Sexual misconduct and emotional abuse were 'systemic' in America's NWSL, report finds

Sally Yates - AP Photo/Steven Senne, File
Sally Yates - AP Photo/Steven Senne, File

Emotional abuse and sexual misconduct were "systemic" in America's National Women's Soccer League, a report has found following an independent investigation into allegations made against several coaches in  2021.

The scandal erupted when an English coach, Liverpool-born Paul Riley, was accused of harassment and sexual coercion by multiple former players. Riley, who denied the allegations, was sacked as head coach of NWSL club North Carolina Courage, but the allegations did not stop there, with five coaches in the NWSL leaving their posts last season amid claims of misconduct. The chief of the NWSL, Lisa Baird, resigned amid criticism of her handling of the situation.

Former acting US Attorney General Sally Yates' year-long investigation, commissioned by US Soccer, has seen her interview more than 200 people. Ultimately Yates found that the NWSL had "failed to put in place basic measures for player safety" and that teams, the league and US Soccer had all failed to adequately address evidence that had been put to them by whistleblowers.

"Players repeatedly raised concerns in anonymous player surveys and through direct complaints, but teams, the league, and the federation failed to adequately address reports and evidence of misconduct. They either minimised the reports – claiming players were trying to kill the League, or that a coach was 'put in a bad position' – or they ignored them entirely," Yates' report said in response to the allegations which were reported by The Athletic.

"Abuse in the NWSL is rooted in a deeper culture in women's soccer, beginning in youth leagues, that normalises verbally abusive coaching and blurs boundaries between coaches and players."

Among the players to give evidence to the investigation, former USA Under-23 defender Erin Simon, who is currently playing for Leicester City in England's Women's Super League, detailed an alleged encounter from April 2021 with her then-coach at Racing Louisville, Northern Irishman Christy Holly.

He allegedly told Simon that, for every pass she messed up, he was going to touch her, and Simon alleges Holly "pushed his hands down her pants and up her shirt" as they watched back some match footage. Holly was sacked by Racing Louisville "for cause" last year but the club did not state the reasons in public.

"I want to do everything in my power to ensure that no other player must experience what I did," said Leicester's Simon, 28, in a statement. "This report allows our voices to finally be heard and is the first step toward achieving the respectful workplace we all deserve."

The abuse described within the report is "entirely inexcusable and has no place in soccer, on or off the field," said US Soccer's current president Cindy Parlow Cone, in an open letter in response to Yates' report.

US Soccer added that it would immediately begin implementing Yates' report's recommendations.