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Amid NWSL abuse fallout, clubs remain silent on Yates cooperation

Merritt Paulson has stepped down as CEO of the NWSL’s Thorns and MLS’ Timbers. (Troy Wayrynen/USA TODAY Sports)

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.

Paul Riley coached for six more seasons after the Thorns quietly let him go in 2015. (Howard Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

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.”

Rory Dames coached the Red Stars from 2011-21 despite multiple complaints about his behavior. (Robin Alam/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

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 fired Christy Holly last August after Erin Simon came forward with her story. (Joe Robbins/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

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.

Rose Lavelle hoping to return to play ‘in the next couple of weeks’

uswnt midfielder rose lavalle trains on a soccer field in florida
When healthy, Rose Lavelle is a trusted asset in the USWNT's midfield. (Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

Rose Lavelle is hoping to return to the field soon. 

The 28-year-old midfielder has been sidelined with a lower leg injury since the Gold Cup in early march. Since then, she has yet to play for new club Gotham FC in the NWSL. She also missed a potential USWNT appearance at the SheBelieves Cup in April, where senior team newcomer Jaedyn Shaw saw success assuming Lavelle's role in the attacking midfield. 

At the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee media showcase on Monday, Lavelle told reporters that she’s doing well and hopes to be back soon.

"I’m doing good — I’m hoping I’ll be back in the next couple weeks," Lavelle said. "It’s frustrating to start the year off with an injury, just because I feel like you come off preseason and you’re revving to go, so it’s so annoying."

Lavelle is still looking to compete for one of just 18 Olympic roster spots. When healthy, she ranks as one of the national team’s most trusted assets, but considering this most recent injury, her health is an obvious concern. Faced with an onslaught of experienced competitors and young talent, incoming USWNT coach Emma Hayes will have some big decisions to make when selecting the Paris-bound squad — a reality Lavelle seems to be taking in stride as she works to regain full fitness.

"We have so many special players, we have so much depth, and so many different weapons to utilize on and off the bench," Lavelle said. "Unfortunately that means really good players are going to get left off, too. And I think for all of us, it’s just about being ready for whatever role is given to us, embracing that, and looking to put it into a collective picture so that we can go into the Olympics ready to go."

Kate Paye tapped to take VanDerveer’s place at Stanford

new stanford head coach kate paye spins a basketball on the court
Stanford associate head coach Kate Paye has officially been promoted to head women's basketball coach. (Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports)

Stanford has found its replacement for legendary head women's basketball coach Tara VanDerveer in associate head coach Kate Paye.

The Cardinal confirmed the hiring on Tuesday via a press release. Paye was largely expected to replace the longtime head coach, as the college mentioned they were still negotiating Paye's contract when they announced VanDerveer's retirement.

In Tuesday's statement, Paye reported that she was "humbled" to have been tapped to lead the women’s program.

"Stanford University has been a central part of my life for as long as I can remember and I am humbled to have the opportunity to lead its women’s basketball program," Paye said. "I’d first like to thank Tara, who has played such a pivotal role in my career for her friendship and guidance. It’s not what she’s done, but how she’s done it, that has had such a profound impact upon me."

A Woodside, California native, Paye played under VanDerveer from 1992 to 1995, taking home a national title her freshman year. After graduation, Paye briefly joined San Diego State as an assistant coach before making her professional debut with the ABL's Seattle Reign in 1996. After finishing her playing career with the WNBA's Seattle Storm, she joined the team’s coaching staff in 2007 and has been with the organization ever since, picking up another national title win — this time as associate head coach — in 2021. Paye's brother John played quarterback for Stanford from 1983 to 1986, while also serving as a point guard on the basketball team.

In her own response, VanDerveer said that she was "grateful" that Stanford picked Paye to follow in her stead. Last week, the decorated coach stated that this year would be her last after 38 seasons at the helm and three national titles under her belt.

"She has long been ready for this opportunity and is the perfect leader for Stanford at this time of immense change in college athletics," VanDerveer noted. "Kate was the choice for this job and I am confident she will achieve great success as head coach."

After a record-breaking Draft Night, WNBA roster cuts loom

2023 WNBA no. 1 draft pick Aliyah Boston playing for the indiana fever
Despite going No. 1 overall in the 2023 WNBA Draft, Aliyah Boston had to fight hard to make it onto Indiana's roster. (Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

The 2024 WNBA Draft has officially concluded, leaving the newly minted rookie class facing a tough road ahead.

Only 144 roster slots are available throughout the league’s 12 teams, the reason why the players are sometimes referred to as the “144.” And Monday’s draft picks are set to join a large group of established players competing for those same roster spots, from seasoned veterans to young athletes determined to prove their value on the court.

Last year, just 15 of the league’s 36 draftees made it onto their drafting team's opening-day squad.

In reality, there are oftentimes fewer than 144 spots available, as not every team maxes out their roster. Per the league's CBA, each team roster must maintain a minimum standard of 11 players, but those lists can include players out with injuries or on other forms of leave. Players can also be assigned to short-term hardship contracts, something waived players must be prepared for at any point during the season.

Earlier this week, Laeticia Amihere — a 2022 national champion with South Carolina who currently plays for the Atlanta Dream — took to TikTok to provide some insight into the WNBA training camp process. 

"You can either get drafted on Draft Night, or you can get signed by a team," she said. "Once that happens, you go to training camp literally like two weeks later... Basically everybody's got to try out. There's 12 roster spots, and there's like 18 people at the at the trial."

@laeticiaamihere Replying to @dantavius.washington #wnba #draft ♬ original sound - Laeticia Amihere

Amihere also had an important point to make: Getting cut does not signify a player’s abilities. 

"If you get cut after training camp, that does not mean you're not good," she said. "That does not mean that player sucks, don't stop supporting that player. Literally, there's so many reasons somebody can get cut."

"If you guys look at the best players in the league, most of them have bounced around teams," she added. "And I promise you it is not a bad thing, it's just how the league is."

Things, however gradually, are changing. With Golden State's WNBA team scheduled to launch in time for the 2025 season, league expansion is just around the corner. On Monday, Commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced that the league is aiming to grow to 16 teams by 2028. But by then, it might be too little too late for the generation of talent emerging from an increasingly competitive NCAA system.

WNBA draft shatters records with 2.45 million viewers

wide shot of BAM during the 2024 WNBA Draft
It wasn't just attendees that were glued to the on-stage action at the 2024 WNBA Draft. (Photo by Melanie Fidler/NBAE via Getty Images)

Monday night’s WNBA draft added to the nationwide uptick in record-breaking women's sports viewership, pulling in 2.45 million viewers throughout the nearly two-hour broadcast and peaking at 3.09 million, according to an ESPN release. 

That number shatters the previous draft viewership record — 601,000 in 2004 — which was fueled primarily by then-No. 1 pick Diana Taurasi entering the league after UConn's historic three-peat March Madness performance.  

The 2023 WNBA draft drew 572,000 viewers, the most for any televised WNBA event since 2.74 million tuned in to NBC for a Memorial Day matchup between the New York Liberty and Houston Comets back in 2000.

While many came to watch Caitlin Clark get drafted No. 1 overall, it’s important to note that viewership didn’t take a massive dip after the superstar shooter left the stage. The numbers show that a bulk of the audience stuck around to watch the remainder of the show, making 2024's event not just the most-viewed WNBA draft in history, but also the most-viewed WNBA program to ever air on ESPN platforms.

Draft Day's popularity is yet another sign indicating an expected rise in WNBA regular season viewership. Clark and Iowa's NCAA tournament showdown with the Chicago Sky-bound Kamilla Cardoso's South Carolina side drew a record 18.7 million to ABC's Sunday afternoon broadcast. Banking on this trend, 36 of Indiana's upcoming 40 games are set to be shown on national television. In-person ticket sales are also soaring, leading the defending WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces to re-home their matchup with the Fever to a venue that can accommodate some 6,000 more fans.

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