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Systemic Abuse in Women's Professional Soccer

On October 3, 2022, former Attorney General of the United States Sally Q. Yates report into the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) was made public. Her team conducted over 300 interviews with players and other stakeholders and reviewed over 89,000 relevant documents identified out of millions. Upon her review, she concluded that that the NWSL and U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) consistently failed to protect its athletes from systemic and ongoing abuse.

The report’s recommendations focus on transparency, accountability, clarity, safety, feedback, and lessons learned for youth sport. A major theme in the report relates to the disclosure of previous misconduct. The current system permitted abusive and problematic coaches to move freely within the USSF. The report recommends a central database for employee history and a public list of individuals suspended or banned. The report also calls for clear, written expectations in the form of accessible Codes of Conduct and reporting options. We have seen these recommendations elsewhere and they are frequently recommended as a way to keep sport safe.

As investigators and lawyers who are frequently involved in similar matters, we have reviewed Ms. Yates report with great interest. We read with particular interest the section of the report which was critical of practices that had developed at the US independent SafeSport office as a result of the large volume of complaints they handle. Canada is just in the process of launching it's own independent body to handle these types of matters: the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner (OSIC). We can learn a lot in Canada from the failures of SafeSport in the US. The comments made by Ms. Yates about the significant procedural hurdles in place prior to discipline being imposed - and that they are often greater than even in a criminal trial or civil trial - are views that I agree with. The practices and policies in place in sport that complainants must navigate often make discipline more difficult than they need to be to ensure procedural fairness.

Below are some other highlights from the Yates Report:

The NWSL and USSF perpetuate a culture of silence and fear: report

Ms. Yates found that the NWSL anti-harassment policy focused on "lawfulness" instead of abusive or appropriate behaviour. Abusive coaches are permitted to move horizontally within the USSF and continue to work with youth. According to the report, youth soccer players are groomed to experience verbal and sexual abuse, and blurred relationships with coaches are normalized. The NWSL and USSF overall showed little regard for power imbalances and the precarity involved with USSF players, many of which rely on their positions for financial stability and housing.

Former NWSL coaches Paul Riley, Rory Dames, and Christy Holly

Riley, Dames and Holly each earned their place in the report and highlighted the USSF’s systemic failure to protect players against predatory and abusive coaches. Results of an anonymous 2014 NWSL survey that flagged Riley’s abusive behaviour towards athletes was shared with NWSL Executive Director and the USSF President. Despite being terminated in 2015, Riley went right back to coaching in 2016. He was again flagged in 2018 and 2019 with no action.

Similarly, 2014 and 2015 players surveys identified Dames as abusive and his team owner at the time shook off the concerns as “Rory being Rory”. The NWSL or the USSF took no action until a National Team Player complained about Dames in 2018, prompting an independent report that corroborated the 2014 and 2015 survey complaints. Following media reports in 2021, the team retained a psychologist to conduct interviews and compile a report: “The psychologist observed that 70% of the players interviewed (including most starting players) reported emotionally abusive behaviors and that many players failed to recognize certain behaviors as abusive because they were so ubiquitous in women’s soccer.” Dames still owns a youth soccer club.

Paranoid, ultra-aggressive, short-tempered, nasty, mean, patronizing, humiliating, angry, disorganized, erratic, and “abrasive on the sidelines – these are the words players used to describe Holly, who was asked to leave his position as a coach midseason in 2016. The USSF did not vet Holly or inquire as to why he was terminated when they decided to hire him for contract work in 2018, nor did another club who hired him as head coach in 2020.

Lessons Learned

I take a few significant lessons away from Ms. Yates report.

First, efforts should be made to pro-actively survey players and coaching staff in a training environment on matters related to safety and abuse. Results of those surveys should be taken seriously, and formal reviews commissioned when red flags arise.

Second, more work needs to be done to prevent coaches from moving from team to team, club to club and sport to sport without consequence following a finding of abusive behaviour. Ms. Yates has advocated for a registry. I agree with that approach. Canada already has a publicly available database of everyone who has been sanctioned with a doping infraction. Safe Sport discipline complaints and sanctions should also be publicly available.

Third, sport at all levels need to take safety in the sport environment more seriously. Nearly every day we are reading about a scandal somewhere involving sport but vast majority of serious issues arise at the local level and never find their way into the national media. Board Members of all amateur sports clubs need to spend time to think about safety within their club - ensuring athletes know how to report misconduct, creating coach review and anonymous surveys to make sure they are fostering a safe and healthy sport environment.

We have to do better.

Erin Durant

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