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US Soccer report: Three NWSL clubs hindered abuse investigation

Former Thorns and current Timbers general manager Gavin Wilkinson speaks with Merritt Paulson, the owner of both teams. (Diego Diaz/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Despite making public statements about committing to transparency and cooperation, three NWSL clubs reportedly failed to fully cooperate with the U.S. Soccer investigation conducted by Sally Q. Yates.

The findings of the investigation, released Monday in a 172-page report, reveal detailed accounts of “systemic” abuse in the NWSL.

According to the report, the U.S. Soccer Federation “delivered on its commitment” to full autonomy and did not influence or interfere with the investigation. Over 200 interviews were conducted over the course of the year-long investigation, including over 100 interviews with current and former players.

In total, 11 current or former NWSL clubs provided documentation and cooperated with the investigation to varying degrees. However, the Chicago Red Stars, Portland Thorns and Racing Louisville all took actions that hindered the investigation, according to the report.

Each NWSL club at one time employed coaches being investigated for allegations of misconduct, including Paul Riley, Rory Dames and Christy Holly.

“The Thorns refused to produce relevant documents for months, making specious arguments that the materials were protected by the attorney-client and attorney work product privileges, causing months of delay and impeding interviews of key witnesses,” the report reads.

Additionally, the Thorns “impeded our access” to witnesses and failed to produce relevant documentation “for months,” citing attorney-client privilege, according to the report. The club later withdrew such assertions.

Thorns owner Merritt Paulson committed to transparency in a statement last October, days after he and former general manager Gavin Wilkinson were at the center of a report in The Athletic detailing allegations of misconduct against Riley when he was coach of the Thorns. In a letter issued to the public, Paulson “disavow[ed] the culture of silence that may have allowed for additional victimization by a predatory coach” and welcomed the investigation. He added that he was committed to “fully cooperate” in order to bring “much needed light…on the facts.”

The Red Stars, meanwhile, failed to provide documentation for six months. While documents were requested for the investigation on Dec. 13, 2021, the club “did not make its first substantial production” until May 6, and provided documents up until as recently as Sept. 13.

Dames resigned as Red Stars head coach last November after players came forward with accusations of emotional and verbal abuse in a Washington Post report.

“In addition, the Red Stars initially sought to narrow the scope of our investigation by declining to produce documents beyond those relating directly to Rory Dames,” the report adds. “The Red Stars have partially retreated from that position, but we have had to obtain documents from other cooperating sources to supplement their incomplete production.”

Lastly, Racing Louisville “refused to provide any information” on Holly’s tenure with the team, according to the report. Holly was fired “for cause” last August, though the club did not elaborate on the reasons at the time. U.S. Soccer’s investigation revealed new information about Holly’s departure, including Erin Simon’s accusations of sexual coercion and abuse against her former coach.

During the investigation, the report reads that Racing Louisville did not permit witnesses — including former employees — to answer questions about Holly’s tenure, citing non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements. The team also produced just 41 documents for the investigation.

“In general, teams, the NWSL, and USSF appear to have prioritized concerns of legal exposure to litigation by coaches — and the risk of drawing negative attention to the team or League — over player safety and well-being,” the report reads.

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