The Check-in: The Yates report, #FreeBG, and remembering Tiffany Jackson
We've got lots of catching up to do, friends.
1. The Yates Report
Hi, friends. What a rough few weeks it has been. I hope you are taking care of yourselves some way, some how. As I’m sure many of you know by now, at the beginning of October, Sally Yates dropped a 173-page report about systemic abuse in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). The independent report was commissioned by U.S. Soccer last October, in the wake of a devastating report by Meg Linehan at The Athletic about former NWSL head coach Paul Riley’s sexual abuse of players Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly when he was head coach of the Portland Thorns.
I have been working on reading and digesting the excruciating report, and I’m going to start an ongoing series diving deep into the findings this week. Much like in the NCAA Gender Inequity Files, I’ll be stringing together my biggest takeaways from the report(s) in separate newsletters, allowing all of us who are invested to get really into the weeds. (I figured an ongoing series was the right way to go, because we’re still waiting for the joint NWSL and NWSLPA investigation to drop, and that seems likely to uncover even more abuse and injustice.)
But before we get into the granular, let’s take a look at the main takeaway: The Yates investigation found that abuse was baked into the very fabric of the NWSL, and has been since day one, and that dozens of people failed to take the necessary steps to protect the players.
“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,” Yates wrote in the executive summary.
“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.”
The report focused primarily on the abuse of three coaches — Riley (head coach of the Portland Thorns 2014-15, Western New York Flash in 2016, and North Carolina Courage 2017-21); Christy Holly (head coach at Sky Blue FC from 2016-17 and at Racing Louisville FC in 2021); and Rory Dames (head coach of the Chicago Red Stars from 2011-2021).
Here are a few points of emphasis:
Let’s start with Paul Riley. The report corroborated the allegations first published in The Athletic by Shim and Farrelly, found “evidence that they were not alone,” and discovered that his sexual misconduct was considered to be an “open secret” in the NWSL.
To hammer that latter point home, the report noted that “the issue of Riley’s sexual misconduct was brought to the attention of individuals in the League and/or federation every year from 2015 to 2021.” And yet, Riley remained a head coach in the league until he was terminated last fall after The Athletic brought his misconduct to public attention.
Then there’s Rory Dames. The report found that he created a “culture of fear” and was “emotionally and verbally abusive to players and staff,” and that during his decade-long tenure with the Red Stars there were official complaints about his abusive behavior in 2014, 2015, and 2018. But Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler repeatedly dismissed the concerns, saying that national team players “wanted [the NWSL] shut down” and had an “axe to grind.” The abuse was just “Rory being Rory,” according to Whisler.
The Yates report also found that Dames — who has long been a prominent youth soccer coach at his youth club, the Eclipse Select Soccer Club — was “renowned for his tirades against the young girls who played for him.” At Eclipse, Dames fostered a “sexualized team environment” and “crossed the line to sexual relationships in multiple cases, though those relationships may have begun after the age of consent.”
Finally, we’ve got Christy Holly. The report opens with a newly-public and horrific account of Holly sexually abusing player Erin Simon during a film session on April 21, 2021, when he was head coach at Racing Louisville. Holly also sent Simon “sexually explicit photos and messages” and “grabbed and groped her in public, but out of view.”
The report also goes into detail about Holly’s time as head coach at Sky Blue FC, which ended with him being fired because of allegations that he was “paranoid, ultra-aggressive, short-tempered, nasty, mean, patronizing, (and) humiliating,” and was engaged in a long-term intimate relationship with Sky Blue FC captain Christy Pearce Rampone that created a “toxic” and “damaging” environment.
An ongoing pattern in the three cases above is the lack of accountability when team owners, the NWSL, and U.S. Soccer became aware of the abuse of the coaches. And, in rare cases where there was accountability — such as Riley getting fired in Portland and Holly being fired by Sky Blue — the coaches were easily able to obtain other head coaching positions in the same league.
From Yates: “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.”
Those excruciating details are, unfortunately, only the tip of the iceberg. I’ve got a lot more coverage to come. In the meantime, The Athletic has compiled an incredibly thorough timeline of the allegations, reports, and responses/lack there-of to abuse in the NWSL.
2. The fallout from the Yates report.
This is not a comprehensive accounting of the aftermath. But I do want to give you a sense of where things stand, particularly in Portland, Chicago, and Louisville.
The Portland Thorns fired president of soccer Gavin Wilkinson and president of business Mike Golub. Team owner Merritt Paulson announced last Tuesday that he was stepping down as CEO of the Thorns and their MLS counterparts, the Portland Timbers. But despite increasing pressure from fans, sponsors, and players, Paulson has not yet announced that he is selling the team.
In Chicago, the Red Stars board of directors voted to remove owner Arnim Whisler as chairman, but Meg Linehan at The Athletic has reported that the board of directors has been complicit in enabling abuse in the club, too. Meanwhile, Red Stars players have publicly demanded that Whisler sell the team. (For more on all of the dysfunction in Chicago, read this deep dive from Claire Watson over at The Defector.)
Racing Louisville FC president James O’Connor released a short statement apologizing to Simon and other players for hiring Holly, and acknowledging that the hire was a “mistake.” However, O’Conner has not resigned.
Multiple sponsors — including Alaska Airlines for the Thorns and the Sherwin-Williams Company for Racing Louisville — have announced that they are suspending sponsorship of the teams and instead redirecting their funds to the NWSLPA, via Support the Players National Emergency Trust.
It’s also important to stress that things are constantly changing. The NWSL just announced last Monday that Orlando Pride head coach Amanda Cromwell and first assistant coach Sam Greene have both been terminated because in the process of the NWSL and NWSLPA investigation, they “engaged in conduct that discouraged reporting and fostered a general fear of retaliation, and to have taken negative actions against certain players, including by seeking to waive or trade them.”
A lot of teams are waiting for the joint NWSL and NWSLPA investigation to drop to take steps forward. That report is expected to drop sometime next month, I believe.
3. The NWSL playoffs are here.
Meanwhile, the NWSL playoffs kicked off last weekend, with two THRILLING games. In the first round, the Kansas City Current defeated the Houston Dash 2-1 thanks to a goal by Kate Del Fava in the 10th minute of added time. Then the San Diego Wave defeated the Chicago Red Stars 2-1 with an Alex Morgan goal in the 110th minute of extra time.
As unbelievable as both games were, it was the crowd support that turned them into epics. Houston set an NWSL playoff record on Sunday afternoon with a sold-out crowd of 21,284, and San Diego broke that record just hours later with 26,125 fans on hand to watch the expansion team keep its championship hopes alive.
If you’re feeling torn about supporting the league in the wake of the Yates report, that is 100 percent understandable. However, I want to share a social media post by Thorns star Bella Bixby about why the players could use your love now more than ever.
Here’s some of what she wrote on Twitter:
“I understand that a lot of folks are having a hard time deciding whether or not they want to come to our semifinal match; some have already chosen against it. I would like to say that I respect anyone’s decision not to come. However, if you are on the fence, this is what I offer you, from a player’s perspective – whether you support the Thorns alone, any other team in the league, or women’s soccer across the globe, we need you now more than ever. Seeing our supporters packing the stadium lets us know that you are bearing this heavy burden WITH us.”
In the semifinals this Sunday, the Wave will face the Portland Thorns at 5:00 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network, and the Current will take on the OL Reign in Seattle at 7:30 p.m. ET. Both games will air on CBS Sports Network.
Brittney Griner has now been wrongfully detained in Russia for 244 days. Tuesday was her 32nd birthday, and she had to spend it in prison. That is just a gut-wrenching reality.
Earlier this month, her wife Cherelle shared that Griner is at her “weakest moment” right now, and is feeling forgotten about. A couple of weeks ago, we got a glimmer of hope when Bill Richardson — a seasoned hostage negotiator who works privately for families and recently traveled to Russia to discuss the potential release of Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan — said he has hope that both Griner and Whelan will be returned to the United States by the end of the year.
But the United States government has indicated that Russia has yet to engage in meaningful negotiations with them about Griner’s release, and a Putin aide told the media recently that negotiating a prisoner swap for Griner was not a high priority for Russia.
The court date for Griner’s appeal has been set for October 25. If her sentence is upheld, it’s possible she could be sent to a prison camp where she would be subjected to inhumane conditions and expected to sew or perform other labor tasks for extremely meager compensation. Currently, Griner is in a penal colony where she only gets to go outside for an hour each day and shower twice a week, according to the New York Times.
We MUST keep her at the forefront of our thoughts, minds, and words. It was great to see Steph Curry give her a shoutout at the Golden State Warriors’ ring ceremony last night.
5. RIP, Tiffany Jackson.
A couple of weeks ago, former WNBA and University of Texas star Tiffany Jackson passed away at the age of 37 from breast cancer.
If you’re unfamiliar with her story, here are a few highlights: After a standout college career, Jackson was drafted fifth overall in 2007 to the New York Liberty, then traded to the Tulsa Shock in the middle of the 2010 season. In 2012 she took the season off to give birth to her son, Marley. In 2015, when she was still with the Shock, Jackson was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer. She took the 2016 WNBA season off for treatment, and became an outspoken advocate for breast cancer awareness and early screenings, particularly in the Black community.
Through it all, she was determined to make it back onto the court.
“There’s days when you just don’t feel like you can get out of bed, you feel icky and nasty and you don’t want to do anything,” she told WNBA.com in 2017, when discussing chemotherapy treatments. “Those were the days that I made sure that I got up and I went and played basketball.”
In 2017, she made it back to the W, this time as a member of the Los Angeles Sparks. In 2018 she became an assistant coach at her alma mater, Texas, and just this spring she was named head coach of the women’s basketball team at Wiley College.
Unfortunately, she passed away before she could coach the first game of the season.
I was incredibly moved by a lot of the remembrances of Jackson from the WNBA family, so wanted to share a few of them below. (NOTE: I highly recommend that you click on the Instagram posts so you can see all the photos; I’ve copied and pasted all the captions below.)
Here’s Joyner Holmes’ Instagram post. Jackson coached and mentored Holmes at Texas.
twin… please say it ain’t so, getting the call last night broke me and it’s still tearing me up. no more dates to pappadeaux, no more facetimes, no more smiles, no more of you. I know you fought as hard as you could thru everything any situation you are forever my inspiration to me and many around the world. Not many people can say they fought as hard as you did, i know your at peace now and although it hurts we all love you and will rest knowing you are at peace. I will miss you endlessly i love you with everything in me. Twin i can’t believe you not here anymore, i sit here writing this fighting back tears. It’s so hard to accept, i just don’t want it to be real. I want you here, i dedicate everything from here on out to you… RIH 🕊 beautiful 💓🥺
We will take care of mom’s & Marley. I will take him under my wing like he’s my own, it’s gone be so different without you being here with us anymore but your legacy will continue.. I love you, watch over me my beautiful guardian angel 🕊🤍. Forever in our hearts
I will always love you…
Here’s Alysha Clark, who played with Holmes on the Sparks and overseas:
To know you is to love you. Your selflessness, your compassion, your joyous laugh. Your strength, your fire, your side eye. Your fake laugh when something isn’t funny, but you didn’t want someone to feel b ad. You were an angel on this earth Tiff. I’m so thankful I got the privilege to call you a friend and a sister. Even when you were hurting, you were still there for me after my dad passed. The way my heart hurts knowing I won’t get to hear you say “Lush, I love you!” or “Wifey, send me that recipe!” just once more😔💔 I find some comfort in knowing you aren’t in pain anymore. I don’t know what God has planned, but he clearly needed two of his toughest warriors this last month. Make sure you get together with Pops and turn Heaven into a party🙏🏽❤️ My forever work wife…I love you. #FuckCancer
And Essence Carson, who played with Jackson in New York and Los Angeles:
We were sisters in another life.
Always there at pivotal periods in my life; a teen deciding what college to attend, a bright eyed WNBA rookie not knowing what to expect and how to navigate a league as a professional, and as a veteran that fully grew into themselves on and off the court. This next chapter is for you.
I wish we took more pictures so images of you would transcend time, but instead, I was caught up in all the joyous moments we had and now all I have is memories. Memories that I only share with you. My future kids will only hear of the great stories of their aunt. They will never be able to experience said stories through a photo album or video montage. You were perseverance in the human form. Your heart was one of gold. Your smile and energy would light up a room. Your demeanor could calm a storm. You were my teacher in many ways. That’s what a big sister often is for the younger, inexperienced sibling. I never questioned your guidance or intentions. As this doesn’t seem real, I understand that the human in me is fighting for its own ego. Fighting to hold on to someone for its own benefit. You were never ours. You were an angel whose presence was needed for many. You endured, inspired, and exuded love at every given moment. You didn’t have to earn your wings, you came to us with them. Fly high, sister. Higher than you ever have before.
What a loss. RIP, Tiffany. I think I can speak for all of us when I say: Fuck Cancer.