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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.

Chelsea Gray Returns From Injury in Aces Win Over Seattle

las vegas aces chelsea gray and kelsey plum celebrate a win over the seattle storm
Gray has been sidelined with a foot injury since the 2023 WNBA Finals. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Chelsea Gray made her return to the basketball court on Wednesday, helping the Aces to a 94-83 win over the Seattle Storm. 

The lauded point guard missed the first 12 games of the season, having been injured in last year’s WNBA Finals. The left foot injury caused her to miss Game 4 of the championship series, and she’s continued to rehab it through the beginning of the 2024 season. 

Her return on Wednesday was capitalized by the fact that she needed just 20 seconds to make an impact and record her first assist. While she finished with just one point, she had seven assists, four rebounds, and two blocks to go alongside it in 15:30 minutes. Gray's contributions on the night brought her career assist record up to 1,500.

"I probably went through every emotion leading up to today," Gray said after the game. "I was a little anxious all day. It's been a long time since I've been out on that court. But the fans were amazing from the time I came out to warm up to the time I checked in the game. It was a rush and a feeling I missed a lot."

It’s been a roller coaster of a season so far for Las Vegas, who have lost five of their last seven games. Gray, who averaged 15.3 points, 7.3 assists, and 4.0 rebounds in 2023, has proven herself a much-needed addition to the team’s lineup.

"Felt like my heart," Aces coach Becky Hammon said when asked how she felt hearing the crowd erupt for Gray's return. "She's the leader of our team. I thought she did a wonderful job too."

Cameron Brink Suffers Season-Ending ACL Tear

la sparks rookie cameron brink being helped off the court after an injury
Brink had to be helped off the court after taking a fall during the Sparks' loss to Connecticut on Tuesday. (M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Sparks rookie Cameron Brink will miss the remainder of the WNBA season after suffering a torn ACL in her left knee during Tuesday’s game against Connecticut. 

Brink will also miss the Paris Olympics after having been named to the USA Basketball's 3×3 Olympic roster earlier this month. 

The No. 2 overall pick in the 2024 WNBA Draft, Brink started in all 15 games for the Sparks this season. She entered Tuesday averaging 8.1 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks, while her blocks ranked her third in the league behind Seattle's Ezi Magbegor and Las Vegas's A’ja Wilson.

During Tuesday’s game, Brink appeared to slip on the hardwood while driving to the basket. After standing up with assistance, she then had to be helped off the court before being carried back to the locker room

"You never think it will happen to you," Brink wrote in an Instagram post on Wednesday. "And despite all the hard work sometimes it does. This is hard to fathom but I know it will only make me stronger. I will not be derailed and I will continue to love this life — I'm not defined by basketball, but it is something that I love deeply and I will work everyday to get back to it. It's not goodbye basketball it's just a see you later. I'm always so thankful for your thoughts and prayers."

In a statement, USA Basketball wished Brink a "speedy recovery" and noted that they will be looking for someone to fill her spot on the 3×3 team. Brink's 3×3 teammate Rhyne Howard also took a knock on Wednesday, although the severity of that injury has yet to be announced. 

After the confirmation, Brink's fellow rookies took to social media to offer up words of support, with Angel Reese writing “\"prayers for my sweet girl!" Aaliyah Edwards also sent prayers, as well as "positive thoughts your way, Cam."

"It just breaks your heart," Caitlin Clark told reporters Wednesday.

"You don’t want to see anybody deal with any sort of injury, obviously an injury of that magnitude," she continued. "I know she’s the type of person that will be able to get through it and come through it stronger."

Veteran Swimmer Simone Manuel Makes 3rd Olympic Team

us olympic swimming team's simone manuel rests in a pool
Simone Manuel returns to the US Olympic Swimming Team after battling health concerns ahead of the Tokyo Games. (Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

Decorated swimmer Simone Manuel made her third US Olympic team on Wednesday, touching fourth in the 100-meter freestyle to secure a spot in the relay event in front of a record crowd inside Lucas Oil Stadium.

With her gold medal win at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio, Manuel became the first Black woman to win gold in an individual Olympic swimming event. But the former champion in the 100-meter freestyle endured a long road after being diagnosed with overtraining syndrome ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

"I think Paris is going to be a blast," Manuel said after qualifying. "It's a different spot than I'm used to right now with only being a relay swimmer. But it's my third Olympic team, and that's something that's really hard to accomplish.

"It's a miracle that I'm even able to stand up here and be able to race again. The people close to me know the journey it took to get here. I'm really proud of myself and proud of Team USA."

Kate Douglass and Torri Huske will advance as the two individual swimmers in the event. They'll be joined by Gretchen Walsh and Manuel. 

Elsewhere, Katie Ledecky added to her long list of accolades by winning the 1500-meter freestyle in a time that she wasn’t entirely happy with — despite finishing well ahead of the rest of the heat.

"I was expecting to go a lot faster," she said afterwards. "I know I have a lot more in me than the end result today. I just didn't have that next gear."

One day prior, Regan Smith reclaimed the World Record in the 100-meter backstroke with a time of record time of 57.33 seconds. Smith had previously set the record in 2019, before Australia’s Kaylee McKeown broke it soon after. The feat marked the second World Record broken at the US Olympic Swimming Trials.

"There were many years that went by after 2019 where I thought that I would never do that ever again," Smith said Tuesday, before adding that she’d love to set a new record in Paris. "I think 56 is a possibility, for sure."

Midge Purce-Backed Docuseries ‘The Offseason’ to Drop This Summer

cast of the offseason nwsl reality series
'The Offseason' follows a group of NWSL stars as they prepare for preseason play. (The Offseason)

The Offseason, a reality series created by Gotham and USWNT star Midge Purce, has officially confirmed its streaming debut, Purce announced in Cannes on Tuesday.

The six-episode, half-hour docuseries will stream this summer on X, though a specific premiere date hasn't yet been set.

The Offseason was filmed in Miami, two weeks before the NWSL preseason. It's a crucial time for athletes, a period where they prepare to join their respective teams and compete for both starting and roster spots. Production designed all the facilities, bringing in top-tier trainers, masseuses, chefs, and gym equipment to create a high-level training environment, ensuring the players were in peak condition, per the show's release. Throughout filming, athletes lived together in one house — a reality TV conceit rife for entertainment.

The series follows a number of NWSL stars, including Purce (NJ/NY Gotham FC), Maria Sanchez (Houston Dash), Lo’eau LaBonta (Kansas City Current), Michelle Alozie (Houston Dash), Taylor Smith (NJ/NY Gotham FC), Nikki Stanton (OL Reign), Ally Watt (Orlando Pride), Taryn Torres (NJ/NY Gotham FC), Paige Nielsen (Angel City FC), and Ify Onumonu (Utah Royals).

"We wanted to create a series that truly captures the essence of what it means to be a professional athlete," said Purce. "This series has always been about more than just sports — it's about the human experience behind the athlete, as well."

The show promises a behind-the-scenes look at professional women's sports, teasing major life decisions, on-field tensions, and players taking stock of the environments they'll be entering once their preseason trip is over. The series delves into the real-life challenges faced by the athletes, including club trades, contract negotiations, burnout, and the relentless pressure from outsiders commenting on the players' personal lives.

The Offseason's official trailer, released on Tuesday, shows snippets of Hubly contemplating retirement, Sanchez joining the group after signing a high-profile contract, and a healthy amount of banter about on-field achievements.

The spirit of the series is reflected in its producers: Box To Box Films is known for their sports content (Drive to Survive, Break Point, Full Swing), whereas 32 Flavors is the creative force behind Vanderpump Rules and The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. The series was funded by Seven Seven Six, and executive produced by Purce.

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