Yesterday U.S. Soccer has published the findings and recommendations of former acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates' investigation into abuse in the National Women's Soccer League.
The 172-page report comes a year to the day after the federation retained Yates and law firm King & Spalding to conduct an independent investigation into allegations of abuse by coaches in the NWSL.
"Our investigation has revealed a league in which abuse and misconduct — verbal and emotional abuse and sexual misconduct — had become systemic, spanning multiple teams, coaches, and victims," the report finds. "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."
It said the verbal and emotional abuse players describe in the NWSL is not merely “tough” coaching.
"In well over 200 interviews," the report adds, "we heard report after report of relentless, degrading tirades; manipulation that was about power, not improving performance; and retaliation against those who attempted to come forward. Even more disturbing were the stories of sexual misconduct. Players described a pattern of sexually charged comments, unwanted sexual advances and sexual touching, and coercive sexual intercourse."
The Yates Report found that those in power — at the NWSL and U.S. Soccer — remained silent:
"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. 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. And no one at the teams, the League, or the Federation demanded better of coaches."
The Yates Report found teams as well as the NWSL and U.S. Soccer prioritized concerns about legal exposure to litigation by coaches or the risk of drawing negative attention to the league and its teams to player safety and well-being, and certain teams cloaked coach misconduct in legal arguments of confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements.
And those legal arguments and non-disclosure agreements were used to try to prevent evidence (reports and witnesses) from being presented to Yates investigators, who had no legal power to compel testimony.
The Yates Report also covers long-standing issues with improper training facilities and housing, especially in the NWSL's early years, but the heart of the report details at length behavior by three longtime NWSL coaches who left their positions in 2021:
• Paul Riley was fired as North Carolina Courage head coach on Sept. 30, 2021, after The Athletic published a report of accusations of sexual harassment and coercion by two former players against him while he was coaching the Portland Thorns in 2014-15. Riley went on to coach the Western New York Flash and Courage, leading them to three NWSL championships. He was even under consideration in 2019 for the U.S. women's national team head coaching job. How he was allowed to coach in the NWSL after being fired by the Thorns after the 2015 season — and who knew or didn't know about the Thorns' own 2015 investigation into Riley — is one of the areas the Yates Report examines in detail.
• Rory Dames, the dean of NWSL head coaches, quit as the Chicago Red Stars head coach 36 hours after the Red Stars fell in the 2021 NWSL championship game. Within hours of his resignation, the Washington Post published a story in which players said Dames committed what they believed was verbal and emotional abuse and broke boundaries of the player-coach relationship. One section of the Yates Report is titled "'everyone knew' about the misconduct," detailing how concerns of Dames' behavior were made to U.S. Soccer and NWSL executives as early as 2014.
• Christy Holly was terminated as Racing Louisville's head coach for cause 10 days after he led the first-year team to first place in the 2021 Women's Cup, an international tournament it hosted. Holly previously worked at Sky Blue FC (now Gotham FC) as an assistant (2013-15) and then head coach (2016-17). (Between his employment at Sky Blue FC and Louisville, Holly worked for U.S. Soccer on a per-diem contract as a scout with the women's national team and assistant coach with youth national teams.) No details of Holly's firing were made public at the time by Racing Louisville. Nor were any included when he left Sky Blue FC in 2017.
The 172-page Yates Report begins with a description of how Holly requested that Racing player Erin Simon, whom he drafted in 2016 when he was at Sky Blue FC, attend a game film session with him alone. When he opened his laptop and began the game film, he told her he was going to touch her “for every pass [she] [****] up.” And he did.
The Yates Report notes that Riley, Dames and Holly weren't the only coaches who mistreated players. Washington's Richie Burke and OL Reign's Farid Benstiti also left in 2021 following player complaints.
In 2022, Houston Dash head coach James Clarkson was suspended and Orlando Pride head coach Amanda Cromwell and assistant Sam Greene were placed on administrative leave at the recommendation of an NWSL/NWSLPA Joint Investigation. (Their own league-wide investigation is still on-going with the support of two law firms.)
The Yates Report makes a long list of recommendations for the NWSL and U.S. Soccer covering transparency, accountability in the licensing and investigation of coaches and player safety and respect.
It noted those in leadership positions at the NWSL and U.S. Soccer during the relevant periods of the report no longer hold those positions, but NWSL team owners and executives remain in the league.
"The NWSL should determine," the report said, "whether discipline is warranted in light of these findings and the findings of the NWSL/NWSLPA Joint Investigation."
In a statement, King & Spalding said USSF cooperated fully with the investigation, provided all necessary resources, and granted the independent investigation team full autonomy to follow the facts and evidence wherever they led. (The report singled out the Red Stars, Thorns and Racing Louisville for not fully cooperating.)
“This investigation’s findings are heartbreaking and deeply troubling,” said U.S. Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone, who starred on the women's national team and coached the Thorns to the 2013 NWSL title.
Following its review of the Yates Report, U.S. Soccer's board of directors voted to release the report and take the following 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 database to publicly identify individuals in soccer 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, including youth soccer, to comport with United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee standards.
The board has also created a new committee to address the report’s recommendations. It will be chaired by former USWNT player Danielle Slaton and include vice chair, U.S. Club Soccer CEO Mike Cullina, Lori Lindsey, Richard Groff, Pete Zopfi and Lisa Carnoy.