NWSL investigation finds ‘ongoing misconduct’ at more than half of clubs
Misconduct continues to be reported in more than half of the teams in the National Women’s Soccer League, according to a final report from the NWSL/NWSLPA joint investigation unit, a year on from reports of sexual coercion and harassment by coaches going public.
The joint investigation results, released on Wednesday, echo many of the findings of an earlier investigation conducted by former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, on behalf of the U.S. Soccer Federation, which was released this past October.
“Inattentiveness, neglect, and concealment allow misconduct to fester,” the investigators wrote, while advocating for proactive prevention.
“The NWSL has increased efforts to eradicate misconduct, embraced greater accountability, and experienced a cultural shift regarding behaviors that are no longer tolerated,” the report said. “However, there is substantial work to be done. To that point, during this investigation, the Joint Investigative Team received reports of ongoing misconduct at more than half the League’s clubs.”
The report’s six recommendations are: “strengthening anti-harassment policies, developing and enforcing guidelines that address appropriate interactions between club staff and players, developing and implementing trainings that reflect and address player and staff experiences, coordinat[ing] with clubs and U.S. Soccer to improve and centralize hiring practices, enhance[d] reporting and investigation procedures and prioritiz[ing] DEI initiatives to create a more inclusive environment for all players and staff.”
NWSLPA executive director Meghann Burke applauded the players for speaking out.
“[I]t was players who took the first steps to bring us to this moment,” Burke said in a news release. “When faced with the choice between silence versus speaking out at real personal risk, players who demanded a reckoning gave the NWSL a chance at transformation. They deserve our gratitude and respect.
“We call on the league, U.S. Soccer, NWSL clubs, and everyone in leadership throughout the soccer ecosystem to demonstrate the same courage and commitment to eradicating misconduct that our players have shown.”
The report details “a culture of abuse, silence and fear of retaliation due to a lack of job security” and recommends addressing “failures in institutional structures, policies, and procedures — at U.S. Soccer, the League, and individual clubs — that have allowed misconduct to persist.”
The 12-team NWSL, which was under a management contract with the U.S. Soccer Federation until 2020, did not have a players’ union until 2018, and the first collective bargaining agreement was not put into place until 2022. Further, the NWSL’s first “anti-fraternization policy” was not implemented until 2018, and its first anti-harassment policy did not exist until April 2021, and only after a push by NWSL players.
The Yates report and the joint NWSL/NWSLPA investigation were initiated after a report in The Athletic in 2021 that detailed allegations of sexual harassment and coercion from 2015 made against former Portland Thorns manager Paul Riley as well as other allegations of misconduct, including that of former Chicago Red Stars manager Rory Dames, who was among those found to have verbally and emotionally abused players.
n 2021, five male head coaches were either fired or forced to resign as a result of non-soccer reasons, including alleged sexual misconduct, verbal abuse, racist remarks and perpetuating a toxic work culture. A sixth team terminated its general manager.
The report detailed in new light the transgressions that took place with the North Carolina Courage, Houston Dash, OL Reign, Orlando Pride and NY/NJ Gotham FC.
It also dove into how clubs, the NWSL and the U.S. Soccer Federation failed to take responsibility in investigations of misconduct and contributed to an environment that allowed abuse to take place.
“This report clearly reflects how our league systemically failed to protect our players,” NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman said in a news release on Wednesday. “[L]et me first and foremost sincerely apologize to our players for those failures and missteps. They deserve, at a minimum, a safe and secure environment to participate at the highest level in a sport they love.”
U.S. Soccer echoed Berman’s commitment to a “safe, healthy environment” for players/
“As we review the NWSL/NWSLPA report, we look forward to gaining an even deeper understanding of the cultural and systemic dynamics that led to abuse in women’s professional soccer,” the news release said. “As the national governing body for our sport, U.S. Soccer’s highest priority is participant safety at all levels of the game.”
The report also dug deeper into instances of emotional abuse relating to the topics of player weight, race and sexual orientation.
“The Joint Investigative Team found, for example, that club staff in positions of power made inappropriate sexual remarks to players, mocked players’ bodies, pressured players to lose unhealthy amounts of weight, crossed professional boundaries with players, and created volatile and manipulative working conditions,” the report said.
“They used derogatory and insulting language towards players, displayed insensitivity towards players’ mental health, and engaged in retaliation against players who attempted to report or did report concerns. Misconduct against players has occurred at the vast majority of NWSL clubs at various times from the earliest years of the League to the present.”
Investigators reached out to 780 current and former players, of which 100 were interviewed. There were six interviews of current and former leadership of NWSLPA and USWNTPA, 90 interviews of former and current club staff, 15 interviews of current and former league leadership and staff, and eight interviews of current and former U.S. Soccer personnel.
Like the Yates report, the joint investigation said the Portland Thorns, Racing Louisville, the Chicago Red Stars and the USSF delayed “until late in the investigation” access to documents and key witnesses.
The investigation found that the history and culture of the NWSL, one where the threat of the league folding was very real, created an environment where abuse could take place and reporting of misconduct was discouraged.
Players distrusted that the league would adequately investigate instances of misconduct to conclusion, the report said.
This was highlighted by what took place in Portland, where Riley was fired for cause for engaging in sexual harassment and coercion but later was allowed to keep coaching in the NWSL, the report said.
This example, and others led to a sense that the NWSL and the USSF were unable to protect players, from abuse or from retaliation for reporting misconduct, according to the report.
The investigation also found that the league failed to adequately vet technical staff. As an example, former Racing Louisville coach Christy Holly didn’t have the requisite coaching licenses needed.
The league also failed to establish what constituted misconduct, the report said.
The communication channels for reporting misconduct were not clear, nor did a written policy exist to spell out whether this was the responsibility of the clubs, the league, or the USSF.
The clubs, league and federation also failed to adequately share information, the report found. The result is that coaches such as former Thorns and Courage coach Riley, as well as Holly, were able to find employment elsewhere despite instances of misconduct at prior stops.
Among the new revelations were that Riley, having moved on to manage the Courage after having been fired for cause by Portland, engaged in unwanted advances toward Courage player Kaleigh Kurtz that included showing her a picture of a bar and saying he wished she was there.
This was on top of a steady stream of comments by Riley to Kurtz about her weight, including calling her “chubby.”
Kurtz told Courage assistant GM Bobby Hammond about Riley’s comments about her weight, and although Hammond told GM Curt Johnson about the comments, he didn’t follow up with Kurtz.
The report also provided details relating to Houston Dash GM and manager James Clarkson. Clarkson was placed on temporary suspension in April 2022 after the league received complaints from players that he engaged in “ongoing emotional misconduct and insensitivity.”
Following the release of Wednesday’s report, Houston announced that it will not be renewing Clarkson’s contract, which expires at the end of 2022, and apologized to present and former players who were subject to misconduct.
The investigation revealed that a majority of players considered Clarkson “fair” and felt that his behavior didn’t rise to the level of abuse or emotional misconduct.
But the investigators concluded otherwise, citing an incident in which Clarkson berated the team because he thought that some of them had been out drinking the night before an exhibition game played at high altitude and that players felt it created a culture of “anxiety and fear.”
The report also goes into greater detail of how then-NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush withheld information.
The report said Plush tried to dissuade teams from hiring Riley after his firing in Portland. In one instance, Plush told Sky Blue (now Gotham) not to hire Riley.
He discussed with NWSL legal counsel Lisa Levine and with U.S. Soccer’s outside counsel that Levine should give Sky Blue certain information about the allegations of sexual harassment against Riley, the circumstances of Riley’s termination from the Thorns and conclusions from the 2015 investigation conducted by the Thorns.
Plush engaged in a similar effort in 2016 relating to the attempt by the Western New York Flash (who eventually became the NC Courage) to hire Riley.
In this instance, the report states that “Plush expressed concern in internal emails about the fact that the Flash were planning to hire Riley. Although Plush asserted that he tried to dissuade the Flash from pursuing Riley, he did not give the Flash any information about why they should not pursue Riley.
“Plush stated that he was advised by counsel that such information was ‘confidential’ and could not be shared by the League. However, that position is inconsistent with other evidence, including an email from counsel for the Thorns and Plush’s own prior communications with Sky Blue.”
The report also underlined instances of “offensive and insensitive behavior” based on race or ethnicity.
Former Washington Spirit coach Richie Burke was found to have “used racial epithets, made jokes about race and ethnicity, and undermined activism on issues of race.”
The report adds that there were multiple instances when the NWSL or clubs did not investigate racially insensitive conduct or attempt to improve conditions for players of color “until allegations of racism were brought to the public eye, or until players pushed for a response.”
One player also observed that her club was silent on issues of racism by not recognizing Juneteenth or doing work to support the Black community, which she said was in contrast to her former club, where there were frequent discussions regarding anti-racism and her coach thought “about the broader world and how that could affect your performance.”
The same player emphasized that “continuous commitment to anti-racism is important” and that the burden should not be on Black players to educate others.
The report also indicated that there were instances of offensive and insensitive behavior as it related to sexual orientation.
“One club employee recalled that Riley often made comments about lesbian players, including that players dating women negatively impacted their playing performance and their commitment to the team,” the report reads.
On another club, a staff member observed that when new players joined the team, the head coach would comment on their sexual orientation.
The coach would ask questions about players who were dating women, and another coach would contrast players who were dating women with players who were not, implying that the team should consider players’ sexual orientations when making roster decisions.
The report spelled out how Orlando City manager Amanda Cromwell and assistant Sam Greene were dismissed for retaliating against players who had participated in a previous investigation into misconduct allegations against the coaching staff.
Similar allegations of retaliation were lodged against then-Kansas City manager Huw Williams over players participating in a meeting with ownership in which they questioned Williams’ effectiveness.
The report unearthed multiple instances of “weight-shaming” in which managers would make inappropriate and unhealthy comments about a player’s weight.
The report singled out former Houston Dash manager Vera Pauw and former OL Reign coach Farid Benstiti, saying “Pauw appeared to want to control and micromanage players’ diets and exercise regimens even when her weight loss directives were inconsistent with sports medicine best practices; for example, players reported that Pauw discouraged them from eating fruit because of its sugar content. Players reported that Pauw’s comments affected a teammate struggling with an eating disorder.”
Benstiti, upon being hired by OL Reign, was explicitly instructed not to discuss weight or nutrition with players.
Despite this instruction, multiple people observed Benstiti commenting on players’ food consumption at the 2020 Challenge Cup, where Benstiti also hid food from players.
The report also disclosed additional details relating to the firing of former Gotham GM Alyse LaHue. The report states that LaHue made “unwanted sexual advances” toward a player, which included suggestive text messages and comments.
LaHue was fired in July 2021 after an investigation by the league.
After participating in an initial interview with investigators, LaHue, through her counsel, canceled another scheduled interview and declined repeated requests to reschedule.
“Many players bravely recounted painful and personal experiences before and during this investigation in service of truth, accountability, and reform,” the report reads.
“The individual incidents and recurrent practices detailed in this Report reflect the experiences of players, not only in isolated moments but also more broadly, as women playing soccer in a league historically owned and run by men.
“The actions of League and U.S. Soccer personnel — from the League’s founding, through its years under U.S. Soccer management, to the present — demonstrate that misconduct does not announce itself, but requires proactive prevention and detection.”