Emotional abuse, sexual misconduct systemic in women’s soccer, investigation finds
An investigative report published Monday found evidence of systemic emotional abuse and sexual misconduct in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) spanning across multiple teams and coaches.
The 319-page report was commissioned by the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) and led by former Obama Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, now with international law firm King & Spalding.
Yates said she found evidence that NWSL abuse 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.”
“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 reads. “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.”
In addition to the interviews, Yates and her team combed through some 89,000 documents provided by USSF related to the abuse allegations and reviewed other documents from about 24 entities and individuals.
The report faults both USSF and NWSL for perpetuating a system of abuse, including a failure to put in place measures to protect athletes, address reports and evidence of misconduct and stop coaches who abused players from moving around the league.
U.S. Soccer President Cindy Parlow Cone said the investigation’s findings were “heartbreaking and deeply troubling.”
“The abuse described is inexcusable and has no place on any playing field, in any training facility or workplace,” Cone said in a statement. “We are taking the immediate action that we can today, and will convene leaders in soccer at all levels across the country to collaborate on the recommendations so we can create meaningful, long-lasting change throughout the soccer ecosystem.”
USSF commissioned the report after a series of abuse scandals in the NWSL made major headlines last year.
In October 2021, Commissioner Lisa Baird resigned just days after The Athletic published a story about North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley sexually coercing players since 2010, including forcing two players to kiss in front of him. RIley was fired following the allegations.
Washington Spirit coach Richie Burke was also fired that same week after he was accused of verbally and emotionally abusing players.
The investigative report published Monday centers on allegations of abuse from Riley, Chicago Red Stars former coach Rory Dames and former Racing Louisville head coach Christy Holly.
Dames, who owns the suburban Chicago Eclipse Select Soccer Club, an elite youth soccer club, is accused in the report of a decades-long pattern of berating, degrading and humiliating players.
He also engaged in sexual relationships with multiple players, according to the report, although Yates said they had reached the age of consent.
Dames resigned from the Red Stars but is still the owner of Chicago Eclipse with the ability to keep coaching.
Yates began her report with Holly, who is accused of abusing players, including Erin Simon, for years during his career.
In one instance, Holly met privately with Simon, who had seen him as a mentor, and told her he would touch her “for every pass you f—- up.”
Yates said he did inappropriately touch Simon, and after the meeting she went home crying. Holly resigned from Racing Louisville.
But prior to that, Holly had resigned from another team, Sky Blue, amid similar allegations of misconduct, which the report detailed was evidence that allegations of misconduct are often overlooked in the NWSL.
The report lists multiple recommendations to address the widespread abuse, including clearer policies, enhanced transparency for reporting misconduct in the league and a stricter coaching licensing system to strip licenses from offenders.
“These recommendations are not exhaustive,” the report reads. “Rather, they are intended to provide a framework to confront the institutional failures that perpetuated misconduct and provide a safe and respectful environment for professional women soccer player.”