Joint investigation finds ‘widespread, ongoing misconduct’ in NWSL, calls for policy reforms – Equalizer Soccer

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A joint investigation overseen by the National Women’s Soccer League and the NWSLPA found “widespread misconduct” toward players “at the vast majority of NWSL clubs” historically and to “ongoing misconduct at more than half the league’s clubs,” a report released on Wednesday states.

The report, which was jointly commissioned by the league and players’ union with an oversight committee that included NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman and NWSLPA executive director Meghann Burke, further details instances of abuse and misconduct in the league beyond what was shared in the US Soccer Federation investigation led by former US attorney general Sally Yates. That report, which was released in October, focused primarily on the sexual misconduct of three former coaches: Paul Riley (Portland Thorns, Western New York Flash and North Carolina Courage), Rory Dames (Chicago Red Stars) and Christy Holly (Sky Blue FC /Gotham FC, Racing Louisville).

The joint investigation — jointly led by Covington & Burling LLP and Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP — expands the scope of misconduct beyond those alleged abusers and beyond sexual misconduct focused on in the Yates report. It includes instances of racial microaggressions, fraternization between players and staff members in positions of power, and emotional abuse.

Investigators found “that club staff in positions of power made inappropriate sexual remarks to players, mocked players’ bodies, pressured players to lose unhealthy amounts of weight, crossed professional boundaries with players, and created volatile and manipulative working conditions.” They used derogatory and insulting language towards players, displayed insensitivity towards players’ mental health, and engaged in retaliation against players who attempted to report or did report concerns.”

Many of the stories shared left the names of players anonymous for their own protection, but there are details of incidents involving coaches and league executives that were not previously reported. The entire report can be read here. (Editor’s note: please be advised of the serious nature of the details in the report, and that they may be triggering for victims of abuse.)

“This report clearly reflects how our league systemically failed to protect our players,” NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman said in a statement. “On behalf of the Board and the league, let me first and foremost sincerely apologize to our players for those failures and missteps. They deserve, at a minimum, a safe and secure environment to participate at the highest level in a sport they love, and they have my unwavering commitment that delivering that change will remain a priority each and every day.”

Houston Dash head coach James Clarkson was suspended in April without any reason provided publicly. On Wednesday, details became clear as to why. The joint investigation spoke with a total of 26 players over multiple stages of the investigation — a second phase initiated for fears of retaliation, after Clarkson became aware of an initial investigation into him — around Clarkson “and determined that Clarkson’s actions constituted emotional misconduct.” Players described his mood as unpredictable, one that “created a culture of anxiety.” Two players reported that they sought therapy.

What constitutes emotional abuse, and what is simply “tough coaching” is a topic explored throughout the joint investigation’s report. Investigators note that “misconduct in the League is not entirely independent from abuse that begins in youth soccer, where many coaches’ and players’ formative experiences shaped the way they engaged in, or reacted to, misconduct and abuse in the NWSL.”

Players interviewed as part of the investigation felt that the line between touch coaching and emotional misconduct was crossed “when it becomes an attack, versus a criticism.”

Former Kansas City Current head coach Huw Williams was named in the report following 2021 player complaints about his unprofessional and demeaning communication style. Williams, players alleged, would say things like, “I’m going to ream her ass,” in response to a mistake a player made. They reported their concerns to team leadership in August 2021, and all but one player from the meeting was eventually traded, waived or not re-signed, according to the report.

Former Houston coach Vera Pauw is also identified for allegedly attempting to control all aspects of players’ lives, including their diets, in ways that felt abusive. Witnesses reported that players who experienced weight-shaming from Pauw and Riley developed eating disorders. North Carolina Courage defender Kaleigh Kurtz is one of the few players who put her name on record in the joint investigation. She detailed how Riley weight-shamed her, and she said she noticed “grooming” tactics he used on her in North Carolina that were similar to what Riley allegedly did to Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly in Portland, among other places.

Details of former Sky Blue FC and NJ/NY Gotham FC general manager Alyse LaHue are among the evidence in the report, a year and a half after she was terminated for what The Equalizer first reported (but the league and club did not previously confirm) was a violation of the anti-harassment policy. LaHue was found to have sent inappropriate text messages to a player, and she continued to fixate on the player, according to those around the team, even after the player told her they were nothing more than work colleagues.

The joint investigation goes on to make six high-level recommendations around improving the language of the non-fraternization and anti-harassment policies within the league, improving human resources within teams and reporting mechanisms for players, increasing training around what constitutes abuse, centralizing hiring practices, and increasing diversity and inclusion.

Among the recommendations is a motion to “clarify that any sexual or romantic relationship between players and those in supervisory roles over players is strictly prohibited, even if the relationship is consensual.” Issues of player-staff relationships — or attempts for those in power to create a relationship — are mentioned throughout the report.

Investigators specifically did not make recommendations about consequences for individuals.

On Wednesday, the NWSL simultaneously released a list of improvements made over the past 14 months, and vowed to “provide an update ahead of the 2023 season on its progress on all its initiatives and a detailed plan on further steps that will be taken as a result of the joint investigation report and its recommendations.”

In a statement, Burke said she looks forward to the necessary changes being implemented.

“We call on the league, US Soccer, NWSL clubs, and everyone in leadership throughout the soccer ecosystem to demonstrate the same courage and commitment to eradicating misconduct that our players have shown,” Burke added. “We also recognize that the abuse and misconduct our players have endured is far too common in sports and in the workplace. We hope that this joint investigation framework will provide a roadmap to other athletes and workers who seek something so basic: safety and dignity at work.”

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