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Emotional, sexual abuse were 'systemic' in women's soccer, new report finds

From the sport's top echelons down to youth leagues, verbal abuse that "blurs boundaries between coaches and players" has been normalized, according to the report.
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Emotional abuse and sexual misconduct were "systemic" in women's soccer, with exploitation rife at virtually every level of the sport, according to a damning report made public Monday.

The independent U.S. Soccer probe, headed by former acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates, was commissioned after North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley was fired and National Women’s Soccer League Commissioner Lisa Baird resigned last year in the wake of troubling abuse allegations made by former players.

Yates said that at the outset of the investigation, there was hope the allegations against Riley would be proven to be isolated incidents.

"Sadly, that is not what we found," she told reporters Monday afternoon shortly after the 319-page report was released.

"Our investigation over the past year has revealed a league in which abuse was systematic. Verbal and emotional abuse and sexual misconduct occurred at multiple teams, was perpetrated by several coaches and affected many players."

She continued: "We also found these issues were not unique or new to the NWSL. Some coaches’ misconduct dates to prior professional leagues and some to youth soccer."

Investigators interviewed 200 people and found that 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.” The abusive relationships ended in "unwanted sexual advances and sexual touching, and coercive sexual intercourse," according to the report.

U.S. Soccer President Cindy Parlow Cone, herself a former World Cup-winning player, called the findings "heartbreaking and deeply troubling."

“The abuse described is inexcusable and has no place on any playing field, in any training facility or workplace," Cone said in a statement. "We are taking the immediate action that we can today, and will convene leaders in soccer at all levels across the country to collaborate on the recommendations so we can create meaningful, long-lasting change throughout the soccer ecosystem."

The national soccer federation on Monday also announced the formation of a “Participant Safety Taskforce,” at least one-third of whose members will be athletes.

The new body will convene "leaders in soccer at all levels across the country."

Women's soccer was rocked last year by a report in The Athletic, which detailed allegations by several players on teams Riley has coached since 2010.

Specifically, veteran midfielder Sinead Farrelly said in the Athletic report that she had been coerced into having sex with Riley on multiple occasions.

Farrelly and midfielder Meleana “Mana” Shim also told The Athletic that, after a night of drinking in 2015, Riley took them to his apartment and pressured them to kiss each other as he watched. At the time, he was the coach of Portland Thorns FC, which he led from 2013 to 2015.

Riley has said a majority of the allegations are “completely untrue.” A woman who picked up the phone at Riley's listed phone number Monday said he would not comment on the allegations.

Yates' report also accuse two other former NWSL coaches of misconduct.

The report listed years of abuse complaints against former Chicago Red Stars coach Rory Dames and accused team owner Arnim Whisler of turning a blind eye.

"Player and staff complaints regarding Dames’ abuse were provided to Whisler virtually every season of Dames’s tenure with the CRS," according to the report. "Each time, Whisler declined to do more than speak to Rory about the complaint."

Dames and a Red Stars representative could not immediately be reached for comment Monday.

When Racing Louisville FC fired Christy Holly in August 2021, it said he had been terminated "for cause" but did not elaborate, Monday's report said.

"Not much attention was paid to Christy Holly. Until now," the report stated. "Holly was fired from Racing Louisville after the team determined that he had engaged in long-term and egregious sexual misconduct against a player."

Holly is alleged to have groped defender Erin Simon, who now plays for Leicester City in England, throughout a one-on-one game film session.

"When she arrived, she recalls Holly opened his laptop and began the game film. He told her he was going to touch her for ‘every pass [she expletive] up.’ He did," the report said.

"Simon reports that he pushed his hands down her pants and up her shirt. She tried to tightly cross her legs and push him away, laughing to avoid angering him. The video ended, and she left. When her teammate picked her up to drive home, Simon broke down crying.”

Holly could not immediately be reached for comment Monday.