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Investigation by former AG Sally Yates finds systematic abuse in NWSL, women's soccer

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Players from the Portland Thorns and Houston Dash and game officials meet in the center circle at Providence Park prior to an Oct. 6, 2021 match in a show of unity in response to allegations of abuse by Paul Riiley, who coached the Thorns 2015-16.

The Portland Thorns, the National Women's Soccer League and U.S. Soccer Federation failed to protect players from abusive coaches. That is the conclusion of an independent investigation into abuses in women's soccer conducted by former U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates.

The report found systematic failures across the National Women's Soccer League and calls out the Portland Thorns, among other teams and individuals, for ignoring claims of abuses by former Thorns coach Paul Riley.

Yates' report, released Monday, Oct. 3, also states that the Thorns did not willingly cooperate with the investigation. The report is a stern rebuke of the way the Thorns, specifically owner Merritt Paulson and general manager Gavin Wilkinson, handled complaints by former players Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly.

The investigation took almost a year and was commissioned by U.S. Soccer and included complaints about former Chicago Red Stars coach Rory Dames and former Racing Louisville coach Christy Holly. In all three cases, male coaches are accused of abusing female players emotionally and/or sexually.

The NWSL, in conjunction with the NWSL Players Association, is conducting its own investigation, which remains open.

Yates' full report, which includes explicit language, can be seen here: kslaw.com

The report paints a picture of a league and clubs — including the Thorns —where the image of the organization and its senior employees trumped player-safety concerns.

As of late Monday, the Thorns had not issued a comment. A spokesperson said the club was still reviewing the report.

Former Thorns players Shim and Farrelly, whose stories of sexual coercion by Riley were first reported by The Athletic on Sept. 30, 2021, were among the more than 200 witnesses interviewed for the report. Their stories were corroborated by Yates' investigation and are among the abuses cited in the' report.

Among the findings, according to the report:

• Timbers and Thorns owner Merritt Paulson had been told in 2014 about non-sexual abuse of players by Riley.

• General manager Gavin Wilkinson told the Western New York Flash — after Riley had been terminated by the Thorns in 2015 — that he would hire Riley "in a heartbeat," and that in conversation Wilkinson blamed Shim for "putting Riley in a bad situation."

Before Riley was hired by the Western New York Flash, Wilkinson spoke with Flash Vice President Aaran Lines, but did not go into specifics about why Riley was terminated by Portland "at the advice of legal counsel."

The report also says that the U.S. Soccer Federation and the NWSL — both of which had copies of the 2015 Thorns report on Riley's termination —did not share that report with the Flash before Riley was hired (or later when the club changed ownership and moved to North Carolina).

The report states that Shim cried when she learned Riley was hired by the Flash:

"I was really upset. I was worried about other players." Shim said, "the way Portland handled the investigation and the way the League responded … they were not taking it as seriously as they should. I was sad. I contemplated not playing."

Farrelly's response to Riley getting another job, according to the report, was: "it was just extra validation that it didn't matter what Mana said, it was like it never happened. And this also solidified for me not to tell, because 'what's the point?' I just felt silenced and unsupported."

The report states that North Carolina Courage owner Steve Malik recalled Paulson telling him that Riley used "poor judgement" by inviting players to his apartment, but that no other complaints about Riley's behavior in Portland were made. The report states that Paulson did not recall discussing Riley with Malik prior to the Courage hiring Riley.

• Riley would overrule team medical staff and force injured Thorns players to train or play.

"The Head Athletic Trainer at the Thorns recalled speaking to (Gavin) Wilkinson several times in 2014 and 2015 and reporting to Wilkinson, "I have a coach who is endangering players.

"Another time she and the medical staff approached Wilkinson as a group and stated, 'Paul is going against' our advice. The team responded by mandating that the head athletic trainer from the men's team, the Portland Timbers, be included in medical discussions, but did not appear to admonish Riley's interference with medical treatment."

• That in 2013, Mike Golub, the club's president of soccer, made a sexist comment to then Thorns coach Cindy Parlow Cone. Now the president of U.S. Soccer, Parlow Cone coached the Thorns to the 2013 NWSL championship, then resigned after one season at the helm.

While this report focuses on abuses within the NWSL, the report states that "verbal and emotional abuse and sexual misconduct were widespread problems in women's soccer prior to the NWSL," in previous pro leagues and in elite youth soccer programs.

The report states, that while the Thorns eventually dropped all claims of attorney-client privilege, the club's stall tactics delayed the investigation significantly.

"The Portland Thorns interfered with our access to relevant witnesses and raised specious legal arguments in an attempt to impede our use of relevant documents"

Riley declined to be interviewed for the report.

The Thorns are not the only organization that overlooked abusive behavior by coaches. Yates' report includes sections outlining abusive and inappropriate behavior by former Racing Louisville coach Christy Holly and former Chicago Red Stars coach Rory Dames. Holly was terminated for cause and Dames was allowed to resign before a Washington Post report detailing his abuses was released.

In summary, Yates report determined:

"Our investigation has revealed a league in which abuse and misconduct—verbal and emotional abuse and sexual misconduct—had become systemic, spanning multiple teams, coaches, and victims. Abuse in the NWSL is rooted in a deeper culture in women's soccer, beginning in youth leagues, that normalizes verbally abusive coaching and blurs boundaries between coaches and players.

The verbal and emotional abuse players describe in the NWSL is not merely 'tough' coaching. And the players affected are not shrinking violets. They are among the best athletes in the world. They include members of the U.S. Women's National Team, veterans of multiple World Cup and Olympic tournaments, and graduates of legendary NCAA Division I soccer programs. In well over 200 interviews, we heard report after report of relentless, degrading tirades; manipulation that was about power, not improving performance; and retaliation against those who attempted to come forward. Even more disturbing were the stories of sexual misconduct. Players described a pattern of sexually charged comments, unwanted sexual advances and sexual touching, and coercive sexual intercourse.

Teams, the League, and the Federation not only repeatedly failed to respond appropriately when confronted with player reports and evidence of abuse, they also failed to institute basic measures to prevent and address it, even as some leaders privately acknowledged the need for workplace protections. As a result, abusive coaches moved from team to team, laundered by press releases thanking them for their service, and positive references from teams that minimized or even concealed misconduct. Those at the NWSL and USSF in a position to correct the record stayed silent. And no one at the teams, the League, or the Federation demanded better of coaches."

The report also criticizes organizations, including the Thorns, for failing to cooperate with Yates' 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. Certain teams also cloaked information about coach misconduct in attorney-client privilege, non-disclosure agreements, and non-disparagement clauses. For example, the Portland Thorns vigorously attempted to prevent our investigation from using the 2015 Thorns Report —which had been in USSF's possession since 2015 — on the grounds that it was protected by attorney-client privilege and common-interest privilege, despite all evidence to the contrary."


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