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NWSL has all the facts of widespread abuse. What comes next?

Fans cheer during the first half of an NWSL womens soccer game between the Angel Ctiy FC and the San Diego Wave FC September 17, 2022 at Snapdragon Stadium in San Diego, California. (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images)

The 2022 calendar year introduced what is likely only the beginning of monumental change to professional women’s soccer in the U.S. But the process of identifying past wrongdoing in the NWSL possibly found its end on Wednesday, with the release of the NWSL and NWSLPA’s joint investigation into misconduct only a few months after Sally Q. Yates announced her own findings on the league’s culture of systemic abuse.

Action steps have been slightly slower to follow. The Yates report changed everything about how the public perceived the first 10 years of the NWSL’s existence, but it didn’t actually recommend any immediate changes in personnel. The report questioned the isolated use of SafeSport and recommended policy and process shifts to create a stronger infrastructure of transparency and care, but while it named bad actors, it deferred to the league itself on next steps.

Simultaneously, the NWSL made fact-finding one of the main objectives of its own investigation. Commissioner Jessica Berman outlined a three-pronged process for next steps before the NWSL Championship in October: “First, seeking the truth, second, corrective action, and third, systemic reform.”

At the time, Berman said the NWSL was still operating in the first stage of that overall plan: finding the facts. For a league that has long had a nebulous relationship with the truth, processing massive amounts of vetted information is no small feat. Both the Yates report and the NWSL investigation detail the ways abusive behavior had been dismissed and covered up for many years and across the majority of clubs.

The Yates report went into detail about how half-truths and words of encouragement from Merritt Paulson allowed Paul Riley to move on from misconduct at the Portland Thorns to coach the Western New York Flash and then the North Carolina Courage. The NWSL investigation further tells the stories of non-disclosure agreements — tied to severance payments — that allowed coaches like Rory Dames and Christy Holly to walk away from their positions with their reputations contractually protected. By fighting the norms that have been in place for years, simply by bringing hard truths to light, the league is making progress.

The NWSL investigation also came with a set of recommendations at both the club and league level. That list includes proposed standards for staffing, especially in human resources, and a number of policy proposals. The NWSL will establish a non-fraternization policy “that will create clear rules regarding romantic and/or sexual relationships and/or encounters between players and staff,” according to the press release. The league will also increase vetting requirements beyond basic background checks and establish standards about alcohol use in social settings.

Those kinds of changes appear to fall into the third category of Berman’s stated outline: systemic reform. But it would be fair to wonder whether the second segment — corrective action — has been lost in the shuffle.

There have already been consequences to both the Yates report and the NWSL investigation. After being implicated in the Yates report for covering up Riley’s abuse, former Thorns general manager Gavin Wilkinson and president of soccer Mike Golub were fired in October, and Paulson has announced he is divesting the Thorns from the Timbers in order to sell the team. Chicago Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler, named extensively in both reports for fostering a toxic work environment, announced in early December that he is selling the club. Amanda Cromwell was suspended as coach of the Orlando Pride while under investigation for retaliation, and later terminated for cause after the allegations were substantiated.

Merritt Paulson is one of two NWSL owners who has announced his intention to sell after the Yates report. (Troy Wayrynen/USA TODAY Sports)

But Wilkinson and Golub’s firings were club decisions, and Paulson and Whisler’s choices to sell were ostensibly voluntary. The NWSL has influenced owners to sell in the past. Last year, the Washington Spirit were removed from league governance until they reached a resolution to Steve Baldwin’s decisions as owner, at which point Baldwin elected to sell his stake in the club.

Had Paulson and Whisler further dragged their feet, it’s possible the Board of Governors would have made a push for their removal. It’s also possible that concerns over potential lawsuits or damaging acts of finger-pointing would have rendered them inert.

Regardless, other questions remain. And as fans look for signs of true change in leadership, they might currently find themselves disappointed.

The NWSL report named Huw Williams, former head coach of the Kansas City Current, for retaliating against players and coaching with a detrimental communication style. Players brought concerns to ownership in August 2021, but Williams still finished the season as head coach and spent 2022 in a different front-office role. Only after the release of Wednesday’s report did the Current admit that Williams no longer worked for the club as of November. The team also released a statement that did not acknowledge the decision-making behind his move to the front-office role.

Fans in Houston also saw the unsatisfying end to James Clarkson’s tenure as head coach, after a lengthy investigation ended with no detailed action items. Clarkson, suspended first in April and then named in the NWSL investigation for emotional misconduct and insensitivity, will simply have his current contract with the Dash expire at the end of 2022.

The Dash will not renew James Clarkson's contract based on the NWSL investigation's findings. (Trask Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Even less action has been taken with Racing Louisville’s James O’Connor, who was named in the Yates report for misrepresenting the recommendations he received about Christy Holly before his hiring, and for failing to properly address complaints about Holly’s coaching and behavior. O’Connor served as Racing Louisville president until October, at which point the club began looking for a general manager to run Racing’s operations (O’Connor still runs the Louisville City FC side of the organization). As with Wilkinson and Golub, O’Connor’s future seems to hinge on a club decision, and for now the club appears to be sticking by their president.

Former USWNT manager and current San Diego Wave president Jill Ellis was also named in both reports for having received complaints about NWSL coaches during her tenure with the U.S. In the NWSL report, she specifically denied seeing a complaint from Christen Press about Dames. The Wave have yet to formally acknowledge Ellis’ involvement in their statements about either investigation.

In a functioning league ecosystem, the NWSL doesn’t have to meddle in club affairs, but multiple investigations call for further consequences. Systemic change can only come from corrective action, and eyes will be on Berman’s office for moral clarity before the 2023 preseason begins.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.

‘UNINTERRUPTED’s Top Class Tennis’ Debuts on Prime 

Still from tennis docuseries UNINTERRUPTED'S Top Class Tennis
'UNINTERRUPTED'S Top Class Tennis' follows four junior players as they prep for the Orange Bowl. (Amazon MGM Studios)

Prime Video is hitting the tennis court with Thursday's streaming premiere of UNINTERRUPTED's Top Class Tennis.

After four seasons of the men's high school basketball-focused Top Class: The Life and Times of The Sierra Canyon Trailblazers, athlete empowerment brand UNINTERRUPTED is expanding its purview to tennis with a new four-episode mixed-gender docuseries.

Junior tennis stars take centerstage

Behind the concept is 2017 US Open champion and world No. 45 pro Sloane Stephens, who co-executive produced the series alongside LeBron James and Maverick Carter, co-founders of UNINTERRUPTED and its production and entertainment development arm, The SpringHill Company.

Top Class Tennis follows four players on their journeys to the Orange Bowl, arguably the junior circuit’s Grand Slam equivalent. The Florida-based international tournament was established in 1947 and has crowned a long list of future pros as champions, from retired great Steffi Graf to current star Coco Gauff.

Stealing the spotlight this season is rising Harvard sophomore and 2022-23 USA Today Girls Tennis Player of the Year Stephanie Yakoff, as well as five-time junior title winner and incoming Texas freshman Ariana Anazagasty-Pursoo. Both already have WTA creds, with Yakoff featuring at the 2023 BNP Paribas Open while Anazagasty-Pursoo competed on three Grand Slam courts.

Kamilla Cardoso, Kiki Rice, Caitlin Clark, Holly Rowe and Kristen Lappas at the ESPN+ 'Full Court Press' premiere
ESPN+'s Full Court Press is one of several women's sports docs hitting the screen this year. (Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

Women's sports storms the big screen

Top Class Tennis is just the latest in what's shaping up to be a women’s sports documentary boom.

From Max's LFG about the USWNT's fight for equal pay and Netflix's Under Pressure chronicling the 2023 World Cup to ESPN+’s 2023-24 NCAA basketball series Full Court Press, athletes in women’s sports have taken streamers by storm.

UNINTERRUPTED's Top Class Tennis is available for streaming now on Prime Video

JWS Launches ‘The Gold Standard’ Hosted by Olympians Kelley O’Hara & Lisa Leslie

the gold standard logo
'The Gold Standard' is just one of three new JWS shows tackling the Summer Olympics.

Just Women's Sports announced three new digital series on Thursday, headlined by The Gold Standard, a new studio show hosted by Olympic gold medalists and women's sports icons Kelley O'Hara and Lisa Leslie.

USWNT and NWSL great O'Hara, a two-time World Cup winner and Olympic gold and bronze medalist, is teaming up with three-time WNBA MVP Lisa Leslie, herself a four-time Olympic gold medalist with Team USA, to bring viewers inside the world of Olympic women's sports. The pair will record each episode in-studio, with a series of special guests joining them throughout the show's run.

An insider's view of the Summer Games

The Gold Standard will debut on July 27th and cover the biggest women's sports stories from the Paris Olympics, giving fans a unique perspective by tapping into the insights and opinions of two legendary Olympians. 

"I know first-hand just how exciting and intense the Olympic Games can be," Leslie told JWS. "This show gives us a chance as athletes to bring fans closer to the experience, by sharing our unique insights into the Games. And with all the momentum we're seeing in women's sports, now is the perfect time to have a show dedicated to the biggest women's sports moments at the Olympic Games." 

"I can still remember watching the '96 Olympics and knowing that I wanted to be on that stage one day," says O'Hara. "Having the chance to compete in the Olympics and win gold was one of the highlights of my career. I'm looking forward to being a fan this time around and getting the chance to share my own perspective on the Games' biggest stories. Having teamed with Just Women's Sports before, I know this will be content that resonates with fans." 

The Gold Standard will live on Just Women's Sports' YouTube page, with select social cuts distributed across JWS digital platforms. The six-episode show will run through August 13th.

uswnt stars kelley o'hara and jaedyn shaw on jws digital series 1v1
1v1 with Kelley O'Hara will focus on USWNT players as they prep for the 2024 Olympics. (Just Women's Sports)

Additional series focus on USWNT's Olympic run

The Gold Standard is just one of three upcoming JWS series designed to invite fans to experience the Summer Games from an Olympian's point of view, with additional series zeroing in on the USWNT's 2024 Olympic run.

Ahead of the opening ceremony, JWS will launch the latest edition of 1v1, with host Kelley O'Hara interviewing three of her USWNT teammates: Emily Sonnett, Jaedyn Shaw, and Rose Lavelle. These peer-to-peer interviews provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the USWNT's preparation for their first major tournament under new manager Emma Hayes.

To round things out, JWS is also bringing back its award-winning series, The 91st. This tournament's edition will be hosted by retired USWNT star and World Cup champion Jessica McDonald alongside noted soccer personalities Jordan Angeli and Duda Pavão. The 91st will follow the USWNT as it looks to go for gold against a stacked international field at the Paris Olympics — including reigning World Cup winners Spain.

Each new digital series leans on the expertise of its accomplished hosts and special guest stars, providing fans with candid, personality-driven commentary surrounding this summer's biggest event.

Costa Rica Holds USWNT to 0-0 Draw in Frustrating Olympic Send-Off

USWNT midfielder Lindsey Horan dribbles the ball by Costa Rica forward Melissa Herrera and midfielder Gloriana Villalobos
The USWNT had 12 shots on goal on Tuesday despite failing to find the back of the net. (Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports)

The USWNT didn't quite get the going away party they were hoping for, settling for a 0-0 draw with Costa Rica on Tuesday in their final tune-up match before the 2024 Olympics kick off next week.

The US produced 26 shots — 12 on target — alongside 67 touches in the box, the most in any match where they failed to convert a single goal since at least 2015, per Opta. Yet they also faced a heroic performance from Costa Rica goalkeeper Noelia Bermúdez, who tallied 12 saves on the night.

USWNT starters remained mostly intact

After Saturday's win over Mexico, USWNT manager Emma Hayes opted for a very similar starting XI, only swapping Crystal Dunn in for Jenna Nighswonger due to load management.

Named starter Rose Lavelle was a late scratch from the lineup after team warmups, with US Soccer attributing her last-minute absence to "leg tightness." Lavelle was replaced by midfielder Korbin Albert, giving the US a slightly less aggressive attacking edge throughout the match.

Casey Krueger, Lynn Williams, Jaedyn Shaw, Emily Sonnett, and rookie Croix Bethune all got minutes in the second half, coming off the bench to contend with Washington, DC's brutally hot conditions.

USWNT forward Sophia Smith and Costa Rica midfielder Gloriana Villalobos battle for the ball
Costa Rica managed to fend off the USWNT with a strong defensive low-block. (Geoff Burke/USA TODAY)

Costa Rica's low-block spelled trouble

"Listen, if you play a game of percentages or law of averages, we're creating more and more high-quality chances, and we're getting numbers into key areas — we're getting touches in the key areas," Hayes told reporters after the match, calling attention to Costa Rica's strong defensive low-block.

"The last part's the hardest part. And I'm really patient, because I've coached teams that have to break blocks down, and it's the hardest thing to do in coaching," she continued.

Hayes also noted the team's lack of training time under her management: The decorated coach officially joined the US in early June after finishing the WSL season with her previous club, league champs Chelsea FC.

USWNT pose for a picture after their send-off friendly against costa rica at Audi Field
The USWNT's Olympic group stage run kicks off on July 25th. (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

Where to watch the USWNT's Olympic games

Tuesday's draw is just the second time the USWNT has entered a major tournament off a non-win. Back in 2015, the US embarked on their legendary World Cup campaign after a 0-0 send-off draw with South Korea.

The next time the USWNT takes the pitch will be at the Paris Olympics, where they'll play Zambia on Thursday, July 25th at 3 PM ET. The match will be broadcast live on USA, with streaming options available on Peacock.

The Late Sub Podcast: This Is Sophia Smith’s USWNT Attack Now

Sophia Smith dribbles during the USWNT's 1-0 win over Mexico on Saturday.
Sophia Smith scored the lone goal in the USWNT's 1-0 win over Mexico last Saturday. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

This week, JWS podcast host Claire Watkins breaks down the days leading up to the first USWNT Olympic send-off friendly, discussing player performances, things that worked well on the pitch, and what still needs developing as coach Emma Hayes's team moves towards a crucial Olympic competition set to will dictate the future of the team.

She then sets her sights on the WNBA, previewing WNBA All-Star Weekend and chatting with Gatorade Women’s Basketball Player of the Year Joyce Edwards alongside Dallas Wings forward Satou Sabally.

Subscribe to The Late Sub to never miss an episode.

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