“It’s a part of the sport,” “we’re used to it” and so many other phrases are synonymous with women’s soccer.
When a male coach yells at a bunch of 13-year-old girls, we accept it, he’s coaching, that’s his job. Except it shouldn’t be.
The systemic abuse of players is something that has been built into the program of women’s soccer, and it needs to change.
If you were to ask someone who plays or has played women’s soccer they will most likely have an anecdote about a coach who used their position of power negatively. There are too many cases like this, whether it was yelling a little too much or touching a player when demonstrating a drill.
“In the terms of abusing power, I've had coaches who would move you to do a drill, but put their hands on you,” UP club soccer captain Caroline Ketcheside said. “I’ve also had coaches who, when I turned 18, DM'd me, so the fact that they feel comfortable with that … there aren't any boundaries between the players.”
This does not only occur in the high school club setting; it is a global problem that permeates the entire soccer world.
In October 2021 it was revealed in an article published by “The Athletic” that there was an institutional failure to protect players. The piece depicted and detailed Mana Shim’s and Sinead Farrelly’s experiences playing for Paul Riley.
Riley was coaching the Portland Thorns at the time and was accused of coercing the two women into sexual situations where neither of them felt comfortable (both on separate occasions). Accounts also detailed how Riley was verbally and emotionally abusive to his players.
When Shim and Farrelly published the piece, things quickly became apparent - it was not a one-time situation. This is a systemic problem in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). Shortly after the article was released, five of the 10 NWSL clubs had coaches who were either fired, placed on hold or had some decide to step down.
While there was a large public outcry about protecting players, not much changed and we went back to playing soccer.
On Oct. 3, 2022, former Deputy U.S. Attorney General Sally Q. Yates and law firm King & Spalding released the findings of a yearlong independent investigation. This 173-page report detailed the failings of both U.S. Soccer and the NWSL and offered recommendations to rectify the wrongs the league had done. The bottom line: They failed to protect league players from coaches who abused their power, some of whom were largely unqualified.
The report contained well over 200 interviews with players, coaches, owners and office staff from current and former NWSL teams as well as current and former U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) personnel. Additionally, Steph Yang for “The Athletic” detailed the amount of information that was processed.
“The investigation was given access to millions of documents from USSF, ultimately reviewing around 89,000 of those as being likely to be relevant,” Yang said in the article.
The investigation unmasked the full extent of the league’s systemic failures. The Portland Thorns garnered a large degree of focus in the investigation. Riley’s abuse was not the only failure that occurred. The Thorns administration also failed to protect the players. Not only did the Thorns administration fail to hand over paperwork when asked, the admin also protected Riley after he parted ways with the Thorns.
The investigation revealed that owner Merritt Paulson and general manager Gavin Wilkinson not only enabled but also vouched for and complimented Riley as he moved on to coach at a different NWSL team.
Additionally, the president of business Mike Golub — who is on the UP Board of Regents — made inappropriate sexual comments to the then head coach, now president of the USSF, Cindy Parlow Cone.
He asked her, “What’s on your bucket list besides sleeping with me?”
After the release of the investigation, both Golub and Wilkinson were released from the Thorns. Paulson, however, is still the owner.
“Effective immediately, I am removing myself as CEO of the Portland Thorns and Portland Timbers, and announcing a global search for a CEO of the organization,” Paulson said in a statement released on Oct. 11.
In a league where your players are the most important part of the business, the complete lack of protection is astounding.
“Teams, the league and the federation not only repeatedly failed to respond appropriately when confronted with player reports and evidence of abuse,” Yates wrote in the investigation. “They also failed to institute basic measures to prevent and address it, even as some leaders privately acknowledged the need for workplace protections.”
If you want a thorough recounting of all that happened in the NWSL, ESPN released a documentary called “E60: Truth be Told” that can be watched here for free.
The creation of the league in 2012 was hastily pieced together to get the business up and running quickly and, as a result, there were no procedures put into place to protect players. No HR, no place for these players to turn for help.
“Without the players, you don’t have anything,” UP alum Megan Rapinoe said in a different article for “The Athletic” “You don’t have a game, you don’t have a sport at all. If we’re not protected in the right ways, then nothing really else matters.”
Yates detailed seven different recommendations aimed to prevent abuse in the future. The recommendations included transparency, accountability and a clear set of rules for player safety and respect. It also highlighted more concrete changes like allowing players to give feedback, be heard as well as putting into place a system of discipline.
Players’ hearts are heavy, fans are angry with the league and owners who protected the abusers aren’t stepping down. A lot needs to happen.
Wilder Isom is the Sports Editor at The Beacon. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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