consider the recommendations set forth in the Yates Report when making their recommendations to the NWSL,” the statement said. “Moreover, we have asked the Joint Investigative Team to review—and investigate as necessary—the findings in the Yates Report when concluding their report.”
U.S. Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone called the report “heartbreaking, infuriating and deeply troubling” in a Monday conference call. In response to the report, U.S. Soccer established an Office of Participant Safety to oversee conduct policies and publicly identify coaches who have been disciplined or banned, one of several steps it says it is taking, Parlow Cone said, “to prevent this from ever happening again.”
The report also refocused scrutiny on prominent current NWSL team owners, including Merritt Paulson, owner of the Portland Thorns, which employed Riley, who was the subject of player abuse and sexual misconduct allegations in 2014 and 2015 that resulted in his firing. Those complaints were forwarded to then-NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush and then U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati. But Riley’s conduct with Portland, which included complaints of unwanted sexual advances and retaliation documented in a 2015 email by Thorns player Meleana Shim, was never the subject of discipline by the league. U.S. Soccer never suspended his coaching license. And Riley, who has denied wrongdoing to media outlets, was later hired by two other NWSL teams.
Parlow Cone is cited in the report, as well, during her tenure as an assistant coach with Portland. In 2013, the report says, Thorns president Mike Golub “asked her, ‘what’s on your bucket list besides sleeping with me?’ Parlow Cone told Golub never to speak to her like that again, and she reports that he did not. Several months later, when she was leaving the Thorns, she reported the incident to Thorns’ owner Merritt Paulson, who told her he wished she had told him about the remark at the time it happened.”
On Tuesday, the Thorns released a statement from Paulson saying: “I cannot apologize enough for our role in a gross systemic failure to protect player safety and the missteps we made in 2015. I am truly sorry.” The statement said Paulson will remove himself, along with Golub and Gavin Wilkinson, from all decision-making for the team until the November release of the joint NWSL/NWSLPA investigation report.
Yates’ law firm, King & Spalding, interviewed more than 200 witnesses, but the Thorns were one of three teams called out in the report for failing to cooperate with the investigation. “The Portland Thorns interfered with our access to relevant witnesses and raised specious legal arguments in an attempt to impede our use of relevant documents,” the report said, which also cited the Chicago Red Stars for the way it “unnecessarily delayed the production of documents” in the investigation of coach Rory Dames. Racing Louisville FC was also cited for failing to cooperate with the investigation, which uncovered previously unknown abuse allegations involving coach Christy Holly, including sending sexual texts and groping a player. Holly did not respond to a request for comment.
In a conference call on Monday, Yates said NWSL officials “prioritized concerns of legal exposure to litigation by coaches and the risk of drawing negative attention” over player safety.
The report criticized teams, the league and the federation for failing to address multiple issues, “even as some leaders privately acknowledged the need for workplace protections. As a result, abusive coaches moved from team to team, laundered by press releases thanking them for their service, and positive references from teams that minimized or even concealed misconduct. Those at the NWSL and USSF in a position to correct the record stayed silent. And no one at the teams, the League, or the Federation demanded better of coaches.”
The report, as well as the NWSL, NWSLPA and Parlow Cone thanked the numerous players who cooperated with the investigation. “We continue to admire their courage in coming forward to share their stories and influence all the changes necessary to keep moving our league forward,” the statement said.
“The gravity of this situation requires us not just to turn the page,” Parlow Cone said. “I’m committed to leading on this and to work tirelessly to make our sport safer.”