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NWSL investigation: Misconduct occurred at ‘vast majority’ of clubs

(Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The NWSL and NWSLPA released the report on their joint investigation Wednesday, which uncovers new details of “widespread misconduct” in the league.

The NWSL, its clubs and U.S. Soccer failed to protect players, per the report, which both reiterates and expands upon the U.S. Soccer investigation released in October. The investigation pulls back the curtain on just how entrenched such abuse was in the league.

“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 report found.

“This report clearly reflects how our league systemically failed to protect our players,” commissioner Jessica Berman said in a statement, followed by an apology to players for the NWSL’s “failures and missteps.”

“They 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,” Berman continued.

The NWSL and NWSLPA started the investigation in October 2021 after a 2021 report in The Athletic detailed allegations of sexual harassment and coercion made in 2015 against then-Portland Thorns head coach Paul Riley. In the wake of The Athletic’s report, Riley was fired as head coach of the North Carolina Courage.

Riley’s misconduct continued in his time with the Courage. He engaged in grooming behaviors toward one player, and other players reported abusive conduct and comments, per the report.

Riley did not participate in the joint investigation.

The report also exposed further details of Chicago Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler’s failure to protect players.

Whisler disregarded player complaints about former head coach Rory Dames. He also reportedly considered keeping Dames on staff in a role that would not involve players, even with full knowledge of the Washington Post’s 2021 report into his misconduct. While Whisler later asked Dames to resign, the owner still paid him for the remainder of the year.

Whisler has committed to selling the Red Stars after being ousted by the club’s Board of Governors.

The NWSL investigation focused not just on these clubs but on the entire league. Several names not mentioned in Sally Yates’ report for US Soccer also were implicated in the report, among them: former Gotham FC general manager Alyse LaHue, former Houston Dash coach Vera Pauw and former Utah Royals coach Craig Harrington.

  • LaHue made unwanted sexual advances toward a player during her time with Gotham FC, per the report. Among the advances were text messages, including one that read, “I don’t see us as friends.” While LaHue initially participated in the investigation, she canceled a follow-up interview and declined multiple requests to reschedule.
  • Pauw weight-shamed players and “attempted to exert excessive control over their eating habits” as Dash coach in 2018, per the report. Players said Pauw “wanted to exert control over ‘every aspect of their lives.'” While Pauw appeared for an interview, she “refused to cooperate,” according to the report. She also provided a written statement denying the allegations.
  • Harrington, who served as an assistant coach of the Red Stars in 2018-19 and became head coach of the Royals in 2020, “blurred professional boundaries with players,” the report reads. Harrington would drink with players at bars, sometimes to excess, and also made sexual comments to and about players, per the report. Harrington denied the allegations, but the report states that the investigative team “did not find his denials to be credible when viewed against the accounts of multiple other witnesses.”
  • Former NWSL general counsel Lisa Levine mishandled player complaints, per the report. And then when interviewed by the investigative team, she “deflected criticism of the NWSL’s failure to act in response to these complaints onto the players themselves,” the report reads.

“While this report is the culmination of a tireless effort by many, it was players who took the first steps to bring us to this moment,” NWSLPA executive director Meghann Burke said. “When faced with the choice between silence versus speaking out at real personal risk, players who demanded a reckoning gave the NWSL a chance at transformation. They deserve our gratitude and respect.”

The report details a systemic failure by both the NWSL and U.S. Soccer, stemming from a lack of structure and guidance in and between the organizations. U.S. Soccer managed the NWSL from 2012 until 2020.

For example, while clubs expected the league to help handle misconduct reports, the league expected teams to have processes at the HR level to handle such reports.

“[Former U.S. Soccer president Sunil] Gulati also stated that U.S. Soccer relied on the league and the club to develop their own policies regarding misconduct, but he did not recall ever conveying to the clubs that they were responsible for setting up these policies,” the report states.

Background checks were not mandated until August 2021, when the league implemented a policy requiring them for head coaches. In September, that was expanded to assistant coaches and other staff directly involved with players.