An independent investigation into the abuse of female players in professional women’s soccer has found a long list of failures by coaches and executives in the Women’s National Football League, as well as the United States Soccer Federation itself.
“Our investigation revealed an association in which abuse and misconduct—verbal abuse, emotional abuse, and sexual misconduct—became systematic, and involved many teams, coaches, and victims,” Read the report. “The abuse in the NFL is rooted in a deeper culture in women’s football, beginning with the youth leagues, which normalizes verbally abusive training and blurs the lines between coaches and players.”
The summary report, a copy of which has been obtained by ESPN, also details recommendations for the USSF for its future implementation. The investigation was conducted by former US Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates on behalf of US security forces.
The report includes a previously undisclosed revelation regarding the manner in which Racing Louisville was fired from Christie Holly as manager in August 2021. The report details how Holly contacted a player, identified as Erin Simon, at a photo shoot, stating that he would touch her “for every pass” she missed. (ESPN’s policy is not to publicly identify victims of abuse, but Simon, through a spokesperson, has agreed to be identified.)
Holly then proceeded to put his hand “down her pants and up her shirt.” Simon would try to “hold her legs tight and push him away, laughing to avoid angering him,” the report adds, noting that when her teammate took her home, Simon broke down in tears.
Holly was later fired for a reason, although the reason for his dismissal has not been publicly disclosed.
“There are many athletes who continue to suffer in silence because they are afraid that no one will help or hear them,” Simon said in a statement via his spokesperson. “I know because that is how I felt. Through so many difficult days my faith alone has supported me and kept me going. I want to do everything in my power to ensure that no other player experiences what I did. This report allows our voices to finally be heard and is the first step towards achieving A respectable workplace that we all deserve. I sincerely hope that the pain we’ve all experienced and the change we’ve all made will be for the benefit of our league and this game we all deeply love.”
In a statement, Soviet Football Union President Cindy Barlow Kohn said: “The results of this investigation are heartbreaking and deeply disturbing. The abuse described is unjustifiable and has no place in any stadium, in any training facility or workplace. As the national governing body of our sport, US Soccer is committed We are taking the immediate action that we can today, and we will call on leaders in football at all levels across the country to collaborate on recommendations until We can create meaningful and long-term change across the football ecosystem.”
The investigation began following a report in The Athletic in 2021 detailing allegations of sexual harassment and coercion from 2015 against former Portland Thorns manager Paul Riley. Former Thorns players Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly alleged that Riley invited both players back to his apartment and asked them to kiss each other in exchange for taking the team out of conditioning training the next day, as well as drinking with the players and sending out lewd photos. to shim.
The Thorns fired Riley after the investigation, although they failed to pursue further allegations from Farrelly which included having a sexual relationship with him. The allegations against Riley were by no means unique.
“Players described a pattern of sexually charged comments, unwanted sexual advances and sexual touching, and forced sexual intercourse,” the report stated.
The report found that abuse by coaches was not always sexual in nature, finding former Chicago Red Stars coach Rory Dams among those found to have verbally and emotionally abused players.
“We’ve heard report after report of relentless and humiliating threats; manipulation that was about power, not performance; and retaliation against those who tried to advance,” the report read.
Among the report’s findings is that throughout the league’s existence, teams, the NWSL and the USSF have failed to put in place basic player safety measures. The report also detailed how the abuse in the NFL was systematic and that the NFL, NFL and Federation teams failed to adequately address reports and evidence of misconduct.
“Teams, the League and the Federation have repeatedly not only responded appropriately when faced with player reports and evidence of abuse, but have also failed to take basic measures to prevent and address it, even as some leaders privately acknowledge the need to protect the workplace,” the report reads. “As a result, abusive coaches went from team to team, washed down by press releases thanking them for their service, and positive signals from teams that reduced or even concealed the misconduct. Those in the NWSL and USSF remained in a position to correct the record and did not Nobody in the teams, the league or the federation is calling for the best coaches.”
Because teams, NWSL, and USSF failed to identify and report coach misconduct to others, the abuse was allowed to continue. This is partly due to a culture of abuse, silence, and fear of retaliation due to a lack of job security.
The report also provided more details on how Riley was allowed to continue training in the NWSL, despite being fired for reason by Thorns after the aforementioned abuse allegations. Former NFL Commissioner Jeff Plush, in an email to then-Soviet President Sunil Gulati, USSF CEO Dan Flynn and USSF General Counsel Lisa Levine, conveyed his understanding that Thorns football chief Gavin Wilkinson, told the Western New York Flash that Riley “has been set in a bad position by the player,” and that Wilkinson will “hire [Riley] In a heartbeat.”
ESPN previously reported that Wilkinson had given The Flash a positive job referral for Riley. He was appointed by the club in early 2016. Although Plush, Gulati, Flynn and Levine have all received a detailed complaint from Shim – and Plush and Levine received a 2015 Thorns report – none appear to be providing Flash with additional information.
ESPN also reported that later, when Riley was vying for a managerial position for the US women’s national team, Thorns owner Merritt Paulson told her North Carolina counterpart Steve Malik that Riley pulling out would be a “good idea.” Yates’ report details how after “at least fourteen conversations among eleven people in the Federation, the League, the Portland Thorns, and NC Courageous, Riley publicly withdrew himself from consideration.” But during those conversations, the USSR’s chief legal officer Lydia Walke never passed on any report that Riley was “in a relationship with the Portland player in the league, with others in the union, or guts.
The report found that three organizations – Chicago Red Stars, Portland Thorns and Racing Louisville – had not fully cooperated with the Yates investigation, despite public statements to the contrary.
“The Portland Thorns interfered with our access to relevant witnesses and raised misleading legal arguments in an effort to impede our use of the relevant documents,” the report said. “Racing Team Louisville FC has refused to provide documents relating to Christie Holley and will not allow witnesses (even former employees) to answer relevant questions regarding Holly’s tenure, citing the nondisclosure and nondisclosure agreements she signed with Holly. The production of relevant documents over a period of approximately nine months” .
The report added that the Thorns family attempted to claim that some information, including Thorns’ 2015 report on their investigation into the Riley case, was protected by attorney-client privilege or common interest privilege “despite evidence to the contrary.” The Thorns did not acquiesce until a period of months after initial requests by investigators.
Overall, it appears that teams, the NWSL and the USSF have prioritized concerns about legal exposure to litigation by coaches — and the risk of drawing negative attention to a team or league — over player safety and well-being,” she declared.
This was not the only failure of the NWSL and the USSF.
The report adds that even in cases where the federation and/or the league were aware of misconduct, it usually did nothing to correct the inaccurate description of the team or downplay the coach’s misconduct. For example, the Portland Thorns, the Federation and the League failed to ensure that Riley’s behavior was accurately disclosed to the Western New York Flash or the North Carolina Brave.
Despite this interference, the investigation conducted more than 200 interviews, including over 100 former and current NWSL players.
Regarding recommendations, the report called for more transparency so that abusive coaches do not pass from team to team. This includes eliminating the use of non-disclosure and non-derogation agreements that serve to protect information about abusive coaches.
Regarding accountability for conduct, the report acknowledged that this responsibility rests mostly with the NWSL and its teams. The USSF does not have the right to penalize executive directors and team owners. But the report noted that “no organization has taken possession of player ownership for player safety,” and that the US Soccer Federation could put additional teeth in its licensing requirements, requiring coaches to obtain annual rehabilitation. The report also recommended suspending the licenses of coaches found to be involved in misconduct, which it did in Riley’s case.
The report also recommended that the Soviet Union should require the National Association of the Judicial Police to “conduct timely investigations into allegations of abuse, impose appropriate discipline, and promptly publish the results of the investigation.”
Clear rules were needed regarding what constitutes prohibited conduct to whom the policies apply, and the report concluded, noting that the current Prohibited Conduct Policy, which sets out the USSF’s anti-harassment and bullying policy, does not apply to professional associations or non-national team players.
To better create a single point of contact for player safety, the report recommended that the NFL, NFL, and teams all appoint an individual within their organizations who is responsible for player safety. He recommended that the NFL also require the National Football League (NWSL) to solicit feedback from players via surveys and submit the results to the Soviet Union.
In terms of discipline, the report recommended that while none of the aforementioned coaches coach in the league, some executives and owners still do. “New South Wales law must determine whether discipline is justified in light of these findings and the findings of the joint NWSL/NWSLPA investigation,” the report read.
The investigation began on October 2, 2021, the day after the Athletic Report was published. The USSF has retained Yates and the law firm King & Spaulding for an investigation. A parallel investigation is also being conducted by the NWSL and the NWSL Players Association. A source familiar with Yates’ investigation admitted that while the two investigations sometimes shared information, they were conducted separately.
In a press release in conjunction with the findings of the Yates investigation, the US Soccer Federation announced that it has already initiated some changes as they relate to player safety. These include: the establishment of a new Office of Participant Safety to oversee conduct policies and reporting mechanisms at the USSF; publish football records from SafeSport’s central disciplinary database to publicly identify individuals in the sport who have been disciplined, suspended or banned; and mandate a minimum standardized background check standard for all members of American football at every level of the game, including youth football, for compliance with United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee standards.
In addition to most of these steps, the USSF created a new board of directors committee to address the report’s recommendations in the future. The committee will be chaired by former US women’s national team player Daniel Slaton along with the football club’s chief executive and vice president, Mike Colina.
“Truth Be Told – The Fight for Women’s Professional Soccer” begins Tuesday, October 4 at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN and ESPN+