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5 takeaways from the report on abuse in the National Women's Soccer League

Paul Riley, seen here in July 2020, is among the former NWSL coaches whose behavior is detailed in the investigative report by Sally Q. Yates into abuse in the league.
Maddie Meyer
Getty Images
Paul Riley, seen here in July 2020, is among the former NWSL coaches whose behavior is detailed in the investigative report by Sally Q. Yates into abuse in the league.

A new investigative report details sexual misconduct, verbal abuse, and sexual coercion by coaches in the National Women's Soccer League – and a lack of action by those in charge to address the problems, despite years of complaints from players about certain coaches.

The independent report was written by Sally Q. Yates, the former acting U.S. Attorney General, who was tapped by U.S. Soccer to investigate complaints that rocked the league a year ago amid reports by The Athletic and The Washington Post.

Here are the key takeaways from Yates' report – and what could happen next.

Verbal and emotional abuse and sexual misconduct was systemic

The report focuses on conduct by three NWSL coaches – Paul Riley, Rory Dames and Christy Holly – and the inaction taken by teams, the league, and the US Soccer Federation following complaints about them.

But the report makes clear that the problems weren't just about three men. "Our investigation has revealed a league in which abuse and misconduct—verbal and emotional abuse and sexual misconduct—had become systemic, spanning multiple teams, coaches, and victims," it says. "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."

In a call with reporters on Monday, Yates said "from youth soccer on up, sexist or demeaning statements have been written off as 'tough coaching.' " And as she notes in the report, the players affected by the verbal and emotional abuse they describe in the NWSL "are not shrinking violets. They are among the best athletes in the world."

While the report focused on the three coaches, the fallout within the USWL has been larger still: the league's commissioner, Lisa Baird, resigned after about 19 months on the job, and several coaches in the league resigned or were fired.

U.S Soccer President Cindy Parlow Cone said in a statement Monday that she is "heartbroken by the contents of the report, which make clear that systemic changes are needed at every level of our game."

The NWSL said it would "immediately review" the report, and notes the league's own investigation is ongoing. It said it would use the findings of both reports to help in implementing "systemic reform and ensuring that the NWSL is a league where players are supported."

Abusive coaches were able to move to new clubs after being fired

Complaints about coaches apparently had little impact on their career prospects. Instead, those coaches were able to move on to new teams with no public mention of their reported abusive behavior.

"[A]busive 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," the report says. "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."

Some of those involved refused to cooperate with the investigation

While the report is quite detailed and runs to more than 300 pages, Yates and her team were not able to secure interviews with everyone they sought to talk to.

"Certain witnesses— including the former Commissioner of the NWSL, Jeff Plush—never responded to our outreach. Others refused to be interviewed, some because they feared retaliation. Still others—including former USSF Chief Executive Officer Dan Flynn—agreed only to respond to written questions, rather than sit for an interview. Certain teams did not fully cooperate, notwithstanding public statements to the contrary," the report says.

The teams at the heart of the investigation also interfered with it, according to the report.

"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. Racing Louisville FC refused to produce documents concerning Christy Holly and would not permit witnesses (even former employees) to answer relevant questions regarding Holly's tenure, citing non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements it signed with Holly. The Chicago Red Stars unnecessarily delayed the production of relevant documents over the course of nearly nine months."

Still, the investigation was sweeping, including more than 100 interviews with current and former players in the NWSL and on the U.S. Women's National Team.

Those in charge did little about players' complaints

It wasn't that players didn't complain, Yates said on Monday in the call with reporters: It was that the teams, the league, and the US Soccer Federation did little as red flags were raised.

Players "repeatedly brought their concerns to the teams, to the league, and to the Federation, which founded and acted as manager of the league during much of the relevant time period."

"But those who were in a position to make a difference, didn't," said Yates. "They not only failed to respond appropriately to evidence of abuse, they had also failed to institute the most basic measures to prevent and address these issues to begin with, even as some of them privately acknowledged the need for these things like an anti-harassment policy. Without these protections in place and without the transparency necessary to ensure misconduct wasn't swept under the rug, abusive coaches moved from team to team."

The report recommends a number of fixes – including enforcement by U.S. Soccer

Yates's report ends with a series of recommendations aimed at preventing abuse in the future, holding those responsible accountable, improving transparency, and "fostering a professional environment where players are treated with respect."

That professional environment is crucial: on the call with reporters, Yates noted that prior to the new collective bargaining agreement, most of the league's players made less than $31,000 a year and many aspects of their lives were tied to the teams they played on, including housing, medical treatment, and whether or not they got playing time.

"So many aspects of a player's life was controlled as a result of the job that they did. The result was that some players were afraid to speak up. For players that felt safe in speaking up, they told us that they often didn't know where they could go to begin with. Most teams didn't have HR departments. There was no one identified at the Federation or at the league for such complaints. There wasn't even an anonymous reporting line until the league established one in 2021," Yates said.

Among the report's recommendations:

  • Teams should be required to accurately disclose misconduct to the NWSL and U.S. Soccer to ensure that abusive coaches do not move from team to team
  • U.S. Soccer should require meaningful vetting of coaches and suspend the coaching licenses of those who commit misconduct
  • U.S. Soccer "should require the NWSL to conduct timely investigations into allegations of abuse, impose appropriate discipline, and immediately disseminate investigation outcomes"
  • U.S. Soccer, the league, and teams should each designate someone within their organizations who is responsible for player safety
  • U.S. Soccer should require the NWSL to annually solicit and act on player feedback including player surveys, as well as a confidential reporting line
  • And one of the report's recommendations takes aim at coaches who have too much control over players' lives:

  • "Teams and the NWSL should take measures to ensure coaches do not have undue control over players. For example, a team's head coach generally should not serve in other roles of authority, like General Manager. Nor should coaches have sole authority over player trades, housing, medical decisions, or other aspects of a player's life off the field."
  • But Yates's report was commissioned by U.S. Soccer, which currently has limited direct control over individual teams – though it does have oversight of the NWSL. The report urges the NSWL take responsibility for ensuring that teams take the recommended actions, and that U.S. Soccer in turn imposes such a requirement on the NWSL, if necessary.

    U.S. Soccer President Cindy Parlow Cone said the "abuse described in the report is entirely inexcusable and has no place in soccer, on or off the field. Along with everyone at U.S. Soccer, I am squarely focused on the changes we will make to address the report's findings and make soccer safer for everyone. It will take all of U.S. Soccer's membership working together to create the kind of change needed to ensure our athletes are safe."

    Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.