by Paul Kennedy

On Wednesday, (12/14/22) the NWSL and the NWSLPA, the league's players association, released their report into misconduct in the women's pro league, which finished its 10th season this fall.

Report:NWSL and NWSLPA Joint Investigative Team

The 125-page report comes more than 14 months after Meg Linehan's initial reporting in The Athletic on Paul Riley and accusations of sexual coercion and misconduct made by two of his former players, Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim. And it comes more than two months after the release of the Yates Report on 'systemic' abuse in NWSL and the silence of those in power.

The Yates Report offered just a snapshot of the behavior that existed within the NWSL, concentrating on three coaches at three teams and the inadequate responses to their misconduct when it became known: Riley at the Portland Thorns, Rory Dames at the Chicago Red Stars and Christy Holly, who coached Sky Blue FC and Racing Louisville.

The NWSL/NWSLPA report examines how the league and clubs failed to adequately protect players with a culture of discouraging the reporting of potential misconduct -- including retaliation for making complaints -- and poor guidance on what constituted misconduct and ineffective or nonexistent channels to report inappropriate behavior. Critically, U.S. Soccer, the NWSL and clubs failed to adequately share information about misconduct.

The new report goes into often graphic detail about the behavior of Riley, Dames and Holly. It includes new reporting on Riley and unwanted advances he made while he was the head coach of the North Carolina Courage, his third and last NWSL club.

Besides inappropriate intimate and sexual interactions with players, the report examines a long history of the blurring of boundaries between players and coaches and staff in terms of socializing and drinking and living and meeting arrangements.

The report also details how coaches and staff often made derogatory comments and jokes and used negative stereotypes about race and ethnicity. The same went for offensive language and offensive comments about players’ sexual orientation. Clubs themselves were found to have shown insensitivity to LGBTQIA+ issues.

Inappropriate comments about player weight and body types were a prevalent issue at many clubs and continued after coaches were warned by players and other staff about how they were harmful.

Frenchman Farid Benstiti was hired at OL Reign in 2021 despite a history of weight-shaming. One player reported to investigators that Benstiti, who left OL Reign midway through his first season, once announced to players, “If I see you eat snacks, I will kill you.”

The toxic and abusive working environments created by coaches’ behavior contributed to players at multiple clubs suffering panic attacks. In turn, staff, including coaches themselves, were often unhelpful to these players facing mental health challenges.

The report includes a section summarizing inappropriate conduct, noting that the investigative team "recognizes that NWSL players and other key stakeholders are looking to this report to identify the individuals and entities who should be held responsible for acts of interpersonal misconduct directed at players and for the failures of institutions connected to women’s professional soccer to prevent and address this misconduct."

It then summarizes the findings covering individuals and clubs who make up every current club in the 12-team league except Angel City FC and the San Diego Wave, the 2022 expansion teams.

• Coaches and executives:

1. Riley;
2. Dames;
3. Holly;
4. Former Sky Blue FC and Gotham FC executive Alyse LaHue;
5. Former Houston Dash head coach Vera Pauw;
6. Former Chicago Red Stars assistant and Utah Royals head coach Craig Harrington;
7. Former Washington Spirit head coach Richie Burke;
8. Benstiti;
9. Former Houston Dash head coach and general manager James Clarkson(who was suspended in April and whose contract will not be renewed after it expires at the end of the year, the Dash announced on Wednesday);
10. Former Orlando Pride head coach Amanda Cromwell and Orlando Pride assistant coaches Sam Greene and Aline Reis (Cromwell and Greene were fired and Reis placed on unpaid administrative leave in October).

• Clubs and owners:

1. Chicago Red Stars;
2. Kansas City Current;
3. Portland Thorns;
4. North Carolina Courage;
5. Sky Blue FC/Gotham FC
6. OL Reign;
7. Racing Louisville;
8. Washington Spirit.

U.S. Soccer was instrumental in the NWSL's launch in 2013 and managed the league for many years. The NWSL/NWSLPA investigation found, like Yates investigators, that the federation failed to adequately investigate or address NWSL misconduct:

 It failed to ban coaches and staff who resigned or were fired because of misconduct;
 It failed to apprise the NWSL and its club owners of misconduct, which allowed coaches to move to other clubs within the NWSL; and
 Its leaders avoided taking responsibility for systemic failures to protect players.

The four former U.S. Soccer executives the report singled out:

1. Lisa Levine (general counsel, 2009–2017);
2. Lydia Wahlke (chief legal officer, 2017–2020);
3. Sunil Gulati (president, 2006–2018); and
4. Dan Flynn (CEO and secretary general, 2000–2019)

The NWSL has not always had a commissioner. And until its recent move to new offices in New York under Commissioner Jessica Berman had a very small executive staff. The investigation also found the league failed to take responsibility for investigating the misconduct and contributed to an environment that allowed abuse to take place and continue.

The three former NWSL executives the report singled out:

1.Jeff Plush (commissioner, 2014–2017);
2.Amanda Duffy (managing director of operations, 2017–2019 and president, 2019–2020); and
3.Lisa Baird (commissioner, 2020–2021)

The NWSL/NWSLPA report also includes an extensive list of recommendations about how to address the misconduct going forward. They include at the league and club level how to strengthen policies, develop guidelines for appropriate behavior, enhance executive staffing, implement training for staff and coaches and create a more inclusive environment for players and staff. At the league and federation level, recommendations cover how to improve and centralize hiring practices and improve reporting.