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Investigation finds systemic abuse, misconduct within women’s professional soccer

Oct 4, 2022, 5:00 AM | Updated: 11:11 am
NWSL...
FILE: A Nike Merlin official NWSL match soccer ball sits on the grass field during the National Womens Soccer League (NWSL) game between the North Carolina Courage and Washington Spirit June 29, 2019 at Maureen Hendricks Field at Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds, MD. (Randy Litzinger /Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
(Randy Litzinger /Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Originally Published: 03 OCT 22 14:24 ET
Updated: 03 OCT 22 18:23 ET

(CNN) — An independent investigation has found systemic abuse and misconduct within women’s professional soccer in the United States.

The report, led by former acting attorney general Sally Q. Yates and released Monday, was based on more than 200 interviews and reveals the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) under the US Soccer Federation (USSF) failed to provide a safe environment for players.

“Our  investigation has revealed a league (NWSL) 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.”

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The report comes about a year after the 12-team NWSL was thrown into chaos following a report by The Athletic detailing allegations of sexual coercion and misconduct against Paul Riley, who coached three NWSL franchises over eight seasons. He was fired by the North Carolina Courage after The Athletic cited players on the record alleging that for years, Riley used his influence and power to sexually harass players and in one incident, coerce a player into having sex with him.

Riley denied the accusations in the report. CNN has not been able to reach Riley for comment.

In the wake of that report, then-NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird resigned and the league called off all matches scheduled for that weekend. By the end of the year, half of the league’s teams had parted ways with their coaches after player complaints, the Yates report notes.

Monday’s report states that sexual misconduct and abuse was far more widespread than just one coach or incident.

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“In well over 200 interviews, 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 states. “Even more disturbing were the stories of sexual misconduct. Players described a pattern of sexually charged comments, unwanted sexual advances and sexual touching, and coercive sexual intercourse.”

The league said Monday it would review the findings.

“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,” the league said in a statement.

The league’s own investigation in conjunction with the players’ union is ongoing, the NWSL said.

The Yates report features submitted first-hand accounts from players who describe abuses from head coaches as well as team management.

In one case, a head coach allegedly asked a player to review match footage 1-on-1 at his house only to show pornography instead. According to the report, the same manager “sexually coerced” that player and “grabbed and groped her in public, but out of view.”

There are multiple allegations or findings in the report of sexual harassment and misconduct by head coaches.

The report notes abusive coaches were able to move from team to team despite accusations levied against them because the league and the federation feared the organizations could be named in any potential defamation or employment lawsuits.

Yates recommends a public “list of individuals disciplined, suspended, or banned by USSF, a USSF Organization Member, or SafeSport.”

The US Center for SafeSport is an organization authorized by Congress and designed to end sexual, emotional and physical abuse in Olympic sports.

“This is very emotional for me, and honestly I’m having trouble absorbing everything in the report,” US Soccer President Cindy Parlow Cone told reporters during a video conference call. “I think it will take some time to really read through it and think about the actions and inactions of certain people and then will take us some time to think about what needs to be done in terms of discipline.”

Earlier, she said the US Soccer Federation, as the national governing body for soccer, “is fully committed to doing everything in its power to ensure that all players — at all levels — have a safe and respectful place to learn, grow and compete.”

The NWSL players association praised the players who cooperated with the investigation and spoke up about the abuse and misconduct.

“As difficult as this report is to read, it has been even more painful for Players, whether known or unknown, to live it. We appreciate their efforts to seek the truth in support of our work to transform NWSL,” the association said.

“These stories have inspired us to engage in collective action to bring about change. By sharing our stories, Players are reclaiming the League and the sport,” the association added.

US Soccer initiated the investigation a year ago by hiring Yates and the legal firm King and Spalding to review allegations, conduct interviews and recommend solutions. The federation says it gave Yates and the firm full autonomy and access in order to produce a complete, independent report.

A US Soccer statement noted the federation’s board of directors had voted to release the full report on Monday while preserving “victim privacy and confidentiality.”

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Investigation finds systemic abuse, misconduct within women’s professional soccer