An independent investigation into the scandals that erupted in the National Women’s Soccer League last season found emotional abuse and sexual misconduct were systemic in the sport, impacting multiple teams, coaches and players, according to a report released Monday.
“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,” former acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Q. Yates wrote in her report on the investigation.
U.S. Soccer commissioned the investigation by Yates and the law firm King & Spaulding after former NWSL players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim came forward with allegations of harassment and sexual coercion dating back a decade involving former coach Paul Riley. Their account was published by The Athletic in September 2021.
Riley, who denied the allegations, was quickly fired as head coach of the North Carolina Courage, and NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird stepped down.
But it was clear the problems were widespread. Five of the 10 head coaches in the NWSL last season either were fired or stepped down amid allegations of misconduct.
“The verbal and emotional abuse players describe in the NWSL is not merely ‘tough’ coaching. And the players affected are not shrinking violets. They are among the best athletes in the world,” Yates wrote.
More than 200 people were interviewed by investigators. Some two dozen entities and individuals provided documents. U.S. Soccer also provided documents and the firm reviewed 89,000 deemed likely to be relevant.
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U.S. Soccer President Cindy Parlow Cone called the findings “heartbreaking and deeply troubling.” The report recounts an episode in 2013, when Parlow Cone was coach of the Portland Thorns, in which she herself experienced an inappropriate comment by a team executive.
“I’ve been a part of this game all my life, from the youth all the way up to the professional level and an international level, so the women’s game is really important to me. And many of the players in this report I know. Many of them I coached,” Parlow Cone said. “I just found it really maddening that players had to go through this.”
The report made numerous recommendations to prioritize player health and safety. Among them is the requirement that teams accurately disclose coach misconduct to the league and the soccer federation to ensure coaches aren’t allowed to move between teams. It also calls for meaningful vetting of coaches and timely investigation into allegations of abuse.
The NWSL said it was reviewing the report. The league and the NWSL Players Association are also conducting an investigation.
“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. 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,” NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman said in a statement. “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.”
Parlow Cone would not speculate on possible discipline for teams across the league.
“This is really systemic, and so the league is going to do what they need to do. U.S. Soccer, we’re going to do what we need to do. But more broadly, we need to make sure that no team, no organization, no individual, no executive is ever allowed to put the players in the position that they were put in,” Parlow Cone said.
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The investigation focused on three former coaches: Riley, Christy Holly of Racing Louisville and Rory Dames of the Chicago Red Stars. The Associated Press reached out to the Thorns, Racing Louisville and the Red Stars for comment but did not receive immediate responses.
The report recounts an April 2021 encounter between Holly and a player, Erin Simon, who now plays in Europe. Holly invited her to watch game film with him and allegedly told her that for every pass she messed up, he was going to touch her. Simon told investigators Holly “pushed his hands down her pants and up her shirt.”
Simon, now with Leicester City, said too many athletes suffer in silence because they are afraid they won’t be heard.
“I know because that is how I felt,” the 28-year-old said in a statement. “Through many difficult days, my faith alone sustained me and kept me going. I want to do everything in my power to ensure that no other player must experience what I did. This report allows our voices to finally be heard and is the first step toward achieving the respectful workplace we all deserve.”
Holly was terminated for cause but Racing Louisville declined to publicly state the reason. Yates’ report noted that Racing did not provide investigators with details about Holly’s employment, citing mutual nondisclosure and non-disparagement clauses.
Farrelly said the harassment she experienced began in 2011 when she was a player with the Philadelphia Independence of the Women’s Professional Soccer league. Riley was her coach.
She told The Athletic the abuse by Riley continued when she was with the Portland Thorns in 2014 and 2015. Shim, a former Thorns player, also said she experienced harassment. Neither is playing in the NWSL now.
The Thorns said they investigated Riley in 2015 while he was with the team and reported the findings to the league. They did not renew his contract but did not make the reasons public.
The report said the Thorns were not forthcoming with certain information and they attempted to prevent investigators from using the team’s 2015 report.
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“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,” Yates wrote.
Riley went on to coach the Western New York Flash, which later moved to North Carolina and was renamed.
When the scandal broke last year, former Thorns forward Alex Morgan posted to social media: “The league was informed of these allegations multiple times and refused multiple times to investigate the allegations. The league must accept responsibility for a process that failed to protect its own players from this abuse.”
Morgan also said Shim and Farrelly asked the NWSL earlier last year for a new investigation into Riley’s behavior but were rebuffed.
The U.S. Women’s National Team Players Association released a statement saying: “All Players and employees deserve to work in an environment free of discrimination, harassment, and abusive conduct. The USWNTPA commends the courage of the survivors, current Players, and former Players who came forward to speak out against abusive practices that have become far too normalized in the NSWL and women’s soccer generally. At the same time, USWNTPA is dismayed that some NWSL clubs and USSF staff impeded the investigation; those who have not done so should fully cooperate with the ongoing NWSL/NWSLPA investigation immediately.”
U.S. Soccer said its board of directors and a leadership team would begin implementing the report’s recommendations immediately.
“U.S. Soccer and the entire soccer community have to do better, and I have faith that we can use this report and its recommendations as a critical turning point for every organization tasked with ensuring player safety,” Parlow Cone said. “We have significant work to do, and we’re committed to doing that work and leading change across the entire soccer community.”