On October 3rd, 2022, US Soccer released the 172 page report from Sally Yates detailing the systemic abuse in American women’s football – both in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) and United States Soccer Federation (USSF). The report focused on three former coaches – Paul Riley, Rory Dames, and Christy Holly – as examples of the rampant emotional, verbal, and sexual abuse, but highlighted the fact that many other coaches mistreated players and leadership allowed abuse to continue.
One year after the release of the Yates report, there have been five report-related firings and four NWSL lifetime coaching bans. However, the progress on report recommendations has yet to be deeply examined.
At its core, the recommendations set out to protect players and foster a culture of respect. They fall within nine larger categories: transparency, accountability, clear rules, player safety and respect, player feedback, youth soccer, discipline, intersection with SafeSport, and implementation of recommendations.
The immediate reaction to the report led to the firing of James Clarkson from the Houston Dash and Amanda Cromwell and her assistant coach, Sam Greene, from the Orlando Pride. The Portland Thorns fired general manager Gavin Wilkinson and president Mike Golub, with Merritt Paulson stepping down as CEO. Although Paulson stated his intention to sell, as of 2 October, 2023, he still owns his stake in the club.
The Chicago Red Stars removed Arnim Whisler from the board of directors, but he originally held onto ownership of the club. Allowing certain leaders to voluntarily step down, rather than firing them when misconduct was confirmed, illustrates the slow response some clubs had to allegations.
A potential shortcoming in bans was seen with Craig Harrington. Formerly an assistant for the Red Stars, Harrington was fired by Utah Royals FC in November 2020 after allegations of verbal abuse. He was further investigated and named in the Yates report and given a two-year coaching ban by the NWSL and the Illinois Youth Soccer Association. Despite these bans, The Athletic reported in May 2023 that he had been hired by a Chicago youth soccer club, Empire FC.
Other punishments included lifetime NWSL coaching bans for Riley, ex-Red Stars manager Rory Dames, ex-Washington Spirit manager Richie Burke, and ex-Racing Louisville manager Christy Holly, and a two-year ban for Alyse LaHue. Other coaches were given shorter suspensions and mandated anti-harassment training.
As the hiring of suspended Harrington for a Chicago youth team demonstrates, the power and connectedness of the accused coaches runs deep. This has led to player concerns that the NWSL bans and suspensions may not effectively remove their influence from the league and youth football.
Statement from the USWNTPA regarding the King & Spalding / Sally Q. Yates’s Independent Investigation Report:
— USWNT Players (@USWNTPlayers) October 3, 2022
Players of the Chicago Red Stars demanded owner Whisler sell the club, as he was complicit in the rampant abuse within his club. Victims interviewed by Yates stated,
Whisler knew about Dames’s verbal and emotional abuse of CRS [Chicago Red Stars] players and inappropriate relationships with players for a decade and ‘did nothing about it.’
Another club-specific investigation conducted by Pepper Hamilton LLP in 2018, which was included in the Yates report’s appendices, showed Whisler used the birth of Dames’s daughter as a defence of his character:
He [Whisler] has seen Dames “change dramatically” over the last few years, particularly since he has had a daughter…he has seen improvements in Dames demeanour, mindset, and patience.
A sale to an all-female investor group led by Laura Ricketts was confirmed by the Red Stars last month.
Further, the Thorns and Red Stars were given hefty fines, with smaller fines handed to OL Reign, Gotham FC, Racing Louisville FC, and North Carolina Courage.
The key is transparency
Transparency, a core category in the Yates report, is difficult to measure. Since the end of the last NWSL season, there have been five manager changes. Four clubs and/or the managers themselves released relatively transparent messages explaining the changes. Two messages cited bad runs of form and one move was due to Juan Carlos Amorós resigning from his interim role with the Houston Dash to become the permanent manager at Gotham FC. Rhian Wilkinson’s resignation from the Portland Thorns occurred after reporting herself to the club’s leadership for developing feelings for a player – she was later cleared of any ethical wrongdoing – and believing she had lost the trust of her players.
It is the press release from the Kansas City Current after the firing of Matt Potter that left key details out to remove any chance for confusion. The club stated he was fired because of “issues around his leadership and employment responsibilities” with no further details of what these issues were. Rumours surrounding the change state it was because Potter lost trust at the club, but in today’s environment, clarity on this language is necessary for Potter’s sake and that of potential future employers, players, and fans.
Reporting and investigating misconduct: Players voice SafeSport concerns
Beyond management and leadership changes, the US Center for SafeSport (SafeSport), created by Congress in 2017 to report sexual abuse and protect player safety, continues to be at the epicenter of player concern and confusion as it is the main reporting system in the NWSL. This is despite the fact that a majority of SafeSport’s cases lead to no findings and limits the power of other organisations to investigate.
Large concerns over the effectiveness and suitability of the organisation are highlighted in the Yates report. This past summer, 103 current and former players sent a letter to Congress further divulging such concerns. US Youth Soccer and the American Youth Soccer Organization also publicised issues with the organisation’s ability to adequately protect players in an transparent and straightforward manner.
SafeSport responded publicly to the concerns, expressing openness for dialogue with players. USSF released their response just last week and can be read here. According to the release, USSF is working with Congress to create changes to SafeSport’s process and powers, but did not mention a request to allow other organizations to investigate sexual abuse allegations.
The Athletes’ Council is proud to join over 100 Athletes from U.S. Soccer as we call on Congress to reform SafeSport to ensure that athletes of all ages around the country are safe and protected from abuse. Together we can create lasting change. pic.twitter.com/5czQTdsXwF
— USSF Athletes’ Council (@USSF_Athletes) July 19, 2023
It is difficult to fully judge changes USSF made in the last year as not all changes are public. Also, there is no research examining the effectiveness of their new initiatives like the Office of Participant Safety, the Yates Implementation Committee, and the March 2023 amendments to their safeguarding standards.
Changes in transparency are challenging to measure as the public and other clubs can only be as informed as the clubs are truthful and timely in their reports. The recent press releases after manager changes are a positive step in the right direction, but only time will tell how effective the league’s larger changes are. Hopefully, the greater discussion on abuse in grassroots, club, and international football continues and leads to change for the better.
The Sports Gazette contacted the NWSL, Chicago Red Stars, and Portland Thorns for comment on the progress they have made in the last year to better protect players, but have yet to receive a reply. USSF declined comment as they plan to release a statement this week on the matter.
Feature image credit: “Houston Dash vs. Chicago Red Stars” by araizavictor is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0. To view the terms, visit https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/mark/1.0/?ref=openverse.