An independent investigation into women’s soccer detailed many stories of abuse and harassment. The report also confirmed what many players have been saying for years: when they report being abused, coaches just get passed around or protected by team executives and the NWSL.
It’s time to hold NWSL and U.S. Soccer accountable for these systemic failures.
U.S. Soccer report by Sally Yates investigates women's soccer
On October 3, 2022, the U.S. Soccer Federation released its independent investigation into abuse in women’s soccer, led by former deputy attorney general Sally Yates and her law firm King & Spalding. Read a copy of the report here.
Both U.S. Soccer’s investigation and a second forthcoming investigation commissioned by NWSL and NWSLPA came in direct response to multiple players speaking up about abuse in the summer and fall of 2021.
The report described the abuse as being rooted in a “deeper culture” in women’s soccer, saying it begins as far back as youth leagues that verbal abuse and blurred boundaries between coaches and players are “normalized.”
The report called for USSF to require the NWSL to implement basic protocols for reports of abuse: to investigate the allegations in a timely matter, to give discipline where appropriate, and to immediately share outcomes of the investigation.
The report also recommended eliminating nondisclosure and non-disparagement agreements, so that information about abusive coaches would no longer be shielded.
Consent? Power imbalance between coaches and players
In many sports, coaches have immense power over athletes’ lives:
- Control: players know coaches can bench or cut them, and this can make it harder to report them for misconduct
- Athletic career: players must work closely and intimately with coaches to improve their performance
- Time commitment: because players must devote so much time to training, they have less access to relationships outside of their sport community
Players can’t turn down sexual advances from coaches without risking big repercussions. Similarly, even if a player initiates contact or feels receptive at first, they can’t end the sexual dynamic without running the same risks. When two people don’t have an equal shot at saying no to sex, any sexual contact between them may be inherently coercive.
NWSL Coach Scandal
NWSL has ten teams. Many outlets covered how five of those teams had head coaches resign or get fired in the 2021 NWSL season. Reported abuse included groping, homophobic comments, racist comments, manipulation, and sexual assault.
In 2021, The Athletic featured former NWSL players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim speaking about abuse by their coach Paul Riley.
When Mana Shim first reported abuse by Riley to the Portland Thorns back in 2015, the team fired him. But shockingly, Riley was rehired just a few months later by another NWSL team, the Western New York Flash.
It wasn’t until The Athletic published its story in 2021 that Riley’s coaching license was revoked by US Soccer and he was fired by his latest team, the North Carolina Courage.
Former USWNT star Alex Morgan, who assisted Mana Shim in reporting Riley’s abuse, explained to The Athletic: “There definitely has been this shared idea that because two leagues have folded in the past, the NWSL is kind of the last hope for a women’s soccer league. Because of that, I feel like there’s this idea that we should be grateful for what we have and we shouldn’t raise important questions – or ask questions at all.”
But thanks to players speaking up and banding together, a light is starting to shine on systemic abuse in the NWSL. In response to the independent investigation commissioned by U.S. Soccer, the players’ union NWSLPA said: “As difficult as this report is to read, it has been even more painful for Players, whether known or unknown, to live it… By sharing our stories, Players are reclaiming the League and the sport.”
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