What Comes Next After the Damning Women’s Soccer Report?

Megan Rapinoe warming up

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The investigation revealed systemic abuse endured by players.

Fans and players alike are horrified following the release of an independent report detailing systemic abuse in women’s professional soccer. U.S. Women’s National Team star Megan Rapinoe told reporters: “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.”

Here’s more on the grim report — and what comes next.

What does the report say?

The report, commissioned by the U.S. Soccer Federation from former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, found that both the National Women’s Soccer League along and the soccer federation had failed to provide a safe environment for NWSL players — and that years of complaints from players about certain coaches had been ignored. It includes more than 200 interviews with players and personnel, and detailed systemic verbal and emotional abuse, as well as sexual misconduct.

On one occasion, coach Christ Holly reportedly asked a player to review a match with him, only to make her watch porn. He also masturbated in front of her, and forced her to touch his penis. Groping — including in public — harassment, and coercion were commonplace behaviors from men in positions of power.

The report focuses in particular on coaches Paul Riley, Rory Dames, and Holly, and the failure of the teams, the league, and the U.S. Soccer Federation to respond to complaints about them. Though those three names are the most prominent, the report also makes it plain that the issues they embodied permeate the entire system.

“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,” it says. “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.”

Disturbingly, Yates’ report shows that even on the occasions when coaches lost their jobs, it was easy for them to find new positions.

“[A]busive 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,” the report says. “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.”

It also notes that, despite a massive response from players coming forward to describe abuse, many of those in key positions of responsibility refused to be interviewed.

“Certain witnesses— including the former Commissioner of the NWSL, Jeff Plush—never responded to our outreach,” it says. “Others refused to be interviewed, some because they feared retaliation. Still others—including former USSF Chief Executive Officer Dan Flynn—agreed only to respond to written questions, rather than sit for an interview. Certain teams did not fully cooperate, notwithstanding public statements to the contrary.”

“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. 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.”

The writing on the wall

The report comes a year after a damning investigation by The Athletic, which detailed accounts from players on the record who accused North Carolina Courage head coach Paul Riley of years of serious sexual harassment, pressuring players to kiss each other — and in one instance, of coercing a player into having sex with him. Riley firmly denied the allegations, but was fired by North Carolina Courage, which tweeted that he’d been sacked after the reports of “very serious allegations of misconduct.”

After Riley was fired, NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird released a statement saying: “I was shocked and disgusted to read the new allegations reported in The Athletic this morning. The league, in concert with the North Carolina Courage, has reacted swiftly in response to these new allegations, and former head coach Paul Riley has been terminated.”

“Concurrently, we are reporting these new allegations to the US Center for SafeSport for investigation. A safe and secure work environment is a top priority for the league and its collective ownership.” 

Baird has since resigned from her position.

What happens now?

After Yates’ report was released on October 3, the NWSL posted a statement promising to review its findings “immediately.”

“We recognize the anxiety and mental strain that these pending investigations have caused and the trauma that many – including players and staff – are having to relive,” it wrote. “We continue to admire their courage in coming forward to share their stories and influence all the changes necessary to keep moving our league forward. Establishing trust and confidence between the League, its players, and other key stakeholders remains a central focus for the NWSL, and we know that we must learn from and take responsibility for the painful lessons of the past in order to move the League into a better future.”

U.S. Soccer President Cindy Parlow Cone has released a statement saying that she is “heartbroken by the contents of the report, which make clear that systemic changes are needed at every level of our game.”

US Women’s National Team (USWNT) star Megan Rapinoe told a press conference on October 6: “Those people are in positions that have responsibilities and they didn’t fulfill those responsibilities. They didn’t protect the players at all 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.”

“None of those people have shown they deserve to be around this beautiful game,” she added.