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Widespread misconduct has plagued women’s pro soccer league for a decade, report finds

An investigation found that almost since it began, the National Women's Soccer League has been beset with inappropriate comments and actions by people in power.
Portland Thorns and Houston Dash players, along with referees, gather at midfield, in demonstration of solidarity with two former NWSL players who came forward with allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct against a prominent coach
Portland Thorns and Houston Dash players, along with referees, gather in solidarity with two former NWSL players who came forward with allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct against a prominent coach during a match in Portland, Ore., in 2021.Steve Dipaola / AP file

Widespread misconduct, including sexual abuse, manipulation and mocking of athletes' bodies, has plagued the National Women’s Soccer League for a decade, according to an investigation commissioned by the league and its players' union.

"Club staff in positions of power made inappropriate sexual remarks to players, mocked players’ bodies, pressured players to lose unhealthy amounts of weight, crossed professional boundaries with players, and created volatile and manipulative working conditions,” said the 128-page report, which was released Wednesday.

Officials "displayed insensitivity towards players’ mental health and engaged in retaliation against players who attempted to report or did report concerns. Misconduct against players has occurred at the vast majority of NWSL clubs at various times, from the earliest years of the League to the present.”

The league, which was founded in 2012, is the longest-running professional women’s soccer league in U.S. history, the report said.

Investigators reached out to 780 current and former players, all 12 NWSL teams, 90 current and former club staff members and those from the league office. More than 200,000 documents were reviewed during the investigation, which was conducted by the law firms of Covington & Burling and Weil, Gotshal & Manges, according to the report.

'Our league systemically failed to protect our players'

The league and its players union said in a statement that steps have been taken in the last 14 months to address systemic issues highlighted in the report.

Among those efforts: strengthening the league's anti-harassment policy, enhancing vetting procedures for new hires and establishing an anonymous hotline where players can report misconduct.

League Commissioner Jessica Berman apologized for the league’s glaring failures.

 “This report clearly reflects how our league systemically failed to protect our players," she said in a statement.

Our players "deserve, at a minimum, a safe and secure environment to participate at the highest level in a sport they love, and they have my unwavering commitment that delivering that change will remain a priority each and every day," the statement said.

A report released in October documented similar problems across the league.

That investigation was headed by former acting Attorney General Sally Yates. It was commissioned after North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley was fired and NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird resigned last year in the wake of abuse allegations made by former players.

Yates said that at the outset of the investigation, there was hope the allegations would be proven to be isolated incidents. “Sadly, that is not what we found,” she said.

“Verbal and emotional abuse and sexual misconduct occurred at multiple teams, was perpetrated by several coaches and affected many players," Yates said this year.

Investigators working on the October report 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.

The league commissioned the independent, yearlong investigation after a report in The Athletic last year detailed allegations by several players on teams Riley has coached.

Riley did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday. He has previously said a majority of the allegations are “completely untrue.” 

"Players, fans and the public expressed anger that the NWSL and its member clubs had failed to protect players while shielding perpetrators from public humiliation or the loss of job opportunities," the report said.

The league said it has seen a cascade of allegations against people in positions of power during the 2020 and 2021 seasons.

Reports of misconduct rattle the league during the 2020 and 2021 seasons

"In the course of 2021 alone, six of the League’s then-existing 10 clubs fired or accepted the resignations of general managers or head coaches due to misconduct, in some cases misconduct that had persisted for years," the report said.

It also found disparity between how men and women were treated on the field.

When players’ clubs shared ownership or management with men’s teams, the report found, "players reported that their owners prioritized the men’s teams, even in cases where the women’s teams were more successful."

"One player recalled that the men’s team was allowed to train on better practice fields, and the women were asked to train on inferior fields ... because the men’s team found it distracting to practice near the women," according to the report.

Pay equality between the men's and women's national soccer teams has been a battle cry for the U.S. women's national team for years.

In May, U.S. Soccer and the women’s and men’s national teams announced a historic collective bargaining agreement to close the gender pay gap and ensure every athlete, man or woman, is paid equally.