The year-long probe by Sally Q. Yates, the former acting attorney general, found that some of the game’s top coaches were the subjects of numerous allegations of sexual misconduct, including some that have not been previously made public. The coaches also leaned on vicious coaching tactics, Yates found, including “relentless, degrading tirades; manipulation that was about power, not improving performance; and retaliation against those who attempted to come forward.”
“Players described a pattern of sexually charged comments, unwanted sexual advances and sexual touching, and coercive sexual intercourse,” Yates wrote in the executive summary of her report.
U.S. Soccer hired Yates to investigate last year amid reports in The Washington Post and The Athletic of widespread allegations of abuse against coaches in the National Women’s Soccer League.
“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,” the report states. “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 verbal and emotional abuse players describe in the NWSL is not merely ‘tough’ coaching. And the players affected are not shrinking violets. They are among the best athletes in the world.”
Yates also found the sport’s powerbrokers repeatedly failed the players by ignoring red flags and dismissing complaints. Both the NWSL and U.S. Soccer “appear to have prioritized concerns of legal exposure to litigation by coaches …. over player safety and well-being,” she wrote.
Rory Dames was accused of misconduct decades ago. He coached his way to prominence anyway.
“[T]hey also failed to institute basic measures to prevent and address it, even as some leaders privately acknowledged the need for workplace protections,” the report states. “As a result, abusive coaches moved from team to team, laundered by press releases thanking them for their service.”
While several allegations of abuse and misconduct have been made public in media reports, Yates’s report opens with a previously undisclosed allegation involving Christy Holly, the male former head coach for Racing Louisville FC. According to the report, Holly requested a one-on-one film session with player Erin Simon in April 2021.
“She knew what to expect,” the report states. “When she arrived, she recalls Holly opened his laptop and began the game film.”
The coach told Simon that he intended to touch her for every bad pass, according to Yates’s report, and “pushed his hands down her pants and up her shirt.”
“She tried to tightly cross her legs and push him away, laughing to avoid angering him,” the report states. “The video ended, and she left. When her teammate picked her up to drive home, Simon broke down crying.”
According to the report, the Louisville organization declined to aid investigators with any information concerning Holly’s employment, pointing to nondisclosure and nondisparagement agreements signed with Holly. Louisville abruptly fired Holly on Aug. 30, 2021, but never disclosed the circumstances surrounding his dismissal. “As a result, Holly’s misconduct has remained largely unknown, including to anyone who might seek to employ him as a coach,” the report states.
“There are too many athletes who still suffer in silence because they are scared that no one will help them or hear them,” Simon said in a statement Monday. “I know because that is how I felt.”
The report was based on interviews with more than 200 people, including more than 100 players, plus coaches, owners and front office staff from 11 current and former teams. But Yates’s team encountered several obstacles.
Louisville blocked both current and former employees from speaking with investigators about Holly, the report says. The Portland Thorns, whose coach, Paul Riley, has been accused of abusing players, “interfered with our access” to witnesses and “raised specious legal arguments in an attempt to impede our use of relevant documents,” according to the report. And the Chicago Red Stars, whose coach, Rory Dames, has been accused of mistreating pro and youth players, “unnecessarily delayed the production of relevant documents over the course of nearly nine months,” the report states. Some witnesses, such as Jeff Plush, the former NWSL commissioner, didn’t respond to investigators.
The report focuses largely on Holly, Riley and Dames, recounting allegations of sexual misconduct, abusive behavior and coercive tactics.
During his time as head coach of the Thorns, Riley “sexually pursued” player Meleana Shim for months, the report states, “and benched [her] after she declined his advances.” The team investigated, and the NWSL was aware of the allegations, but he was allowed to depart the team and take another coaching job in the league without the wrongdoing becoming public. The report also details a sexual relationship, first reported by The Athletic, that Riley is alleged to have had with another player, Sinead Farrelly, and noted that the NWSL failed to investigate a complaint she filed in 2021.
Both U.S. Soccer and the NWSL were aware of anonymous player surveys as far back as 2014 in which players said Riley was “verbally abusive,” “sexis[t],” and “destructive,” the report states. Neither organization acted on those complaints, according to the report, which calls Riley’s conduct — which allegedly included grooming behavior, late-night texts with players and flirtatious comments — an “open secret.”
Shim’s complaint was received in 2015, and U.S. Soccer received further warnings about Riley in 2018 and 2019, when he was under consideration for the U.S. women’s national team head coaching job.
Yates found that the NWSL received a series of four complaints about Riley in Spring 2021. “The League largely ignored the complaints, and instead, weeks before the publication of The Athletic article, NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird was actively trying to keep Riley from resigning over his anger about the post-season schedule,” the report states.
Player surveys in 2014 and 2015 also included allegations that Dames was “abusive” and “unprofessional,” warning that players would not “be as honest out of fear,” according to the report. National team players complained to former U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati and Jill Ellis, the national team’s former head coach, that Dames “created a hostile environment for players.”
‘Nobody cares’: NWSL players say U.S. Soccer failed to act on abuse claims against Red Stars coach
But when the feedback was shared with Arnim Whisler, the owner of the Red Stars, he said the national team players wanted “this league to shut down” and simply had an “axe to grind” with Dames,” according to the report. Dames abruptly resigned from the Red Stars last November, two days after coaching in the NWSL title game, as The Post prepared to publish a story detailing players’ allegations against him. Dames never faced a background check, according to Yates’s report, despite having faced allegations of misconduct as a youth coach in the 1990s.
Holly was also allowed to pursue another coaching job despite past allegations of abuse. He was forced to leave Sky Blue Football Club midway through the 2016 season because of his “verbal abuse” and his “relationship with a player,” according to the report. But the details never became public, and Holly went on to perform contract work for U.S. Soccer, coaching with the under-17 and under-23 teams.
That experience helped Holly land the coaching job in Louisville in 2020, where, according to Yates’s report, he “repeated the same pattern of misconduct.”
The report says he sent Simon explicit photos. He requested that she come to his house to review game film, “and showed her pornography instead, masturbating in front of her before she left,” the report states.
“This investigation’s findings are heartbreaking and deeply troubling,” U.S. Soccer President Cindy Parlow Cone said in a statement. “The abuse described is inexcusable and has no place on any playing field, in any training facility or workplace.”
The NWSL’s abuse scandal exploded into the public eye last year after the reports in The Post and The Athletic led players to demand action from soccer officials. Games were canceled, five of the league’s 10 coaches resigned or were fired and Baird, the NWSL’s former commissioner, resigned. In the aftermath, U.S. Soccer retained Yates and her law firm, King & Spalding, in October 2021 to investigate.
The NWSL and the players’ union have separately retained the law firm Covington and Burling to investigate. Early findings from that ongoing probe have already led to temporary suspensions for Houston Coach James Clarkson, Orlando Coach Amanda Cromwell and Orlando assistant coach Sam Greene.
Yates’s report notes numerous systemic issues that acted as barriers to players reporting abuse: The league didn’t have an anti-harassment policy until last year. Most teams lacked a human resources department. There wasn’t an independent, anonymous reporting line until last fall. And the league and U.S. Soccer didn’t have someone on staff responsible for player safety.
The report also highlighted cultural issues that remain prevalent in women’s soccer, beginning at the youth level. The report states that players, coaches and staff were “conditioned to accept and respond to abusive coaching behaviors as youth players. By the time they reach the professional level, many do not recognize the conduct as abusive.”
Further, it noted that the league didn’t adopt an anti-fraternization policy until 2018, and intimate relationships between coaches and players “normalized.” It noted that coaches like Riley, Dames, and Holly all married former players.
The Yates report includes a series of recommendations, though it notes that U.S. Soccer has limited authority over league and team operations. The report urges teams to accurately disclose and explain misconduct to prevent other teams from hiring coaches and suggests U.S. Soccer have better engagement with its licensing process, which could help “weed out problematic coaches.”
U.S. Soccer should require the NWSL to conduct timely investigations into allegations of misconduct, and league and team employees should be required to participate. The report also recommends training for players and coaches and roles dedicated to player safety at the team, league and federation levels.
The report did not make employment recommendations, noting that Riley, Dames and Holly are all out of the NWSL. But Yates did urge U.S. Soccer to take steps “to prevent their future participation in USSF landscape.”
Similarly, both U.S. Soccer and NWSL have new leadership teams in place, but the report notes that many team owners remain in power. “Consequently, we recommend that the NWSL, which has governing authority over NWSL teams, owners, and personnel, determine whether disciplinary action is appropriate for any of these owners or team executives, in light of our findings and the findings of the NWSL/NWSLPA Joint Investigation,” the report states.
An NWSL spokesperson did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
U.S. Soccer said it will immediately begin working on implementing Yates’ recommendations. The organization will establish an office of Participant Safety, will publicize records from SafeSport’s database and will mandate minimum standards for background checks from youth soccer through the sport’s highest levels. It will also establish a committee that will focus on implementing these recommendations, headed by Danielle Slaton, the former USWNT player, with an action plan due by the end of January 2023.
“U.S. Soccer and the entire soccer community have to do better,” said the USSF’s Cone, a former player with the U.S. women’s national team, “and I have faith that we can use this report and its recommendations as a critical turning point for every organization tasked with ensuring player safety. We have significant work to do, and we’re committed to doing that work and leading change across the entire soccer community.”
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