The United States Women’s National Team play England in a friendly at Wembley on Friday. But as the world champion takes on the European champion, back in the US, women’s professional soccer is reeling from an independent investigation that found systemic abuse and misconduct within the sport.
Players have been described as “horrified and heartbroken and frustrated and exhausted,” as harrowing details emerge from the report, according to Becky Sauerbrunn, one of the stalwarts of the US women’s national soccer team.
“It’s hard,” midfielder Lindsey Horan said Wednesday at a media availability in London. “We’re angry. We’re pissed off and personally I feel like in a weird spot just because you know, I learned new things in this investigation that I didn’t know before and I wanted to wait and read it for myself and to be a part of an organization that was in this is really hard for me.”
“This investigation came forward and obviously we’re thankful for that, but it took way too long. This whole thing was prolonged incredibly, and I sit here and I’m like, it’s not done. This is all over the world.”
US Women’s National Team (USWNT) star Megan Rapinoe reiterated that women soccer players are angry and exhausted, telling a press conference Thursday: “Those people are in positions that have responsibilities and they didn’t fulfill those responsibilities. They didn’t protect the players at all amidst year, after year, after year. I feel like it’s impossible to overstate that every single year someone said something about multiple coaches in the league about multiple different environments,” she said.
“None of those people have shown they deserve to be around this beautiful game.”
United States Women’s National Team defender Crystal Dunn added she hoped the report will be the turning point for the sport.
“I think this report coming out was kind of the nail in the coffin,” Dunn said at a press conference in London on Wednesday. “It’s going to allow a lot of accountability that hasn’t really taken place and I think I am quite hopeful that the healing phase can now really take place.”
Players’ health and safety
The report, led by former acting attorney general Sally Q. Yates, was based on more than 200 interviews and revealed the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) under the US Soccer Federation (USSF) failed to provide a safe environment for players.
US Soccer initiated its investigation a year ago by hiring Yates and the legal firm King and Spalding to review allegations, conduct interviews, and recommend solutions.
The federation says it gave Yates and the firm full autonomy and access in order to produce a complete, independent report.
Why was the report commissioned?
Last year the 12-team NWSL was thrown into chaos following a report by The Athletic detailing allegations of sexual coercion and misconduct against Paul Riley, who coached three NWSL franchises over eight seasons.
He was fired by the North Carolina Courage after The Athletic cited players on the record alleging that for years, Riley used his influence and power to sexually harass players and in one incident, coerce a player into having sex with him.
Riley denied the accusations in the report. CNN has not been able to reach Riley for comment.
By the end of the season, “half of the league’s teams had parted ways” with their coaches after player complaints, the Yates report notes.
What are the key findings?
The Yates report features submitted first-hand accounts from players who describe alleged abuses from head coaches as well as team management.
Monday’s report states that sexual misconduct and abuse was far more widespread than just one coach or incident, but centers on allegations of sexual misconduct by coaches Riley, Rory Dames and Christy Holly, and the alleged failure of executives to investigate or act.The report further states that while their findings focus on the three named coaches, the three were “not the only coaches who mistreated players.”
Paul Riley was fired by the North Carolina Courage after The Athletic cited players on the record alleging that for years, Riley used his influence and power to sexually harass players and in one incident, coerce a player into having sex with him.
“Paul Riley’s abuse was prolonged and wide-ranging. It spanned multiple leagues, teams, and players. It included emotional misconduct, abuse of power, and sexual misconduct,” the report says. Before coaching the Courage, Riley had coached two other NWSL teams – the Portland Thorns and the Western New York Flash.
Investigators found that Riley’s conduct was “generally ignored or accepted” until The Athletic reports emerged.
The report corroborated accounts made by players to The Athletic, and “found evidence that they were not alone.”
The report found that in 2015, a player reported Riley to the Portland Thorns and the league for sexual misconduct.
After a one-week investigation, the Thorns terminated him citing “violations of several provisions of Riley’s employment contract for cause,” including “gross negligence or wilful misconduct” in performing his duties, Yates found, citing a letter from Thorns’ general manager.
The Thorns did not make this information public, the Yates report found, instead saying that Riley would “not be retained” for the 2016 season and thanked him for his service. Soon afterwards, Riley took another coaching job in the league.
In response to The Athletic’s 2021 reporting, Riley responded to a list of questions about his alleged conduct with an email where he stated that the majority of the allegations are “completely untrue.”
Christy Holly was fired from Racing Louisville after the team determined that he had engaged in long-term and egregious sexual misconduct against a player, according to the report – though at the time, the team merely said they fired him “for cause.”
Holly’s behavior, which allegedly began before his stint at Racing Louisville and carried on in the time he spent with the team, included unwanted sexual contact, coercive text messages, abuse of power, and retaliation, according to the report.
One player who trained with Holly during her off-season, Erin Simon, according to the report, said Holly sent her inappropriate texts, including photographs of his penis and a video of himself masturbating, and asked her to send sexual pictures and a video of herself back, which she said she felt “guilted” into doing, with Holly constantly telling her to “loosen up,” and insisting that having “fun” with him would improve her performance on the field.
When he was her coach at Racing Louisville, Simon said that Holly invited her to his house to watch game film, but instead showed her pornography, touched her, told her he wanted to have a threesome with her and another former player, and masturbated in front of her, forcing her to touch his penis, Yates’ report says.
According to the report, in another incident, after being called over by Holly to watch game footage together, Simon recalled that during this session, Holly told her he was going to touch her “for every pass [she] f**ked up.” Simon said that he pushed his hands down her pants and up her shirt as she tried to cross her legs and push him away, laughing in the meantime so as not to anger him.
CNN has been unable to reach Holly for comment.
According to the report, Holly admitted that he lost his job at Louisville due to his “unique” relationship with Erin Simon.
“He admitted to texting Simon, including sending and soliciting sexual photos. But he denied that any sexual conduct continued at Racing Louisville,” the report added.
Racing Louisville FC said in a statement Wednesday that the Yates report “served as a harsh reminder that appointing Christy Holly as Racing Louisville FC’s first coach was a mistake. We have learned from that mistake, and we apologize to Erin Simon, to our players past and present and to our fans,” they added.
They added “while our former coach was terminated within 24 hours of us being alerted to the behavior, we know that wasn’t enough and that we failed our locker room by creating a space where this behavior could occur.
“We have worked hard every day since then to ensure a safe environment that puts players in a position to succeed. This includes implementation of club-wide anonymous reporting services and a re-evaluated hiring process for staff.”
In the report, Yates noted that while Dames had a reputation for developing successful players and teams, he was “equally renowned for his tirades against the young girls who played for him.”
Dames was the former head coach for the Chicago Red Stars and is the current owner and former president and coach of the Eclipse Select Soccer Club, an elite youth soccer organization of boys’ and girls’ teams in suburban Chicago.
The report concludes that “Dames created a sexualized team environment and verbally and emotionally abused players and staff,” and allegedly “made inappropriate sexual and suggestive remarks to youth female players, asked about their boyfriends and sex lives, and sought information about their personal lives.”
One player’s allegations “recounted an instance where Dames gave her a ride after practice and ‘ask[ed] me all kinds of questions about sex … and wouldn’t take me home until I answered the questions,’” while another alleged Dames would “give girls tips on sex” and say things like: “you should be shaved and bare down there,” and “I hope you are giving your boyfriend a good time.”
A sports psychologist asserted that Dames created “a culture of fear” and was emotionally and verbally abusive, with players describing him as “condescending,” “manipulative,” “aggressive,” “insulting,” and “an intimidator,” the report noted.
Dames denies engaging in any misconduct as a coach, sexual or otherwise, according to his lawyer.
“He will address the misstatements of fact and false and defamatory statements in the report but his hands are tied at this time as U.S. Soccer referred all of the matters in the Yates’ report to SafeSport. Upon advice of counsel, Mr. Dames has declined to discuss these matters publicly in any detail,” said his lawyer.
Abuse was widespread
The damning report found that verbal and emotional abuse and sexual misconduct – had become systemic in the NWSL, with many teams and coaches implicated, and with numerous victims.
“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.”
This, investigators noted, was worsened because league owners and the federation “did not institute the most basic of workplace protections.”
For most of the league’s existence, it has had no anti-harassment policy, no anti-retaliation policy and no anti-fraternization policy, the scathing report noted.
Meanwhile, for the most part, the league did not have ways for players to report inappropriate behavior, while teams generally lacked human resource departments and didn’t perform adequate checks when hiring coaches.
National Women’s Soccer League commissioner Jessica Berman issued a statement Tuesday saying the league is committed to “implementing reform and disciplinary action” based on the Yates report and the findings of the league and union’s ongoing investigation.
“We have asked the Joint Investigative Team to consider the recommendations set forth in the Yates Report when making their recommendations to the NWSL. Moreover, we have asked the Joint Investigative Team to review – and investigate as necessary – the findings in the Yates Report when concluding their report,” the NWSL added in a statement sent to CNN Thursday.
Owners, executives and coaches failed to act on years of reports
The report noted that high-ups in soccer failed to properly investigate or make public reports of abuse by coaches, allowing them to move to other teams.
“Teams, the League, and the Federation not only repeatedly failed to respond appropriately when confronted with player reports and evidence of abuse, they also failed to institute basic
measures to prevent and address it, even as some leaders privately acknowledged the need for workplace protections,” the report noted.
“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.
“In general, teams, the NWSL, and USSF appear to have prioritized concerns of legal exposure to litigation by coaches—and the risk of drawing negative attention to the team or League—over player safety and well-being,” the report noted.
CNN has reached out to U.S. Soccer and the NWSL for comment on these specific allegations.
U.S. Soccer referred CNN to its previous statements, where it committed to addressing the report’s recommendations and said it would, among many steps, establish a new Office of Participant Safety to oversee U.S. Soccer’s conduct policies and reporting mechanisms; publish soccer records from SafeSport’s centralized disciplinary database to publicly identify individuals in the sport who have been disciplined, suspended or banned; and mandate a uniform minimum standard for background checks for all U.S. Soccer members at every level of the game.
Some teams didn’t fully cooperate with the report
In her report, Yates noted that some teams didn’t fully cooperate with investigators, despite releasing statements which suggested otherwise.
“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 noted.
“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,” investigators noted.
CNN has reached out to Racing Louisville FC, the Chicago Red Stars and the Portland Thorns for comment.
Portland Thorns FC and Portland Timbers’ president of soccer Gavin Wilkinson and president of business Mike Golub have been fired, the organization said on Wednesday, while Thorns and Timbers’ club owner Merritt Paulson announced on Tuesday that he was removing himself immediately from all team-related decision making until the findings of an the investigation being conducted by the NWSL and the players union (NWSLPA) are released.
In his Tuesday statement, Paulson apologized for his organization’s role in “a gross systemic failure to protect player safety and the missteps we made in 2015.”
What has the reaction been?
The allegations have drawn fierce criticism from players.
Becky Sauerbrunn, one of the stalwarts of the US women’s national soccer team, said Tuesday that players are angry and want immediate changes.
“The players are not doing well. We are horrified and heartbroken and frustrated and exhausted. And we are really, really angry. We are angry that it took a third-party investigation,” Sauerbrunn stated at the beginning of a scheduled press conference on Tuesday.
The two-time World Cup winner added that “people in authority and decision-making positions have repeatedly failed to protect us.”
Sauerbrunn, a 10-year NWSL veteran who is in her third season with the Portland Thorns, continued, “Every owner and executive and US Soccer official who repeatedly failed the players and failed to protect the players, who have hidden behind legalities and have not participated fully in these investigations, should be gone.
“At the bare minimum, the recommendations that are in the Sally Yates report should be immediately implemented by US Soccer and by the league (NWSL).”
Fan groups for the Portland Thorns and the men’s team, the Portland Timbers, say they have suspended ties with the two teams in response to the revelations made about team management in the report.
In a statement posted on Twitter on Tuesday, the supporter groups known collectively as 107IST, said “While we were prepared for the worst, nothing prepared us for what was contained in the USSF/ Sally Yates report.
“It’s time to build a bonfire,” they said, calling for changes in key leadership positions.
The league said Monday it would review the findings, and that its own investigation in conjunction with the players’ union is ongoing. That investigation is expected to be released in November.
National Women’s Soccer League commissioner Jessica Berman issued a statement Tuesday updating the status of a joint investigation being conducted by the league and players union (NWSLPA) after owners of the Portland Thorns and Chicago Red Stars each said they would step back from their respective clubs.
Both franchises are named in the report. “The NWSL is supportive of the important steps taken by the Portland Thorns and Chicago Red Stars today,” Berman said in a written statement.
She also said the league is committed to “implementing reform and disciplinary action” based on the Yates report and the findings of the league and union’s ongoing investigation.
“While it will take time, we are fully prepared to take the necessary steps to protect the health and safety of our players, staff and other stakeholders in order to create the League that our players, fans, partners and staff deserve and expect,” she said.
David Close, Matt Foster and Steve Almasy contributed reporting.