Same Story, Different Sport: The NWSL’s Failures Are Just Another Turn in an Endless Cycle of Abuse

Sports Illustrated [New York NY]

October 27, 2022

By Lauren Green

The Yates report was not the first time we’ve seen widespread misconduct hidden in sports, and it almost certainly won’t be the last.

When U.S. Soccer commissioned an investigation by King & Spalding LLP partner Sally Yates and the results revealed widespread, “systemic abuse and misconduct” across the NWSL and women’s soccer as a whole, many of the findings felt eerily familiar. Three coaches—Paul Riley, Rory Dames and Christy Holly—had all been accused of verbal abuse and/or sexual misconduct. Officials in charge downplayed or ignored the complaints. The coaches moved from club to club freely despite reports of their behavior.

We’ve seen these scandals before in sports, and yet little is done to prevent them from repeating elsewhere.

The Yates report makes it abundantly clear that team owners, general managers and top officials in both U.S. Soccer and the NWSL had plenty of opportunities to just do the right thing. And yet, time and time again, they failed. (The NWSL and NWSL Players Association joint investigation is still underway and is expected to conclude by the end of this year.)

In the six years since USA Gymnastics and Michigan State made national headlines for their mishandling of the Larry Nassar case, little has changed across the sports landscape. The systemic abuse within the NWSL echoed many of the same underlying issues that plagued gymnastics and other national governing bodies.

“I think there’s a tendency to think that NWSL stands alone or that these issues are unique to us,” says Meghann Burke, the executive director of the NWSLPA. “The reality is they’re not, and that’s a tragic truth that what we’re living as players is the lived experiences of a lot of athletes and not just professional and college sports but youth sports, too. It’s not just soccer, it’s all of sports.”

The differences are clear—in one case the perpetrator is a doctor sexually abusing athletes, including minors, under the guise of medical care; the others involve coaches whose alleged behavior ranged from verbal and emotional abuse to sexual coercion and harassment. And yet, both sports found themselves entangled in similar scandals: People in a position of authority knew about the misconduct and apparently chose to downplay it or ignore it entirely. Athletes were left to come forward at their own risk, with few protections in place. A culture was built on silence and fear. Which begs the question, what will it take to finally break these cycles of abuse in sports?

The Portland Thorns have often been held as the NWSL’s gold standard: This is what women’s professional soccer could look like. But for all of the attendance records and on-field success—the Thorns will play KC Current for the NWSL title Saturday night—they did the opposite in handling misconduct. The Chicago Red Stars are one of the longest-tenured professional women’s soccer teams in the country but spent almost a decade protecting a coach whose conduct was reported nearly every NWSL season.

Christen Press came forward about Red Stars coach Rory Dames’s verbally abusive coaching as early as September 2014 during a call with U.S. Soccer officials, alleging that Dames “created a hostile work environment.” The Red Stars’ player surveys conducted through the league that same year corroborated Press’s concerns. Surveys in the following seasons highlighted the players’ fear of retaliation in addition to describing Dames as “abusive.”

Press made a second report to U.S. Soccer in March 2018 and specifically requested an investigation. The law firm Pepper Hamilton LLP conducted an “external review” of the Red Stars between 2018 and ’19. Samantha Johnson, who played for the Red Stars from ’14 to ’18, also reported in June 2018 Dames’s alleged misconduct and owner Arnim Whisler’s failure to put a stop to it. According to the Yates report, Whisler did not think what was reported to him required him to take action. In a statement through his lawyer, Dames continues to deny the allegations levied against him in the report.

[Photo of fans in stadium holding massive banner saying “You Knew”: After receiving reports of Riley’s misconduct, Thorns officials did not disclose the reason for his departure publicly or with future employers.  -Logan Hannigan-Downs/Icon Sportswire/Imago Images]

In Portland, 2014 player surveys described coach Paul Riley as verbally abusive. Separately, U.S. Soccer, through the USWNTPA’s counsel, received feedback about Riley’s conduct. Meleana Shim, who played in Portland for five seasons, reported Riley’s sexual harassment following the 2015 season. After a short investigation, the Thorns terminated Riley, who told The Athletic last year, “I have never had sex with, or made sexual advances towards these players.” Top Thorns officials opted not to disclose the reason for his departure publicly or with future employers and declined to provide the HR report to clubs considering hiring him. The Western New York Flash announced Riley as the club’s newest coach on Feb. 19, 2016. When the Flash were sold, then relocated to North Carolina and became the Courage a year later, Riley went with them.

Multiple U.S. Soccer officials knew of Shim’s complaint in 2018 and again in ’19, when Riley was a candidate for the U.S. women’s national team head coaching job. Riley publicly removed himself from the running and remained with the Courage.

Thorns owner Merritt Paulson—who said after the Yates report was made public that the club did not do enough, “including not being publicly transparent about Paul Riley’s termination”—notified then NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird in March 2020 about the ’15 investigation. Baird then received four additional reports from players about Riley’s conduct in 2021 before his termination.

Meanwhile, USAG grappled with its own problem. The Indianapolis Star exposed the governing body’s mishandling of sexual abuse reports just before the 2016 Olympics opened in Rio. A month later, the Nassar case became public news after Rachael Denhollander and Jamie Dantzscher, then a Jane Doe, came forward. The number of survivors quickly moved into the tens, then hundreds over the next year and a half, including McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman, Maggie Nichols and Simone Biles.

Nassar’s January 2018 sentencing garnered national attention as more than 150 women and girls gave victim-impact statements in a Ingham County hearing that lasted a full week. Many of them spoke publicly for the first time and dropped their Jane Doe pseudonyms.

None of the soccer coaches implicated in the Yates report were accused of rape or any sexual misconduct involving minors. But the institutional responses had plenty of similarities. Like USAG, there were plenty of people in positions of authority who had a duty to protect the athletes coming forward and failed. Top officials at U.S. Soccer, including U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati and national team head coach Jill Ellis, received multiple reports. In the NWSL, nearly anyone who held a leadership role was notified at least once about a coach’s misconduct, including commissioners Jeff Plush and Baird, and general counsel Lisa Levine.

Multiple team owners and general managers knew Riley had been investigated, though none were given the full scope by the Thorns, the league or U.S. Soccer. Portland GM Gavin Wilkinson downplayed Riley’s conduct as the coach being “put in a bad situation by the player” in at least one discussion with the Flash, according to the report.

Despite the Nassar case appearing in the news regularly over several years, U.S. Soccer and the NWSL didn’t recognize the need to be proactive in its handling of misconduct.

Denhollander took the comparison a step further outside of the realm of sports. Leagues and national governing bodies could have learned from the Catholic Church’s mishandling of abuse, which the Boston Globe uncovered in 2002.

“It was really unmasked in the [Catholic] Church before it was unmasked in the athletic world, and nobody paid attention,” she says. “It’s the same thing over and over. Everybody should have learned from Spotlight. Everybody could have learned from Spotlight. We didn’t care enough.”

Misconduct wasn’t just a problem at a handful of clubs in the NWSL. Removing one or two coaches didn’t fix the issues, just like getting rid of Nassar didn’t remove all the abuse within gymnastics. It wasn’t a Larry Nassar problem or a Paul Riley problem or a Rory Dames problem.

“It’s a structural problem, but people think of it as a bad apples problem,” says Steven Bank, a law professor at UCLA. “Once we get rid of the bad apples we’ll be fine, when in fact there are multiple bad apples there to take its place.”

During the 2021 NWSL season alone, five head coaches (all men) and one general manager (a woman) at six different clubs either resigned or were terminated because of misconduct.

Farid Benstiti resigned from his position at OL Reign in July 2021. Minority owner Bill Predmore confirmed last fall that he requested Benstiti’s resignation for inappropriate comments made to a player about fitness and nutrition. Gotham FC fired GM Alyse LaHue after an investigation found that she violated the league’s anti-harassment policy. No further details were provided.

Richie Burke was initially “reassigned” to the Spirit’s front office in August 2021 due to a medical issue. A day later, the The Washington Post published its first story detailing Burke’s allegedly abusive conduct centered on former defender Kaiya McCullough’s experiences with the Spirit. McCullough detailed the verbal and emotional abuse that drove her out of the sport. The Spirit dismissed Burke in September following an outside investigation, the results of which were kept confidential.

In late August 2021, Racing Louisville fired head coach Christy Holly “for cause,” though at the time no further information emerged other than that his dismissal came within 24 hours of the club being notified. It was not the first time Holly left a club before the season ended. Sky Blue FC (now Gotham FC) had forced Holly to resign during the ’17 season after players repeatedly told the GM about his verbal and emotional abuse as well as Holly’s relationship with a player, according to the Yates report. In a statement at the time, the club described his departure as a mutual parting rather than the result of misconduct.

Holly briefly worked with the U.S. women’s national team and as an assistant with the U-23s after his departure before landing at Racing Louisville as the team’s inaugural head coach. The Yates report marked the first time details emerged about Holly’s alleged repeated sexual misconduct directed toward Erin Simon, who played for the club in the 2021 season. Following the report, the team apologized to Simon publically, saying that hiring Holly “was a mistake.” (The club did not discuss Holly’s tenure in the Yates report, citing nondisclosure and nondisparagement clauses. Holly could not be reached for comment.)

The Courage terminated Riley on Sept. 30, 2021, the same day The Athletic published Shim’s and Farrelly’s stories. Dames resigned in the middle of the night after the Red Stars’ loss in the title game in November of that year. Multiple stories detailed alleged verbal and emotional abuse as well as sexual misconduct involving former players from his youth soccer club.

This season three other coaches were put on administrative leave while being under investigation, and a fourth was fired after an incident at training.

Top of Form

Bottom of Form(Two of those coaches, Amanda Cromwell and Sam Greene, both with the Orlando Pride, were terminated effective immediately on Oct. 10 after an investigation found that both had violated the league’s anti-retaliation policy. Cromwell is “reviewing all legal options.”)

It took Denhollander and Dantzscher, then hundreds more including some of the most recognizable faces in gymnastics, before the organizations involved began to make changes. It should have been a blueprint for governing bodies and sports leagues alike: Don’t be like this.

Except it wasn’t. It took Shim and Farrelly reliving their own trauma and having those details made public for the NWSL and its clubs to finally remove Paul Riley. Shim coming forward time and time again wasn’t enough. Farrelly lending her voice and her own experiences wasn’t enough. Contacting two different commissioners wasn’t enough.

Press didn’t even go to NWSL officials; she went straight to the sport’s national governing body, but to no avail. The league allowed an owner to repeatedly stick up for the head coach even after additional complaints were brought forth.

It took the Riley case before the Thorns, the NWSL, U.S. Soccer, FIFA and the U.S. Center for SafeSport each opened investigations. (The Center for SafeSport is tasked with investigating sexual abuse cases within the Olympic movement.) The situation draws comparison to the U.S. Olympic Committee, Michigan State and the NCAA announcing inquiries in the wake of Nassar’s sentencing. It took the situation becoming so big and so public—in both soccer and gymnastics—before the organizations involved took any action.

The allegations of verbal abuse and sexual harassment detailed in the Yates report are common across all sports, says Marci Hamilton, founder and CEO of Child USA, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting kids and preventing abuse.

“They’ve looked particularly bad here because once again you have a major organization, which chose to ignore what adults were saying about what was happening to them in favor of money and image,” Hamilton says. “The two reasons it just keeps happening over and over again is the ones in power keep believing they can get away with it. And the second reason that bolsters that is so many of these athletes have no pathway to justice, so they can’t level the playing field.”

The legal system, Hamilton says, limits adults who have been sexually harassed or assaulted to a short period of time in which they can file a lawsuit if they choose. In the case of athletes, it becomes even more complicated because of the fears of retribution from either the league itself or the coaches. She says that one way to level the playing field would be on the justice system to eliminate those statutes of limitations.

In a sports landscape where Nassar and USAG dominated headlines for several years, it’s remarkable how, even then, other governing bodies didn’t take note of what not to do. Instead, it’s a cycle. Athletes report coaches, authority figures refuse to act, coaches keep coaching until eventually, it blows back at the organization. It’s a cycle that has repeated itself through multiple national governing bodies for one underlying reason.

“At the core, it’s because it doesn’t matter enough,” Denhollander says. “As much as we hate to say that and we don’t want to emotionally grapple with what that really means about our moral condition, that’s the ultimate reality.”

There is one thing that soccer has had that sports within the Olympic movement rarely, if ever, do: a players association. And up until 2017, the NWSL didn’t even have that.

The NWSLPA formed in May of that year but did not become formally recognized until November 2018. At the time, it did not include any of the U.S. women’s national team players, because those contracts were paid by U.S. Soccer, not the league. That changed at the end of ’21, when the federation’s allocated player system ended. The NWSLPA and the league ratified their first collective bargaining agreement Jan. 31.

The players association played a pivotal role in last fall’s reckoning. It postponed a full weekend slate of matches following The Athletic’s report on Riley. It coordinated a leaguewide, on-field protest and made a list of demands to the league. It has an oversight role in the joint investigation that was launched last October. According to Meghann Burke, (no relation to Richie Burke), that investigation is ongoing but is expected to conclude by the end of the year. It is unclear how much of that report will be made publicly available, Burke says, because it will depend on what the players are comfortable with.

As a labor union, the players association made health and safety its top priority, Burke says, because on-field performance and equipment and even wages are “irrelevant if players are not healthy and safe at work.” The PA also gave players who were coming forward about misconduct an added layer of protection. When players like Press and Shim made their reports in 2014 and ’15, they didn’t have that. There were no anti-harassment, anti-retaliation or anti-fraternization policies in place at that time, either. They were on their own, and the likelihood of retaliation was high.

Bank, the UCLA law professor, emphasized the need for those policies, especially an anti-retaliation policy. Whistleblowers are important and needed but are often vulnerable because they have the least amount of power and the highest likelihood of being retaliated against.

That power imbalance played out time and time again within the league. Coaches like Riley, Dames and Holly, used their positions to blur the lines of a normal player-coach relationship. They held the players’ livelihoods in their hands. For players like Shim or Simon, who were fighting to make it onto the field, not complying put their careers at risk. The Yates report laid bare the systemic institutional failures, the difficulties of coming forward and the anguish the players faced.

“But when you read the Yates report, those first couple of paragraphs should take your breath away,” Burke says. “When you think about what Erin [Simon] has been through, this is the first time that she has lent her name to this story to publicly call out exactly what happened in every painful detail. Players should not have to have that, but Erin did. Players who are willing to lend their names to these stories invite a lot of criticism, scrutiny, reliving their trauma. To be willing to do that for the sake of others is just extraordinary.”