On Monday, Oct. 4, the findings of an investigative report into the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) revealed a culture of sexual, verbal, and emotional abuse by coaches and those at the highest level of the sport. Three coaches in particular were investigated for their abuses — Christy Holly, Paul Riley and Rory Dames, but the findings were not limited to a few individuals in power. As in many previous abuse in sports investigations, we are once again reminded of the systemic issues that fail to protect athletes, and the power dynamics that are prevalent at every level of sports. This report brought to light the larger failings of NWSL and US Soccer (USSF) officials, team owners and executives who repeatedly failed to address complaints and concerns regarding these coaches.
The report stated: “Our investigation has revealed a league in which abuse and misconduct—verbal and emotional abuse and sexual misconduct—had become systemic, spanning multiple teams, coaches and victims. Abuse in the NWSL 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.”
This finding demonstrates the need for holistic and cultural reforms.
As an athlete survivor-founded and survivor-led non-profit organization working to end sexual violence in sports, The Army of Survivors is committed to bringing awareness, accountability, and transparency to sexual abuse against all athletes in all sports. As such, we are calling for better education around athletes’ rights, informed reporting systems, trauma-informed and survivor-centered investigation practices, and full transparency of reports and their findings to ensure perpetrators and enablers are held accountable.
The investigation also found that NWSL and USSF officials, team owners and executives were made aware of complaints against Holly, Riley and Dames, yet did little to nothing to address them or prevent the coaches from moving to another team.
By failing to address allegations against coaches, those in power allowed for abuse to occur for years. Even when the complaints were addressed, the findings were not made public and coaches were able to move from team to team and, in some cases, work with youth athletes. It is of utmost disappointment and a tragedy that this was preventable.
As a voice for athlete survivors, we support the recommendations made in the report in order to create an environment that protects athletes. Although these are not exhaustive, we believe these steps in conjunction with athlete-centered practices, including survivor voices, can provide a framework to create a safer space that stops abuse from ever occurring:
- Teams should be required to accurately disclose misconduct to the NWSL and USSF to ensure that abusive coaches do not move from team to team.
- USSF should require meaningful vetting of coaches and, when necessary, use its licensing authority to hold wrongdoers accountable.
- USSF should require the NWSL to conduct timely investigations into allegations of abuse, impose appropriate discipline, and immediately disseminate investigation outcomes
- USSF should adopt uniform and clear policies and codes of conduct that apply to all Organization Members and are found in single place on USSF’s website.
- USSF should require the NWSL to conduct annual training for players and coaches on applicable policies governing verbal and emotional abuse, sexual misconduct, harassment, and retaliation.
- USSF, the NWSL, and teams should each designate an individual within their organizations who is responsible for player safety.
- USSF should strengthen player safety requirements in professional leagues.
- USSF should require the NWSL to implement a system to annually solicit and act on player feedback.
- USSF should collaborate with its youth member organizations and other stakeholders to examine whether additional measures are necessary to protect youth players.
- The NWSL should determine whether discipline is warranted in light of these findings and the findings of the NWSL/NWSLPA Joint Investigation.
- Teams, the NWSL and USSF should not rely exclusively on SafeSport to keep players safe and should implement safety measures were necessary to protect players in the USSF landscape.
As stated in the report, “The roots of abuse in women’s soccer run deep and will not be eliminated through reform in the NWSL alone.”
Unfortunately, the systemic issues that have allowed for abuse to occur in women’s soccer aren’t unique to this sport. A recent study by World Players Association indicated that 13% of student athletes are victims of sexual assault through their participation in sport, and this number is likely much higher due to what we know about underreporting.
It has been proven time and time again that these are widespread problems that permeate every level of every sport, and it’s past time to make real, substantive changes. People said changes were needed following the sexual abuse case of the now defamed Michigan State University (MSU) doctor involving systemic failures within MSU, USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee. Reform was called for following news of the University of Michigan case involving more than 1,000 students and student athletes. The hockey world was shaken following the story involving survivor Kyle Beach and the Chicago Blackhawks.
With this NWSL report we ask again: how many more athletes must come forward in order for change to happen? Every case of abuse in sports is preventable, and these lifelong traumas for athletes don’t have to occur.
Our thoughts are with the athlete survivors who were failed by those in power, and the more than 100 current and former NWSL and U.S. Women’s National Team players who participated in interviews. We commend your bravery and recognize the strength it takes to share your stories.