Red Stars’ free-agent exodus leaves future even murkier
Three club veterans are leaving in free agency after a tumultuous year.
The Sally Yates report, released on Monday, revealed “systemic” issues of verbal abuse, emotional abuse and sexual misconduct in the NWSL. In detailing her findings, Yates also expressed concern that three teams did not fully cooperate with the investigation, and their actions hindered its execution.
The Portland Thorns, Chicago Red Stars and Racing Louisville were at the center of the investigation, with former coaches Paul Riley, Rory Dames and Christy Holly named in the report as perpetuating toxic and inappropriate cultures within their organizations.
Since the report came out, all three organizations have issued statements regarding the findings.
Thorns owner Merritt Paulson was the first to comment.
“Yesterday’s Yates report unveiling was the darkest day I have experienced, and I know the same is true for everyone else who loves our team and our league,” he wrote in a statement released on his team’s website. “I know it was even harder and darker for those whose stories were shared publicly. I cannot apologize enough for our role in a gross systemic failure to protect player safety and the missteps we made in 2015. I am truly sorry.
“Given the Thorns are about to enter the NWSL Playoffs, I have told the NWSL that I will be removing myself effective today from all Thorns-related decision making until the NWSL/NWSLPA Joint Investigation, which we are fully cooperating with, is released. Gavin Wilkinson and Mike Golub will also step aside. All Thorns-related decisions will now be handled by Heather Davis, Thorns General Counsel.”
Then, on Wednesday, the Thorns announced that Wilkinson and Golub had been relieved of their duties, effective immediately.
The Yates report investigated claims originally reported by Meg Linehan of The Athletic, detailing sexual harassment and coercion by former coach Paul Riley against Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly, as well as accusations against other coaches.
Riley was dismissed as head coach of the Thorns in 2015 following an internal investigation of the allegations, but the reason was not made public.
“Paul Riley and Portland Thorns went their separate ways, and Gavin and Merritt wished him well,” Alex Morgan, Shim’s teammate at the time, said in “Truth Be Told,” an ESPN E:60 documentary that aired on Tuesday evening.
Riley, backed by a positive referral from the Thorns, went on to coach in the NWSL for six more years between the Western New York Flash and the North Carolina Courage.
Golub was also the subject of complaints of misconduct. In 2013, he said to then-coach and current U.S. Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone, according to the Yates report, “What’s on your bucket list besides sleeping with me?”
Nowhere in the statement released by the Thorns did Paulson address the claims that his organization did not cooperate with the Yates investigation. JWS reached out for comment explicitly on that point, and the Thorns ignored the request.
Former Red Stars chairman Arnim Whisler was the next executive to release a statement on Tuesday evening.
Based on Yates’ findings, Whisler was acutely involved in the wrongdoings within the Red Stars’ organization. After being made aware of verbal abuse, emotional abuse, racism and an inappropriate, “sexually charged atmosphere” created by Dames, Whisler sided with the coach.
When Dames offered to resign, Whisler refused to accept the resignation and instead placed the blame on national team players like Christen Press, who reported Dames’ behavior multiple times during and after her time playing for the Red Stars from 2014-17.
“I am so deeply sorry for what our players experienced during their time spent in Chicago. Our organization is committed to rebuilding trust and respect among players and staff towards our league and club, and I recognize that my current presence is a distraction,” Whisler said in his statement. “I do not want to take any of the attention away from the players’ incredible and well earned playoff run. So in the interest of the club and the players, and fans we serve, effective immediately, I will remove myself from my governance role within the NWSL board of governors and will hand over operational control of the club to our executive team in Chicago.”
Whisler then stated that he is fully cooperating with the NWSL and NWSL Players Association’s joint investigation.
Nowhere in the statement did Whisler address the claims that his organization did not cooperate fully with the Yates investigation, and the Red Stars did not respond to JWS’ request for comment explicitly on that point.
Late Wednesday evening, the Red Stars released another statement, this time announcing Whisler’s removal from the Board of Directors.
“The Board of Directors of the Chicago Red Stars voted this morning to remove Arnim Whisler as Chairman of the Board, to transition him out of his board seat immediately with the Chicago Red Stars (Chicago Women’s Soccer Academy, LLC) and to codify his removal from any further participation with either club or board operations,” the press release read.
“The Board was deeply disappointed after reading the Yates report and believes the club cannot move forward in rebuilding trust with players, staff and the Red Stars community with his continued involvement.”
Racing Louisville released a statement on Wednesday afternoon, two days after the Yates report detailed multiple claims of sexual coercion, harassment and assault against Holly by former Racing player Erin Simon.
One such incident took place when Holly asked Simon to come to a one-on-one film session in April 2021.
“When she arrived, she recalls Holly opened his laptop and began the game film,” the report states, adding that Holly told her he would touch her for every bad pass she made. Holly then “pushed his hands down her pants and up her shirt,” according to the report.
“She tried to tightly cross her legs and push him away, laughing to avoid angering him,” the report continues. “The video ended, and she left. When her teammate picked her up to drive home, Simon broke down crying.”
In other instances, Holly sent Simon explicit photos and asked for her to do the same.
Racing Louisville President James O’Connor addressed the report in a team statement.
“We commend Erin for her bravery in coming forward as part of U.S. Soccer’s investigation,” he wrote. “And while our former coach was terminated within 24 hours of us being alerted to the behavior, we know that wasn’t enough and that we failed our locker room by creating a space where this behavior could occur. We have worked hard every day since then to ensure a safe environment that puts players in a position to succeed. This includes implementation of club-wide anonymous reporting services and a re-evaluated hiring process for staff.”
O’Connor ended the statement by saying, “We are not the same club that we were in August of 2021. We now owe it to our players and community to prove it.”
Nowhere in the statement, however, did O’Connor address the claims that his organization did not fully cooperate with the Yates investigation. Racing Louisville did not respond to JWS’ request for comment explicitly on that point.
Three club veterans are leaving in free agency after a tumultuous year.
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