A second investigation into systemic abuse in the National Women's Soccer League was released Wednesday, providing further details of how the league, its clubs and the U.S. Soccer Federation failed to protect players and allowed misconduct to run rampant throughout the 10-year-old league.
- NWSL investigation finds 'ongoing misconduct,' details culture of abuse
Wednesday's report, which was jointly commissioned by the NWSL and the NWSL Players Association, comes just over two months after former U.S. deputy attorney general Sally Yates released her report, which was commissioned by the U.S. Soccer Federation. Whereas Yates' report focused on three major storylines and perpetrators, the NWSL/NWSLPA joint investigation looked further, scrutinizing each of the 12 current NWSL teams, as well as historic complaints in the league.
"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 report states, referencing instances of inappropriate sexual remarks to players by staff in positions of power, blurred professional boundaries, and manipulation.
Here are the larger questions and contents of the report.
What is this investigation, and how is it different from the Yates report?
The latest investigation ("the joint investigation") acknowledges and reiterates the Yates report's detailing of misconduct by former Portland Thorns, Western New York Flash and North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley; former Washington Spirit coach Richie Burke; and former Sky Blue FC and Racing Louisville coach Christy Holly. It also provides new information around the suspensions and firings of several coaches and general managers and recommends how the league must change going forward.
Yates was commissioned by the U.S. Soccer Federation, which is the sport's governing body and was, for eight years between 2012 and 2020, the manager of the NWSL as part of an operational agreement.
Following the revelations of Riley's sexual misconduct on Sept. 30, 2021, the NWSL and the NWSLPA separately sought to conduct investigations. The league retained Covington & Burling LLP, while the NWSLPA retained Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP. The two parties ultimately decided that a joint investigation made the most sense, with Covington taking the lead under the direction of an oversight committee. That committee included: NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman; NWSLPA executive director Meghann Burke; WNBPA executive director Terri Jackson (selected by the NWSLPA); Goop, Inc. general counsel and chief people officer Djenaba Parker (selected by the NWSL) and former United States District Judge Barbara S. Jones, who was deemed an independent member.
Whereas the Yates report intentionally focused on what it deemed the most egregious abusers, the joint investigation scrutinized more nuanced incidents of emotional abuse and power imbalances that caused players to report that they contemplated quitting, had panic attacks and, in some cases, needed therapy. The latest report also focuses on racism and microaggressions in a way that the Yates report did not.
The joint investigation states:
"Some types of misconduct against players, including certain instances of sexual abuse and manipulation, have already been widely reported. Other misconduct, which this Report discusses in detail below, has not received as much, if any, public attention. The Joint Investigative Team found, for example, 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. 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."
Why was a second investigation required?
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Two overlapping trends factor into why there are two major reports on systemic abuse in the NWSL: a lack of trust in reporting systems, and a lack of accountability among those in positions of power.
Throughout its 125 pages, the joint investigation repeatedly details how U.S. Soccer, the NWSL and specific clubs passed on responsibility for problems of the past to each other, with parties either claiming ignorance to specific information or stating that another party was responsible for reporting something.
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Second, the investigation found that players and club staff did not trust reporting processes or the league at large, so much so that it affected participation even in this investigation, which had the oversight of the players' union, the NWSLPA. The union is referenced by players in the report as a default place to voice concerns, for lack of historical human resources departments in the league and at clubs, but concerns remain over how reported complaints are handled.
"The lack of clearly established responsibilities allowed individuals within these institutions to disclaim personal responsibility for player protection and to turn a blind eye or shift blame to other individuals and entities, while players were left exposed to further misconduct and unsafe environments. Players from marginalized backgrounds, or with the least job security, were often targets of misconduct."
The joint investigation also confirms that the misconduct from Riley, Burke and Holly, which made headlines, was part of a wider culture of power imbalances between players and staff members that was pervasive in the league. Eight different ownership groups and 15 individuals -- including some from the NWSL and U.S. Soccer -- come under detailed scrutiny in the latest report.
So what is new in this report?
Among the new revelations about specific individuals, those regarding Houston Dash head coach James Clarkson stand out. Clarkson was suspended in April amid an ongoing investigation, but until Wednesday, no reasons were provided publicly.
Clarkson was described by many players in the report as unpredictable and temperamental, which "created a culture of anxiety." Clarkson, according to players interviewed in the report, targeted a couple of players each year to berate. Two players said they sought therapy.
An initial complaint against Clarkson was filed in December 2021, and the joint investigators leading Wednesday's report spoke with seven current and former players who described the coach as "volatile, verbally abusive, and not showing appropriate regard for players' wellbeing." Then, in the spring of 2022, came additional complaints and concerns that Clarkson would retaliate against players since he was aware of an investigation into him, which led to his suspension. A further 19 current and former players were interviewed, and investigators "determined that Clarkson's actions constituted emotional misconduct." The report, however, acknowledges that "a majority of players expressed the view that Clarkson's treatment of players did not rise to the level of abuse or misconduct."
Among the specific incidents detailed about Clarkson was a 2022 preseason trip to Mexico. Ahead of the first game of the trip, Clarkson questioned whether a player was hungover from an outing the previous night, despite his medical staff informing him that they thought she was experiencing altitude sickness (Mexico City is 7,300 feet above sea level). Clarkson then demanded hotel security footage (which investigators said he did not get) and reprimanded the team for drinking before a game, although player maintain they did not. When confronted by the team's captains about his response, Clarkson said that the players "should be scared."
The report also details Clarkson's handling of an incident in Houston back in April 2021, when stadium security questioned the boyfriend of then Chicago Red Stars defender Sarah Gorden. Gorden said that she and her boyfriend were racially profiled, prompting a league investigation at the time.
Gorden's boyfriend was prevented from entering an area where he could speak with her, and she said publicly that her white teammates were visiting family in the same area, but were not scrutinized. The Dash blamed coronavirus protocols, and Clarkson did not ask security to look into it. According to the report: "While the NWSL investigation [of the 2021 incident with Gorden] was ongoing, Dash Head Coach James Clarkson -- during a team meeting prior to completion of the investigation -- wrote phone numbers for stadium security on a board and asked players to call and apologize for their conduct." Some players viewed this as defending stadium security staff.
The reasons for Alyse LaHue's termination as NJ/NY Gotham FC general manager in July 2021 are also now clear following 1½ years of silence from the club on the issue.
It was previously reported, although never officially communicated by the league or club, that LaHue was fired for violation of the league's anti-harassment policy. The joint investigation details how LaHue sent inappropriate messages to a player, including some about the player being in her dreams, despite the player's request for those to stop and asking of LaHue to "accept that we are working together and nothing more." Investigators determined that LaHue's interactions with the player constituted misconduct.
Vera Pauw, who was the Houston Dash head coach in 2018 and is currently the head coach of the Ireland women's national team -- which will play in its first Women's World Cup next year -- was also identified in the report. Pauw lived in the same apartment complex as players -- an issue the report flags as a too-common problem around the league -- and allegedly attempted to control their diets and prevent them from weight training for fear they would be too "bulky."
Pauw's presence at the same apartment complex created anxiety among players. Witnesses to body-shaming by both Pauw and Riley reported that "players developed eating disorders and sought mental health treatment." North Carolina Courage defender Kaleigh Kurtz previously spoke publicly about Riley's body-shaming of her, and how the disgraced coach told her she had to lose 14 pounds in 10 days if she expected to start the next game.
Kurtz further detailed to investigators incidents of weight-shaming by Riley, noting that she developed an eating disorder. Kurtz added that after reading last year about Riley's past sexual misconduct, she realized that the coach was "grooming" her with similar patterns of behavior. Kurtz alleges that in 2019, Riley shared detailed information about his life, including preferred sexual positions, and persistently tried to obtain more details about her romantic life in the weeks and months that followed.
Courage leadership was made aware of Riley's conduct toward Kurtz, who also reported her experiences directly to then-NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird in a group meeting last year. Another Courage player told team leadership last year that Riley had been verbally abusive and created "a culture of fear."
Alex Morgan calls out former NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird for her failure to respond to Paul Riley's abuse. E60: Truth Be Told airs October 4 at 7pm ET on ESPN & ESPN+.
At a higher level, the joint investigation makes a greater attempt to identify and define problematic everyday behaviors like emotional abuse, at times noting that even the players they interviewed struggle to define the lines between that and "tough coaching" because many of them grew up with so much of the latter. Indeed, the report notes at the outset: "Misconduct in the League is not wholly 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."
Did everyone cooperate with the investigation?
Investigators for the NWSL/NWSLPA report say they reached out to approximately 780 current and former NWSL players regarding the investigation; about 150 were eventually asked to share their experiences. Additionally, 15 current and former NWSL staff members engaged in interviews or provided documents, as did 11 current and former U.S. Soccer staffers. Investigators say they "reviewed approximately 200,000 documents."
The Yates report made note of teams and individuals who did not cooperate, including the Portland Thorns, Chicago Red Stars, and Racing Louisville FC. The joint investigation team noted that all three clubs also "withheld key documents" from them until after the Yates report was released. Notably, investigators for the NWSL and NWSLPA also cite U.S. Soccer as an entity that delayed the investigation.
"Even after repeated requests and lengthy negotiations, U.S. Soccer did not meaningfully respond to the Joint Investigative Team's requests until shortly before and again after the USSF Report was released. This included withholding documents and other information related to an investigation U.S. Soccer conducted into reports of misconduct by Rory Dames for the better part of a year. When U.S. Soccer did respond to the Joint Investigative Team's requests, it produced limited documentation and refused the Joint Investigative Team's request to identify the documents withheld."
Former NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush responded to the joint investigators after refusing to speak with Yates & Co., though the report indicates that Plush only provided written responses. Plush eventually resigned as CEO of USA Curling nearly a month after the Yates report detailed his inaction and culpability in allowing Riley to continue coaching in the NWSL following Riley's 2015 sexual misconduct in Portland.
Alex Morgan shares her frustration at the failure of the NWSL to support Meleana Shim after speaking out against Paul Riley. E60: Truth Be Told airs October 4 at 7pm ET on ESPN & ESPN+.
The overlap of the two reports also proved problematic in some cases. Holly spoke with investigators for the Yates report but pulled out of a scheduled interview with the joint investigation after the release of the Yates report, which of course publicly revealed his misconduct for the first time. Riley and Dames refused to speak to the joint investigation team or Yates' team, while Pauw "appeared, but refused to cooperate" and ultimately issued a written statement. LaHue participated in an initial interview, but then cancelled a follow-up interview.
Investigators said after interviews that Burke did not acknowledge the offensiveness of his behaviors with the Washington Spirit, and that Clarkson "exhibited a lack of candor... Clarkson denied ever raising his voice at players or losing control of his emotions, notwithstanding credible evidence to the contrary." They also found former Utah Royals head coach Craig Harrington to lack credibility while offering defenses of his actions, which ranged from drinking with players (including once at a strip club while an assistant coach in Chicago), attempting to enter a player's hotel room and inappropriate comments of a sexual nature.
What does the report recommend?
While the report singles out individuals and clubs for alleged misconduct or mishandling of situations, investigators chose to make recommendations that are "forward-looking, systemic in nature; rather than recommending discipline as to specific individuals or entities." The latter is presumably for each club and, perhaps in some cases, NWSL commissioner Berman to decide. (There have already been consequences since the Yates report, including Merritt Paulson and Arnim Whisler agreeing to sell the Portland Thorns and Chicago Red Stars, respectively.)
Instead, the joint investigation identified gaps in existing policies and procedures, including strengthening the league's anti-harassment policy, which was only first adopted in 2021 -- eight years after the league first played a game. That initial policy was created with a primary focus of maintaining a safe environment, free of harassment. In 2022, it was updated to prohibit discrimination and retaliation more explicitly.
More specificity is needed, investigators concluded, to provide examples of how ostracizing players or denying playing opportunities could fall under the definition of prohibited behavior. They also feel the non-fraternization policy, first implemented in January 2018, must be more explicit, extend to staff beyond the head coach and "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."
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Investigators also call for more centralized hiring processes, including background checks with references for all prospective club owners, staff, and volunteers who might interact with players. The report identifies several instances in which basic criminal records checks would come back clean, but where reference checks would have revealed character issues regarding potential hires. It provides a successful (albeit anonymous) example of this working in late 2021. Among the suggested actions is involving players in hiring processes more formally and establishing information sharing among clubs.
There are some interesting suggestions in the report, too, including a call for the NWSL to establish and enforce a policy discouraging the use of nondisclosure and non-disparagement agreements "in circumstances involving alleged or substantiated misconduct under the Anti-Harassment Policy." Such policies can create veils of secrecy around the dismissal of some coaches and allow them to be rehired elsewhere despite their misconduct. The NDA between Holly and Racing Louisville caused various problems, including for investigators trying to obtain evidence.
"Inattentiveness, neglect, and concealment allow misconduct to fester," the report's conclusion reads. Now, league leadership must make meaningful changes: sources tell ESPN that the NWSL board received the report at the same time as it was released to the public, but in terms of timing, some of the report's recommendations could well be in place before the start of the 2023 season.