How the NWSL and USSF colluded to hide sexual abuse over the years

Throughout 2020 and 2021, allegations of sexual misconduct by long tenured coaches in the league (Richie Burke, Rory Dames, Christy Holly, and Paul Riley) were reported on extensively by major outlets that cover the NWSL. All of the coaches were fired, and in one case a franchise changed owners (the Washington Spirit).

This week, the Sally Yates Report (found here) outlined extensive details about lack of basic workplace policies, poor league conditions, systematic abuse, and more allegations about coaches in the NWSL and the management structures within teams, the league, and the USSF who knew for almost a decade about these problems.

This presents a problem of collusion. According to Yates, “In general, teams, the NWSL, and USSF appear to have prioritized concerns of legal exposure to litigation by coaches — and the risk of drawing negative attention to the team or League — over player safety and well-being.”. Below we will attempt to outline how teams, the league, and the federation colluded to shield these abusers.

The Sexual Abusers

The collusion centers around the sexual abuse performed over the years by coaches towards their players. Findings from the investigation put a lot of emphasis on three coaches who have been accused of various sexual assaults and abuses: former Racing Louisville coach Christy Holly, former Portland Thorns/North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley, and former Chicago Red Stars coach Rory Dames. It provides fresh insight into the wrongdoing of these three coaches as well as the numerous instances in which team owners, U.S. Soccer officials, and others disregarded players’ concerns and warnings about them.

Christy Holly

Players at Gotham FC (known as Sky Blue FC during Holly’s tenure as coach) complained that Holly was “paranoid, ultra-aggressive, short-tempered, nasty, mean, patronizing, humiliating,” and they also said he was involved romantically with one of the players, according to the Yates report. He was asked to leave due to these allegations in 2017, but the club afterwards described the separation as “mutually accepted,” thanking him for his service.

He was appointed as the inaugural head coach of Racing Louisville in 2019, citing his time with U.S. Soccer as justification. He allegedly carried on his actions from his time at Gotham FC and began to harass a specific player sexually by sending her “sexually graphic photographs and messages” and demanded she do the same for him. According to the Yates report, he invited her to his residence to examine a game film but instead showed her pornography and masturbated in front of her.

In another instance, he threatened to touch her “with every pass [she] f—-ed up” while pretending to be viewing game tape. The report says “He forced his hands up her top and down her pants. She crossed her legs tightly and attempted to push him away while laughing to placate him. She departed when the video was over. [The player] started crying when her teammate came to pick her up to drive home.”

Louisville sacked him on August 31, 2021, following a prompt investigation. The club did publicly announce that Holly had been fired for cause, but it chose not to provide further information.

Paul Riley

Following the Athletic investigation that exposed Riley’s sexual harassment and coercion of players while coaching the Portland Thorns from 2014 to 2015, Riley was fired by the North Carolina Courage last year. One athlete, Mana Shim, said that in 2015, she had informed the Thorns’ management team and the NWSL about Riley’s conduct.

Despite Shim giving documents of Riley’s persistent harassment, including a text he sent to her that stated, “I am so horny I want to f—- you,” the club’s inquiry report from The Thorns did not mention the words “sexual” or “harassment” anywhere. Shim says that Riley’s retaliations against her were likewise left out of the Thorns report. The Thorns privately fired Riley, but publicly the club said it was not renewing his contract and thanked him for his service.

Rory Dames

In 1998, Dames was accused of abusing young players at Chicago Eclipse Select, and one of those players even went so far as to file a police report. Another person reported hearing reports about Dames dating other players, while one player claimed he made sexual remarks to other players.

According to the investigation, Dames promoted a “sexualized team environment” at Eclipse by talking to the players about foreplay, oral sex, and their own sex lives. According to the investigation, it appears that those discussions took place after players had attained “the age of consent,” although one athlete told investigators she remembered Dames discussing “the age of consent” and “how it was lower in various locations” with another coach.

Christen Press, a star for the U.S. national team and former Red Stars player, stated in notes assembled for a formal complaint about Dames that “I think Rory emotionally abuses people.” Many players over the years say they have seen Dames purposefully obfuscate the line between player and coach in a way that unnerved them and their teammates. One in particular said Dames showed a special interest in her from the moment she came in Chicago as a rookie that went well beyond soccer. She says that he frequently questioned her about her personal matters, including her relationship with her partner, with other players having very similar stories.

How teams protected Abusers

Teams were the main enablers of the sexual abuse by coaches and were at the front lines of the collusion. They didn’t have a human resources department and did not do their homework before hiring coaches. According to the report, this led to “the systemic abuse of players.” Riley, Dames, and Holly are all married to former players, which “desensitized the system to power imbalances,” the report says, adding that sexual interactions between players and coaches had also become commonplace.

When team owners received information about issues from league surveys and complaints, they “either minimized the reports” by asserting that the players wanted to end the NWSL or the coach had been moved to a different position, or they “ignored them completely.” In other instances, players were advised to express their gratitude for the chance to play professional soccer.

The rare occasions when inquiries were made “frequently narrowly focused on whether a coach’s conduct was ‘unlawful’ rather than whether it was abusive or even appropriate for a coach of professional women athletes.” Teams “repeatedly failed to adequately or accurately disclose the reasons for a coach’s separation,” which allowed coaches to move freely between clubs and the federation.

Gotham FC and Racing Louisville FC

Holly was employed by both Gotham FC and Racing Louisville FC. Racing Louisville apparently didn’t perform any type of background check on his time with Gotham, and neither reported any of his sexual abuse to criminal investigators, the league, or the federation.

Portland Thorns and the North Carolina Courage

The Thorns previously acknowledged that they gave Paul Riley a strong recommendation for the position with the Courage from club general manager Gavin Wilkinson, but claimed that his endorsement was solely based on Riley’s coaching abilities. However, the Yates investigation disputes that account. The federation and the league were told that Riley was “put in a poor situation by the player,” and that Gavin Wilkinson would “hire [Riley] in a heartbeat.” According to The Courage, Wilkinson “mentioned only one incident with an unhappy player” and advised the team to “get him if we could” by hiring Riley.

When Riley’s name was floated as a potential USWNT coaching candidate in 2018, Paulson and North Carolina Courage owner Steve Malik agreed that Riley withdrawing from consideration for the position would “be a good idea.”, to prevent the circumstances surrounding Riley’s departure from the Thorns from becoming public knowledge. According to messages retrieved by the investigators, Paulson tried to conceal Riley’s termination from Malik by texting Malik the following: “When Paul left us, his contract was up, and we decided not to renew it. Technicality, yet there is a difference.”

According to the report, Portland had a culture in which offensive remarks made to female players and employees appeared to be tolerated or even ignored. Allegedly, Mike Golub, the president of business operations for the Portland Timbers/Thorns, asked Cindy Parlow Cone, a former coach, “What’s on your bucket list except sleeping with me?” According to the story, Cone (currently the president of U.S. Soccer) notified owner Merritt Paulson about the incident after it happened and expressed his regret that she hadn’t informed him at the time.

The Chicago Red Stars

Dames served as the head coach of the Chicago Red Stars from 2013-2021. The Red Stars “never executed a background check and did not exercise any due diligence prior to his hiring, relying instead on the reputation of his youth team, the Eclipse Select Soccer Club,” according to the report. They hired him knowing he didn’t have a coaching license and applied for a coaching waiver on his behalf for most of his tenure.

From the start, Red Stars players who participated in NWSL questionnaires in 2014 and 2015 said that Dames was “abusive” and “unprofessional.” The report claims that Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler acknowledged being aware of these complaints but mostly discounted them, attributing them to “Rory being Rory.”

The Yates report states that: “Players and staff recall that practically every year that Dames was the head coach at CRS, complaints were made regarding his verbal and emotional abuse. One participant, for instance, stated that Whisler repeatedly inquired about her concerns regarding Dames, asking each time: “Was he a little bit better this year?”” After a while, the athlete ceased complaining to Whisler about Dames’ actions, calling it “a lost cause.”

How the NWSL enabled teams

The league directly assisted in enabling the sexual abuse by coaches and aided in the collusion to keep it a secret. The report says that “both U.S. Soccer and the league failed to implement the most fundamental of labor protections.” For most of the league’s ten-year existence, it lacked anti-harassment, anti-retaliation, and no-fraternization policies, as well as channels for players to report improper conduct.

Protecting Paul Riley

In an anonymous player poll conducted by the NWSL, players described Riley as being “destructive,” “verbally abusive, sexist, and s—- on [the] players every day.” The survey results were discussed with then USSF President Sunil Gulati, and then NWSL Executive Director Cheryl Bailey, but no one gave them to the teams, and nothing was done.

The Thorns stated Riley was found to have sent “inappropriate texts,” offered beer to players, encouraged a player to stay in his hotel room, danced with her, and “touched her while doing so,” according to the Thorns’ inquiry about incidents in 2015. Following that, officials from the NWSL decided not to punish Riley, “by suspending his license or otherwise”. Within a short period of time, Riley was hired by the North Carolina Courage.

Protecting Rory Dames

The executive director of the NWSL at the time was informed by Whisler that Dames had “offered his resignation due of the embarrassment” of the player comments, but Whisler had refused it. This was after the 2014 player survey. Dames continued to coach the Red Stars without a coaching license for most of his tenure.

Samantha Johnson complained to the NWSL in 2018 about Dames, claiming he was “engaged in inappropriate relationships with players.” She said that when she had previously attempted to inform Whisler of her accusations, he had rejected her worries. According to the report, Whisler informed the league that Johnson had complained and that the player was “trying to take Rory out.” Johnson’s complaint was reviewed with Dames by Whisler and six days after she filed it she was traded to the Utah Royals.

The Federation turning a blind eye

The USSF should have been the place that players could ultimately seek some relief and justice from all the sexual abuse and problems they were encountering from these problematic coaches. Instead, they were also enablers to the abuse and colluded to keep this abuse a secret. Although no current U.S. Soccer administrators are mentioned in the study as direct enablers, the current president of the USSF was a victim of a teams malfeasance and previous U.S. Soccer executives were aware of the abuse and failed to take action. The NWSL was founded by U.S. Soccer and was managed by the federation until last year.

Christy Holly

Holly worked as a U.S. Soccer scout on a temporary basis and assisted with coaching the youth women’s national teams. Sally Yates noted that there was “no evidence that anyone at USSF attempted to ascertain the cause for his departure from Sky Blue or did any vetting prior to Holly’s work for USSF.”

Paul Riley

Red flags were raised regarding Riley as early as 2014, during his first campaign in Portland, but former U.S. Soccer CEO Dan Flynn and former U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati did nothing in response to player complaints.

In 2014, USWNT players complained to Flynn, Gulati, and then USWNT head coach Jill Ellis that Riley “belittle[d],” “verbally abuse[d],” and “created a toxic environment” toward them. When Riley was mentioned publicly as a prospective candidate for the open U.S. women’s national team coaching position in 2018 and again in 2019, the union for the U.S. women’s national team, the USWNTPA, alerted the federation about Riley’s behavior. Riley publicly withdrew himself from consideration “after at least 14 conversations among 11 persons at the Federation, the League, the Portland Thorns, and the NC Courage,” according to the report.

Rory Dames

USWNT players condemned Dames as fostering “a hostile environment” and verbally abusing players when they expressed concerns about Riley to Gulati and Ellis in 2014. Owner of the Red Stars Arnim Whisler was informed of this criticism, and according to the article, Whisler “complained that the National Team players wanted ‘this league to shut down’ and just had an ‘axe to grind’ with Dames.”

Even though Press complained to the USSF about Dames in 2018, he was still permitted to coach in the NWSL up until last year (without a license) as the Washington Post prepared to release its investigation into claims the team had previously ignored.

The Yates report states that Press’ accusation “prompted USSF to retain outside counsel to investigate.” The report goes on to say: “Although the scope of the investigation into Dames’s behavior was constrained, the report that was produced supported many of the players’ main grievances. The inquiry report was given to Lydia Wahlke, USSF’s Chief Legal Officer, but she didn’t disseminate it inside the Federation or explain its conclusions in-depth to the NWSL or Whisler.”

What’s next for the NWSL

So what will happen to the NWSL? That depends on what comes from this report. The point of no return for the league is the justice system. If this report doesn’t result in any legal action by the effected women across the league then there probably won’t be much substantive reform coming in the next months or years regarding team ownership, league policies, and national federation policies.

Yates has made administrative and organizational recommendations but the USSF is constrained in its ability to enforce any disciplinary actions. Given that restriction, it will ultimately be up to the NWSL to hold bad actors who are still affiliated with the league accountable.

However, if this report results in criminal charges or civil lawsuits then it’s far more likely that teams, the league, and the national federation will suffer. Criminal charges against the individual coaches could result in jail time for them, and additionally that significantly increases the likelihood of civil lawsuits against the federation, the NWSL, and individual teams that could bankrupt the national federation (see USA Gymnastics) and would most likely be the end of this iteration of a Women’s Professional Soccer League in the United States.

Systems need to be put in place to protect players from coaches abusing players in the women’s game. The question is what will it take for the collusion that happened between the teams, the league, and the federation that enabled this behavior to never happen again.

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