NWSL Report: With great power came no responsibility

On Wednesday, the NWSL and the NWSL Players Association published a 125 page report detailing the findings of a joint 14-month investigation into abuse and misconduct experienced by NWSL players. A similar report, following an investigation commissioned by US Soccer and led by Sally Yates, was published in October, and the new joint report echoes many of its findings, while offering some new details and recommendations. While Yates’ report focused primarily on three coaches: Paul Riley, Rory Dames and Christy Holly, the joint report implicates several additional coaches, administrators and organizations. “Misconduct against players has occurred in the vast majority of NWSL clubs at various times, from the League’s early years to the present,” the new report reads.

In recent years, reporters and players have documented the league’s dysfunctional culture, in which coaches frequently crossed professional lines, made unwanted advances toward players and retaliated against players who resisted or spoke up. The joint report paints a picture of a league profoundly inadequate to address this abuse and misconduct; the actual channels for reporting player concerns were flawed and unclear, and league leaders and authority figures could rarely be trusted to take such concerns seriously.

One of the reports that prompted the NWSL/NWSLPA investigation was a Washington Post story about richie burke, the former head coach of the Washington Spirit, whom former players described as verbally and emotionally abusive. The Spirit players told investigators “that they felt it was useless to report the incidents to the club’s owners or general manager, as ‘they were known to be just friends anyway’.” The report contains accounts of this same cozy dynamic between coaches and management. also players from five other clubs.

Some of the new stories concern Houston Dash head coach James Clarkson, who was suspended in April pending this investigation; The Dash announced Wednesday that they would not renew his contract after the investigation found that he acted in a manner “detrimental to the emotional well-being of the players.” Clarkson served in the roles of head coach and general manager at Houston, which one player described as “a nightmare” to navigate.

In one particularly egregious example outlined in the report, a player had no idea where to report misconduct because the perpetrator of the misconduct was her team’s general manager. Gotham FC fired general manager Alyse LaHue in 2021, but she only said at the time that she had been fired following a league investigation “into an allegation of a violation of league policy.” Wednesday’s report includes a new story from a player who recalled LaHue repeatedly crossing professional boundaries and sending him inappropriate text messages, “even after the player told LaHue he felt LaHue was acting like a ‘jealous girlfriend’. ‘ and asked LaHue to ‘accept that we are working together and nothing more.’

In text messages, LaHue also expressed emotional trust in the player and repeatedly questioned the player’s interactions with another person, stating in one message: “[Y]You knew that I would be angry that you talked to [her] Bye. Why not adjust? Why not talk to me?” The player said LaHue was also critical of her religious beliefs and told her that she and other team members who shared those beliefs were considered critical.

Another team member said LaHue paid special attention to this player, describing instances where he believed LaHue was providing preferential treatment or seeking to be close to the player. This team member said that he had not experienced a similar situation in a professional environment. During the 2021 League’s investigation into LaHue’s conduct prior to his firing, several staff members reported that LaHue behaved differently towards this player. As one staff member explained, “there was always a lot of interest and attention” in this player from LaHue.

When players tried to report misconduct, they risked being ignored. The report explains that some players used “annual” player surveys (in some years, they were not distributed “due to bandwidth and resource limitations”) as an opportunity to report misconduct. This section of the report, with interviews from people who received copies of the results of this survey, reads like a hot potato game in which no one will admit to being responsible for anything. The NWSL was administered by US Soccer until the end of 2020, but former US Soccer president Sunil Gulati says he did not believe US Soccer had the ability to discipline head coaches. USWNT head coach Jill Ellis, for her part, says the national team players were supposed to take their concerns to Gulati. In 2014, the NWSL sent player survey results to Arnim Whisler, owner of the Chicago Red Stars. Those results included “several negative comments” about Rory Dames, then the Red Stars’ head coach. Whisler’s response to the email was “I’m not sure how you want me to respond.”

The consequence of no one intervening or even communicating properly was, of course, that nothing changed. Several abusive coaches have been allowed to continue working in the NWSL, in some cases even after being charged with misconduct. Lisa Levine, the NWSL’s general counsel from 2017 to 2021, looks particularly bad in this report. The joint report says she did not share information that could have deterred North Carolina Courage from hiring Paul Riley, who had been fired from the Portland Thorns for sexual misconduct in 2015. (At the time, the Thorns did not share the reason for your decision). firing him, and only thanked him “for his service”). Riley continued to train until 2021, when a story in The Athletic made the allegations against him public. When asked why the NWSL had not adequately addressed the 2015 complaints, Levine “deflected criticism of the NWSL’s inaction in response to these complaints onto the players themselves,” the report says. Lydia Wahlke, US Soccer’s legal director from 2017 to 2020, also failed to “act on the evidence” of misconduct. The Christen Press filed a complaint about Dames’ behavior with US Soccer in 2018, but Wahlke never suspended Dames during the investigation, despite receiving regular updates from investigators. She also did not share the investigation’s findings with the Red Stars or the NWSL, leaving the Red Stars and the players “with the impression that US Soccer found Dames’ behavior acceptable.”

The report’s final summary of misconduct identifies 12 different coaches, eight clubs, three US Soccer officials and three NWSL executives “who must be held accountable for acts of interpersonal misconduct directed at players and for failures to institutions related to women’s professional football to prevent and address this misconduct.”

Many of the people named are no longer with the league or federation, but the report notes that the NWSL will have to do more than hand out individual punishments to win back player trust. That job is much more difficult. The “shaky history” of women’s professional soccer in the US created a breeding ground for this type of misconduct, the report says. The players feared causing serious financial and reputational damage to their clubs by speaking out, and “uncertainty over the stability of the League may also have influenced how potential issues and concerns were addressed by League leaders and managers.” .

This particular defensive crouch will be familiar to any fan of a women’s league, and those fans already know that it all ends up being pretty self-fulfilling. (You can choose to read as much or as little as you like about this report that comes out just minutes after a World Cup semi-final kicked off.) The report notes that some clubs “withheld key documents…until the end of this investigation.” On Thursday, Racing Louisville, one of the named retainers, posted a declaration essentially congratulating themselves for having “finally fully cooperated by making staff available for interviews and providing the requested documents.” As the report states, the players “bravely recounted painful and personal experiences before and during this investigation in the service of truth, accountability and reform.” The least they’re owed is some honesty, and maybe some bravery, in return.

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