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NWSL Report: With Great Power Came No Responsibility

HARRISON, NJ - JULY 31: The digital signage shows the NWSL logo on it before the National Women's Soccer League match between NJ/NY Gotham FC and the Houston Dash at Red Bull Arena on July 31, 2022 in Harrison, New Jersey.
Ira L. Black - Corbis/Getty Images

On Wednesday, the NWSL and NWSL Players Association released a 125-page report detailing the findings of a 14-month joint investigation into abuse and misconduct experienced by NWSL players. A similar report, following an investigation commissioned by U.S. Soccer and led by Sally Yates, had been released in October, and the new joint report echoes many of its findings, while also offering some new details and recommendations. Where the Yates report focused mostly 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 at the vast majority of NWSL clubs at various times, from the earliest years of the League to the present," the new report says.

Over the last several 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 out. The joint report paints a picture of a league profoundly ill-suited 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 relied upon to take those 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. Spirit players told investigators "that they felt it was futile to report incidents to ownership or the club’s general manager, as 'it was known that they were all just friends anyways.'" The report contains accounts of this same cozy dynamic between coaches and management from players at five other clubs, too.

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 be renewing his contract following the investigation's finding that he acted in ways "detrimental to players' emotional wellbeing." Clarkson held both the head coach and general manager roles in Houston, which one player described as "a nightmare" to navigate.

In one especially egregious example described 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 only said at the time that she had been fired following a league investigation "into a complaint of violation of League policy." Wednesday's report includes a new story from a player who recalled LaHue repeatedly crossing professional boundaries, sending the player inappropriate text messages, "even after the player told LaHue that it felt like 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 an emotional reliance on the player and repeatedly questioned the player’s interactions with another individual, stating in one message, “[Y]ou knew I’d be mad about you talking to [her] so long. Why not adjust? Why not talk to me?” The player said that LaHue was also critical of her religious beliefs and told her that she and other team members who shared those beliefs were seen as judgmental.

Another member of the team said that LaHue paid special attention to this player and described instances in which she believed LaHue provided preferential treatment or sought to be close to the player. This team member said she had not experienced a similar situation in a professional environment. During the League’s 2021 investigation into LaHue’s conduct before her termination, multiple staff members reported that LaHue behaved differently around this player. As one staff member explained, there had “always been a high interest and attention” in this player by LaHue.

When players did attempt to report misconduct, they risked being ignored. The report explains that some players used "annual" player surveys (in some years, they weren't distributed "due to bandwidth and resource constraints") as an opportunity to report misconduct. This section of the report, with interviews from people who received copies of these survey results, reads like a game of hot potato in which nobody will admit to being responsible for anything. The NWSL was managed by U.S. Soccer through the end of 2020, but former U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati says he didn't think U.S. Soccer had the ability to discipline head coaches. USWNT head coach Jill Ellis, for her part, says national team players were supposed to take their concerns to Gulati. In 2014, the NWSL forwarded player survey results to Chicago Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler. 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 ever intervening or even communicating properly was, naturally, that nothing changed. Several abusive coaches were allowed to continue working in the NWSL, in some cases even after they had been accused of misconduct. Lisa Levine, the NWSL's general counsel from 2017 to 2021, comes off looking particularly bad in this report. The joint report says she failed to share information that might have dissuaded the 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 didn't share their reason for firing him, and only thanked him "for his service.") Riley continued coaching until 2021, when a story in The Athletic made the allegations against him public. When she was asked why the NWSL hadn't properly addressed the 2015 complaints, Levine "deflected criticism of the NWSL’s failure to act in response to these complaints onto the players themselves," the report says. Lydia Wahlke, U.S. Soccer's chief legal officer from 2017 to 2020, also "failed to act on evidence" of misconduct. Christen Press filed a complaint about Dames's behavior with U.S. Soccer in 2018, but Wahlke never suspended Dames during the investigation, despite receiving regular updates from investigators. She also never shared the findings of the investigation with the Red Stars or with the NWSL, leaving the Red Stars and players "the impression that Dames's behavior was deemed acceptable by U.S. Soccer."

The report's final summary of inappropriate conduct identifies 12 different coaches, eight clubs, three U.S. Soccer officials, and three NWSL executives "who should be held responsible for acts of interpersonal misconduct directed at players and for the failures of institutions connected to women’s professional soccer to prevent and address this misconduct."

Many of the individuals named are no longer in the league or with the federation, but the report points out that the NWSL will have to do more than levy individual punishments to regain players' trust and confidence. That work is much more difficult. The "unstable history" of women's professional soccer in the U.S. created a breeding ground for this sort of misconduct, the report says. Players feared doing serious financial and reputational damage to their clubs by speaking out, and "uncertainty about the League’s stability also may have influenced how the leaders and managers of the League addressed potential issues and concerns."

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'd like into this report being published a few minutes after a World Cup semifinal began.) The report notes that some clubs "withheld key documents...until late in this investigation." On Thursday, Racing Louisville, one of the named withholders, posted a statement essentially congratulating themselves for having "ultimately cooperated fully by making personnel available for interviews and providing documents requested." As the report says, players "bravely recounted painful and personal experiences before and during this investigation in service of truth, accountability, and reform." The very least they're owed is some honesty, and maybe some bravery, in return.

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