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‘Horrified and Heartbroken.’ Allegations of Abuse Shake U.S. Women’s Soccer

8 minute read

For women soccer players around the world, this was supposed to be a moment of celebration.

On Friday, the two-time defending World Cup champion United States women’s national soccer team will face England, winners of the Euro 2022 tournament, in front of some 90,000 fans at London’s Wembley Stadium. Back in August, after the Lionesses captivated the U.K. with their run to the European championship, the game sold out within 24 hours.

This game is a milestone, a sign of the world’s long-awaited embrace of the women’s game outside the U.S., with England making a direct challenge to American supremacy in the run-up to next year’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

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But allegations of systemic abuse within U.S. women’s soccer and its top pro league, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL)—made in painstaking detail in a report issued by former deputy attorney general Sally Yates on Monday—have cast an uncomfortable pall over this international extravaganza. The report is the result of an investigation conducted at the request of U.S. Soccer by Yates and international law firm King & Spalding, where Yates is a partner in the firm’s special matters and government investigations practice

“We have such a momentous occasion on Friday,” says Alana Cook, a defender for the U.S. National Team who also plays for the Seattle-based NWSL team OL Reign. “It’s marred by this report and it’s marred by the atrocities that have been condoned and tolerated and allowed to go on in the NWSL for the last ten years.”

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Former acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates seen on Capitol Hill May 8, 2017 in Washington, DC.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Allegations of abuse in the NWSL

The document alleges that numerous NWSL coaches subjected players to verbal and emotional abuse. Some coaches stand accused of committing sexual misconduct during or before their time in the league.

The investigation homed in on three coaches. One is Paul Riley, former coach of the Portland Thorns, Western New York Flash, and the North Carolina Courage.

According to Yates’ report, Riley “frequently talked with players about sex and encouraged them to do the same. He fixated on players’ sexual orientations and targeted players with grooming behavior that included late night texts, drinking, and flirtatious comments about their appearance. Riley’s abusive conduct was considered an ‘open secret,’ but it never prompted an institutional response.”

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The report further claims that although “allegations of sexual misconduct against Riley were brought to the attention of leadership, either at the League and/or the Federation [U.S. Soccer] every year from 2015 through 2021, much of Riley’s misconduct remained under wraps” until The Athletic published an investigative story about him in September 2021. (At the time, Riley denied the majority of the accusations.)

Meanwhile, accusations were made against Rory Dames, then head coach of NWSL team Chicago Red Stars, beginning in 2014. Players alleged to U.S. Soccer officials that Dames verbally abused them during games and “created a hostile work environment.” The Yates report said this feedback reached Arnim Whisler, owner of Red Stars.

Dames also ran a youth team, the Eclipse Select Soccer Club. According to the report, former Eclipse players said he insulted them and created a “sexualized team environment—in which he spoke to players about foreplay, oral sex, and their sex lives.” This environment “crossed the line to sexual relationships in multiple cases, though these relationships may have begun after the age of consent.”

One former player recalled Dames asking for “massages, things like that.”

In 2016, Christy Holly was named head coach of the NWSL’s Sky Blue team, based in New Jersey. (The team is now called Gotham FC). The team publicly stated that Sky Blue and Holly mutually agreed to part ways in 2017, and thanked him, but the report claims he was asked to leave because of “verbal abuse” and a “relationship with a player.”

U.S. Soccer then hired him do to contract work for national team programs. “We found no evidence,” the investigators write, “that anyone at [U.S. Soccer] sought to determine the reason for his departure from Sky Blue or conducted any vetting prior to Holly’s work.”

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Racing Louisville, of the NWSL, hired Holly as head coach in August 2020, thanks in part to his work for U.S. Soccer. He allegedly continued his verbal and emotional abuse of players in Louisville and stands accused in the report of sexually coercing a Louisville player.

“He requested that she meet him to review game film at his house, and showed her pornography instead, masturbating in front of her before she left,” the report alleges. “In another incident, again under the pretense of watching game film, he touched her genitals and breasts each time she made an errant pass in the video. In other circumstances, he grabbed and groped her in public, but out of view.”

Louisville terminated Holly but did not give a public reason for the move.

“Louisville has also declined to provide our investigation with any information concerning Holly’s employment, claiming that mutual non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements signed with Holly prevent them from providing any information at all about his tenure with the team,” the investigators write. “As a result, Holly’s misconduct has remained largely unknown, including to anyone who might seek to employ him as a coach.”

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A general view of the National Women's Soccer League logo on the scoreboard during the first half of the NWSL soccer game between NJ/NY Gotham FC and San Diego Wave FC on June 19, 2022 at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, NJ.Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Soccer’s failure to protect women players

The report argues that there has been a widespread institutional failure to protect female soccer players from predatory behavior—findings that have left some players demoralized.

“The players are not doing well,” U.S. soccer captain Becky Sauerbrunn, who plays for NWSL team the Portland Thorns, said on Tuesday from London.

“We are horrified and heartbroken and frustrated and exhausted and really, really angry. We are angry that it took a third party investigation. We are angry that it took an article in The Athletic and The Washington Post and numerous others. We are angry that it took over 200 people sharing their trauma to get to this point right now. And we are angry that it took Mana [Shim] and Sinead [Farrelly] and Erin [Simon] and Kaiya [McCullough] and Alex [Morgan] and Christen [Press] and Sam [Johnson] to repeatedly ask people in authority to take their abuse and their concerns seriously.”

Sauerbrunn says “the people in authority and decision-making positions have repeatedly failed to protect us.” She says “every owner and executive and U.S. Soccer official who has repeatedly failed the players and failed to protect the players, who has hidden behind legalities and has not participated fully in these these investigations, should be gone.”

Merritt Paulson, owner of the Portland Thorns, and the Portland Timbers of Major League Soccer, announced Tuesday that he would remove himself and executives Gavin Wilkinson and Mike Golub from all Thorns-related decision making, effective immediately.

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Red Stars owner Whisler said he would step aside from his governance role and hand control of the Red Stars do his executive team in Chicago.

In one of the most sobering sections of the report, investigators wrote that abuse in women’s professional leagues “appears rooted” in youth soccer.

“While the scope of our investigation was limited to allegations of misconduct in the League, some of the coaches whose conduct we examined had significant connections to youth soccer, and, in Dames’s case, were also reported to have been abusive as youth coaches,” says the report.

“During the course of our investigation, we confronted multiple historical reports of verbal and sexual abuse of youth soccer players. Players also told us that their experiences of verbal abuse and blurred relationships with coaches in youth soccer impacted their ability to discern what was out of bounds in the NWSL.”

Despite the tumult Sauerbrunn—a key leader in the women soccer’s team protracted, and ultimately successful fight for pay equity with the men’s team—remains defiant before the U.S. prepares to take the field against England.

“For so long, the passion for the game has been taken away from players because of the abuse that they have faced in this league,” she says. “I’m done allowing that to happen.”

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com