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Investigation Into NWSL Finds Widespread Systemic Abuse in Women’s Soccer

A handwritten banner reading "Protect NWSL Players" hangs in the stands at a soccer game.

Content warning: sexual, emotional abuse.

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An independent investigation into allegations of abuse in the National Women’s Soccer League has found that the problems within the league are widespread and deeply ingrained, to the point of being systemic failings.

“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 reads. “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.”

The investigation was conducted by former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, on behalf of the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF). It was launched after The Atlantic published a report in 2021, detailing accusations of sexual abuse against Paul Riley from his time managing the Portland Thorns in 2014 and 2015. He was let go from the Thorns but went on to coach the Western New York Flash (which is part of a different league) and then the North Carolina Courage from 2017 to 2021, when the report was published. According to the findings of Yates’ investigation, that sort of revolving door for alleged abusers is pretty indicative of the massive failings on the part of the NWSL and the USSF.

The investigation found evidence of widespread sexual abuse, and describes coaches using coercion and forced sexual acts both as punishments and as bargaining chips for more gameplay and other opportunities. The lengthy report is filled with example after example of sexual misconduct. In one instance, Riley allegedly convinced two players to kiss each other when hanging out at his apartment after a night of drinking, “promising that the team could avoid a dreaded ‘suicide drill’ in exchange.”

In another especially disturbing section of the report, the Head Coach of Racing Louisville, Christy Holly asked player Erin Simon to go over game tape with him alone. “She knew what to expect,” the report reads.

When she arrived, she recalls Holly opened his laptop and began the game film. He told her he was going to touch her “for every pass [she] fucked up.” He did. Simon reports that he pushed his hands down her pants and up her shirt. She tried to tightly cross her legs and push him away, laughing to avoid angering him. The video ended, and she left. When her teammate picked her up to drive home, Simon broke down crying.

The investigation also found evidence of systemic verbal and emotional abuse, in addition to sexual. Players on the Chicago Red Stars spent years filing complaints against now-former coach Rory Dames, saying he created a “fear-based culture” rooted in manipulation and retaliation. “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,” the report reads. Players’ complaints were systematically ignored.

The report reads:

“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.”

Immediately following the release of the report, the NWSL issued a statement saying it would use the investigations’s findings in “informing and implementing systemic reform and ensuring that the NWSL is a league where players are supported, on and off the pitch, with safe and professional environments to train and compete.”

It’s a nice sentiment but also rings pretty hollow, given all the evidence put forth in the report suggesting the league spent years ignoring and even covering up a deeply ingrained culture of abuse. Some supporters of the NWSL teams at the center of the report are already calling for ousting of leadership and a sale of the teams. These players have been through a lot, we’ll be watching how this unfolds moving forward.

You can read the full report of the investigation here.

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Vivian Kane (she/her) is the Senior News Editor at The Mary Sue, where she's been writing about politics and entertainment (and all the ways in which the two overlap) since the dark days of late 2016. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she gets to put her MFA to use covering the local theatre scene. She is the co-owner of The Pitch, Kansas City’s alt news and culture magazine, alongside her husband, Brock Wilbur, with whom she also shares many cats.