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NWSL investigation finds misconduct at ‘vast majority’ of clubs

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This is a developing story and will be updated.

The underlying culture of the National Women’s Soccer League created “fertile ground for misconduct to go unreported,” according to a new investigation, which found the league’s financial instability and unbalanced power dynamics opened the door for rampant abuse across several teams and involving multiple coaches and team administrators.

The investigation is the second prominent probe into abuses across the women’s soccer world, this one at the behest of the NWSL and the players’ union. The 125-page report, issued Wednesday, included a new account of abuse involving Paul Riley, the former Portland Thorns’ coach, and previously unreported details on the firing of former NY/NJ Gotham FC general manager Alyse LaHue and the suspension of Houston Dash coach and general manager James Clarkson.

Similar to a report conducted by U.S. Soccer, which was released in October, the NWSL investigation details misconduct by Riley; Rory Dames, the former coach of the Chicago Red Stars; and Christy Holly, the former Louisville Racing coach. But the NWSL report also highlights a half-dozen other coaches and focuses on the missteps and mismanagement of the league’s teams and team owners, including the conduct of eight teams that ignored or mishandled complaints and warning signs of abuse.

“This report clearly reflects how our league systemically failed to protect our players,” NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman said in a statement Wednesday. “On behalf of the Board and the league, let me first and foremost sincerely apologize to our players for those failures and missteps. They deserve, at a minimum, a safe and secure environment to participate at the highest level in a sport they love, and they have my unwavering commitment that delivering that change will remain a priority each and every day.”

In addition to instances of sexual abuse and manipulation, which have been revealed in previous media reports and the U.S. Soccer probe, the NWSL’s investigation found that “staff in positions of power made inappropriate sexual remarks to players, mocked players’ bodies, pressured players to lose unhealthy amounts of weight, crossed professional boundaries with players, and created volatile and manipulative working conditions. They used derogatory and insulting language towards players, displayed insensitivity towards players’ mental health, and engaged in retaliation against players who attempted to report or did report concerns.”

U.S. Soccer ‘failed’ women’s players, report finds, as new abuse claims emerge

According to the new report, “misconduct against players has occurred at the vast majority of NWSL clubs at various times from the earliest years of the League to the present.”

“Players were frequently reminded of the fragility and financial instability of the League. From the early days of the League, they were told to be grateful, loyal, and acquiescent, even as they were not afforded the resources or respect due to professional athletes,” the report states. “Players told the Joint Investigative Team that this environment dissuaded them from reporting misconduct. Compounding this effect, the League lacked trainings, policies, and other resources on harassment, abuse, and other forms of misconduct.”

The report was a product of a joint investigation conducted by two law firms: Covington & Burling, on behalf of the league, and Weil, Gotshal & Manges, hired by the NWSL Players Association. Investigators reviewed 200,000 documents and interviewed around 100 current and former NWSL players, in addition to 90 current and former club employees.

The probe was launched in October, shortly after The Washington Post and the Athletic reported allegations of abuse at several clubs, prompting players to demand action from the sport’s stakeholders. U.S. Soccer hired Sally Q. Yates, the former acting attorney general, to conduct a separate investigation around the same time. In the wake of that report, Portland Thorns’ owner Merritt Paulson announced that he was selling the club, team administrators were fired and coach Rhian Wilkinson resigned. Chicago Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler surrendered day-to-day control and earlier this month announced that he was selling the team. In all, eight of the league’s 10 coaches have lost their jobs, and NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird resigned.

The NWSL report details many of the same abuses, fleshing out some details and analyzing why misconduct was allowed persist. Many instances involved authority figures who failed players — and in some cases were at the heart of the problem.

Perspective: Another ‘report’ on abuse in women’s sports. When is enough enough?

LaHue, Gotham’s general manager from 2019-21, “made unwanted sexual advances toward a player,” according to the report, sending inappropriate text messages, questioning the player’s interactions with others and pressing the player for more attention. She sent the player text messages that read, “You were in my dream last night. Getting a massage,” and “I don’t see us as friends.”

The club fired LaHue last July. According to the report, LaHue denied the allegations. Her attorney did not immediately return a message seeking comment Wednesday.

The NWSL didn’t wait to act on investigators’ findings, the report says. Orlando Pride coaches Amanda Cromwell and Sam Greene were fired in October for retaliating against players; Houston’s Clarkson was suspended.

According to the NWSL report, Clarkson “communicated with players in a manner that created anxiety and fear for multiple players.”

“In one instance, Clarkson suspected that players had been drinking alcohol the night before a game, so he convened the players and reprimanded them in a manner that left multiple players feeling scared and attacked,” the report states. Clarkson was suspended in April, and the club at the time said a final decision on his status would be made at the conclusion of the NWSL investigation.

Shortly after the report was released Wednesday, the Dash announced that it would not be renewing Clarkson’s contract, which is set to expire at the end of the month. “We apologize to players, present and former, who were subject to misconduct by James Clarkson,” the team said in a statement. “…Our vision of building and maintaining a culture of excellence on and off the pitch starts with cultivating a respectful and healthy working environment.”

Across the league, the report found a deep-seated culture in which players didn’t feel empowered to report complaints and boundary lines between players and coaches were often blurred.

“Players from marginalized backgrounds, or with the least job security, were often targets of misconduct,” the report states. “At the same time, these players faced the greatest barriers to speaking out about or obtaining redress for what they experienced.”

The report details for the first time the experience of Kaleigh Kurtz, who played for Riley with the North Carolina Courage. She told investigators she didn’t initially report Riley’s behavior out of fear of being called a “troublemaker.” The report describes manipulative and volatile behavior from Riley, and Kurtz told investigators she felt she was being groomed for sexual abuse.

At one point, Riley demanded Kurtz lose 14 pounds to retain her starting position, telling her, “I hope you know I’m doing this because I love you.” Kurtz requested a trade, which the team failed to execute. Riley was fired by the Courage in September 2021, after the Athletic reported on abuse allegations that stemmed from his time coaching in Portland, which he has denied. He did not meet with NWSL investigators and was not immediately available for comment Wednesday.

Rory Dames was accused of misconduct decades ago. He coached his way to prominence anyway.

The NWSL report spreads blame to U.S. Soccer. Coach misconduct was “inadequately investigated or addressed,” it says, and coaches were allowed to pursue new jobs across the league even after complaints had been substantiated.

“Leaders from U.S. Soccer avoided taking responsibility for systemic failures to protect players, contending that decision-making authority and the responsibility to address misconduct lay with the NWSL and club owners,” the report says.

U.S. Soccer has embarked on a series of reforms in the wake of the Yates’ report.

“It’s been over two months since the release of the Yates’ report, and we’ve already seen it have big impacts across our game,” U.S. Soccer President Cindy Parlow Cone said this week. “As challenging as it is to read the report, the report has and we will continue to make our sport better. Participant safety is our top priority, and the Yates’ report gave us a road map to make the changes that we are now working diligently on.”

The organization intends to publicly share its action plan to implement Yates’s recommendations by Jan. 31. It has hired Mana Shim to chair a player safety task force. Shim was among the first players to speak publicly about abuse and misconduct, which she experienced while playing for Riley in Portland, and she now has a key role in crafting the policies that will help current and future players.

“We’re making progress,” she said this week. “…I feel empowered and excited about what we’re doing.”

While many of the coaches cited in the two investigations are no longer working in the league, the NWSL report makes a series of wide-reaching recommendations for league officials. They include revising the anti-harassment policy; establishing clear guidelines for appropriate meeting places; consider guidelines for supervisors socializing with players; provide written guidance that makes clear comments and jokes about a player’s weight are unacceptable; requiring separate housing accommodations for players and club staff; and mandatory training covering anti-bullying, anti-harassment and anti-racism.

“This will be an ongoing process of improving and strengthening our league,” said the NWSL’s Berman.

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