Chicago Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler ousted as chairman amid mounting pressure on enablers of reported NWSL abuse

CARY, NORTH CAROLINA - AUGUST 15: Head coach Paul Riley of the North Carolina Courage and head coach Rory Dames of the Chicago Red Stars before a game between Chicago Red Stars and North Carolina Courage at Sahlen's Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park on August 15, 2021 in Cary, North Carolina. (Photo by Andy Mead/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
Paul Riley (left) and Rory Dames (right), shortly before their years of alleged abuse were exposed. (Photo by Andy Mead/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

The Chicago Red Stars board of directors voted Wednesday to remove club owner and founder Arnim Whisler as its chairman, two days after a U.S. Soccer-commissioned investigative report detailed Whisler's covering-up and enabling of head coach Rory Dames' alleged abuse.

The club announced Whisler's removal in a statement on behalf of the board. It said the board would "transition him out of his board seat immediately with the Chicago Red Stars" and "codify his removal from any further participation with either club or board operations."

Whisler had already said Tuesday that he would leave his role on the National Women's Soccer League board of governors and "hand over operational control of the club to our executive team in Chicago."

Neither he nor Wednesday's board statement said that he will sell or be stripped of his majority share of the club. But a Red Stars spokesperson said Wednesday night that the board "wants to help facilitate a sale of Arnim’s shares in a timely process which is both prudent and, when complete, can lead Red Stars players, coaches and front office staff to a better future."

The board announced its Wednesday morning vote shortly after Chicago Local 134, an independent Red Stars supporters group, released a statement calling Whisler "unfit to continue in his current role as majority owner of the Chicago Red Stars organization," and saying they would boycott "games, merchandise purchases, and other Red Stars events" until Whisler divests.

"We find the reported details of Whisler’s conduct, especially his dismissal of player complaints about the conduct of former general manager/head coach Rory Dames, completely unacceptable and irredeemably harmful to not only players but the club as a whole," the supporters wrote.

They also said that the "details in the report regarding Whisler directly contradict what he has told us as a group regarding knowledge of Dames’ abuse."

'Arnim Whisler knew'

The report, which stemmed from a yearlong investigation led by former federal prosecutor Sally Yates, unearthed new allegations of verbal, emotional and sexual misconduct at the highest levels of women's soccer, and revealed that coaches, executives, U.S. Soccer officials and NWSL team owners — including Whisler — "failed" countless players.

It largely focused on three coaches, one of which was Dames, who helmed the Red Stars from 2011 until November of 2021, when he resigned as The Washington Post prepared to expose his alleged abuse.

The Yates report found that Whisler initially hired Dames without a background check and despite a history of "tirades against the young girls who played for him" at his Chicago-area youth club, Eclipse Select. Former players told the investigative team that he'd called them vulgar and degrading epithets.

"Separately, former Eclipse players informed us that Dames’s sexualized team environment — in which he spoke to players about foreplay, oral sex, and their sex lives — crossed the line to sexual relationships in multiple cases, though those relationships may have begun after the age of consent," investigators wrote.

Whisler denied being aware of those allegations. But a few years into Dames' Red Stars tenure, forward Christen Press reported to U.S. Soccer leadership that Dames had “created a hostile environment,” verbally and emotionally abused players, made sexist and racist remarks to players, and retaliated against Press and other players after they spoke out, according to the Yates report. The complaints from Press, who played for the Red Stars and the U.S. national team, were distributed to Whisler. Whisler responded by accusing national team players of wanting “this league to shut down,” and having an “axe to grind” with Dames, according to Yates' investigation.

Dames even offered to resign in light of the complaints, Yates wrote, but Whisler "refused to accept" his resignation.

In 2018, after another round of similar player complaints, U.S. Soccer hired outside counsel to investigate Dames, and the "resulting report substantiated many of the players’ core complaints," Yates wrote. When Whisler was notified of the investigation, he accused one of the players of “trying to take Rory out.”

Whisler continued to employ Dames despite repeated reports of abuse. One player told investigators that she raised concerns about Dames to Whisler over multiple years, but each year, the team owner would ask: “Was [Dames] a little bit better this year?” Over time, the player said she realized that “it was a lost cause.”

Shortly before Dames' eventual ouster, the Red Stars retained a psychologist to anonymously interview players about the team environment. The review concluded that Dames created “a culture of fear” and was emotionally and verbally abusive to players and staff, Yates found. Players described him as “condescending" and “manipulative.”

Whisler acknowledged to investigators that these 2021 complaints, which he admitted were evidence of a "pervasive issue," were consistent with the ones from three and seven years earlier.

In calling for him to sell the club on Wednesday, the Red Stars fans entitled their statement: "ARNIM WHISLER KNEW."

Pressure grows on other NWSL team owners, executives

The Red Stars are one of four clubs whose owners or executives were implicated in the Yates report as potential enablers of abuse.

In Portland, the Thorns fired president of soccer Gavin Wilkinson and president of business Mike Golub on Wednesday. Merritt Paulson — who, along with Wilkinson, helped conceal 2015 allegations of sexual harassment against then-head coach Paul Riley — said Tuesday that he would remove himself from all Thorns-related decision-making until a separate investigation commissioned by the NWSL and its players association is complete.

Paulson remains owner of the Thorns, and still runs their brother club, Major League Soccer's Portland Timbers. A coalition of the teams' supporters groups said in a statement responding to the two firings that it "will continue to call for the sale of both teams."

Sponsors are also exerting pressure. “We will only reconsider future sponsorship if the organization makes meaningful, institutional changes,” Tillamook announced Wednesday night. Alaska Airlines and Laurelwood Brewing Co. also indicated that they were reevaluating future sponsorship.

Meanwhile in Louisville — where Christy Holly was hired in 2021 despite a history of alleged abuse, then fired that same year after allegedly sexually abusing a player — fans of Racing Louisville's brother club unveiled three banners at Wednesday's game targeting Holly and club president James O'Connor.

"ARREST HOLLY, J.O.C. OUT, YOU KNEW," the banners read.

Racing Louisville players have said that they reported various instances of abuse to club higher-ups throughout the 2021 season, but the club did not act until Erin Simon came forward and reported Holly's alleged sexual abuse of her. The club then did not publicly state the reason for Holly's firing, and instead signed "mutual non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements," which, until now, had kept the allegations hidden from public view.

After unveiling their banners, The Coopers, a Louisville soccer supporters group, released a statement that read, in part: "People in power who failed to shine a light and allowed him to leave in a manner that freed him to continue to abuse people should be fired immediately."

In North Carolina, where Steve Malik hired Riley, then retained him despite some knowledge of the 2015 allegations against Riley, the NC Courage released an unattributed statement Wednesday night in which the club said, in part: "We acknowledge our responsibility to continuously examine our organization and our role within the systemic problems in our sport."

Former player Heather O'Reilly responded, likely euphemistically: "Need a bit more here guys."

Multiple players have called for more consequences and ousters. "People in authority and decision-making positions have repeatedly failed to protect us, and they have failed to hold themselves and each other accountable," USWNT and Thorns captain Becky Sauerbrunn said Tuesday. "What, and who, are you actually protecting? And what values are you upholding? You have failed in your stewardship.

"And it's my opinion," Sauerbrunn concluded, "that every owner and executive and U.S. Soccer official who has repeatedly failed the players and failed to protect the players, who have hidden behind legalities, and have not participated fully in these investigations, should be gone."