The myth that women’s sports are in peril set the stage for rampant abuse in the NWSL
The NWSL abuse files, pt. 1
On Saturday night, the Portland Thorns defeated the Kansas City Current at Audi Field in Washington, D.C., to win the 2022 NWSL Championship. The game aired on CBS in primetime during college football season — a huge deal for a league that often struggles for airtime. According to CBS Sports, 915,000 fans tuned in to watch the game — a 71 percent increase over 2021.
It’s been a year of undeniable growth for the league, which was founded a decade ago by the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF). But it’s been accompanied by incessant and agonizing reminders of what that growth has cost the players over the past 10 years. At the beginning of October, Sally Yates released a damning 173-page report about systemic abuse in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). This was an independent report commissioned by the USSF 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 when he was with the Portland Thorns.
I previous Power Plays newsletter, but to summarize the summary, the Yates report focused on recurring abuse by three former head coaches — Paul Riley (Portland Thorns, Western New York Flash, North Carolina Courage), Christy Holly (Sky Blue FC/Gotham FC and Racing Louisville), and Rory Dames (Chicago Red Stars) — and how reports of their abuse were dismissed and downplayed, allowing them to either keep their jobs or obtain other head coaching jobs in the league without any accountability or consequence.
And there is expected to be more where that came from. We are still waiting on a joint investigation between the NWSL and the NWSL Players Association, which could drop before the end of this calendar year. That report is likely to be even more extensive.
As most of my readers know by now, I like to dig deep into reports. So, over the next few weeks/months — in the vein of the NCAA Gender Inequity Files — we’ll be diving into different aspects of these investigations.
Today, I want to focus less on the actual abuse itself, and more on the ethos that made such rampant abuse possible: The myth that women’s sports are in peril.
We’ve discussed this Myth in Power Plays before. In fact, the very first newsletter I published here was entitled, “The myth that women’s sports are in peril is perpetuated by the men in charge of them.” It focused on how the Powers That Be in sports make decisions based on the notion that women’s sports are doomed to fail, and those decisions often prevent women’s sports from achieving financial success. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen that the Myth’s harm goes much deeper than bad business decisions. Last year, after Linehan’s initial investigation into abuse in the NWSL, I wrote in a paywalled newsletter, “The myth that women’s sports are in peril doesn’t just help protect power and egos; it sets up those who work in sports as saints and saviors, and keeps the athletes stuck in a state of fear and debt; it fosters and enables a cycle of abuse.”
The Yates report exposed that cycle in devastating detail.
So, in this newsletter, we’re going to look at what happens when you launch a league that you believe has little chance of being commercially successful in the short or long term.
The USSF created a league without standards because it was afraid to scare off potential owners
The first women’s professional soccer league in the United States was the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA). It launched in 2001, in the wake of the 1999 Women’s World Cup, and lasted for barely three seasons before being shut down due to a lack of funds. The next women’s pro league, Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS), was founded in 2007 and started play in 2009. But it was plagued by underfunding and corrupt, abusive ownership, and folded after the 2011 season.
At that point, the future of women’s pro soccer in the country was very uncertain. So uncertain that a headline in the Washington Post read, “WPS shutdown might mark the end of U.S. women’s pro soccer efforts.”
The USSF, to its credit — which isn’t a phrase I type often — did want a viable pro women’s league stateside. It believed, according to the Yates report, “having a robust domestic league was critical to maintaining the National Team’s dominance in international competitions, and also represented an important opportunity to continue to grow the sport domestically.”
But, because the general consensus at the time was that the window for pro women’s soccer in the United States was rapidly closing — a consensus that is laughable in hindsight — the USSF felt it had to essentially launch a new league overnight. So, the USSF and then-president Sunil Gulati took matters into their own hands. To get the NWSL off the ground, they invested capital, recruited owners, and undertook managerial operations. That’s all commendable. Unfortunately, they did not execute these steps with care and caution.
Here’s how the Yates report describes the league’s launch:
If USSF truly wanted to learn from the failures of the past two leagues and set the NWSL up for success, it would have put in more safeguards and done more extensive vetting of owners. Instead, the USSF used the Myth as its north star, and took a “let’s take whatever we can get” approach to the launch.
This paragraph from the Yates report is extremely telling:
This sentence deserves a re-read: “The Federation, for its part, felt as though it could only push owners so far or risk them pulling their teams from the League.”
Nobody is saying that USSF needed to require NWSL owners to have pockets as deep as NFL owners. But the fact that USSF was too scared to implement the most basic of standards is alarming. Let’s look at some of the basics the NWSL went without:
There was no anti-fraternization policy until 2018.
The first workplace conduct training session happened in 2017, and lasted only thirty minutes for players. The second was in 2019; it lasted an hour.
There was no anti-harassment, anti-retaliation, or anti-bullying policy in place until 2021.
There were no clear procedures or policies for reporting concerns about player safety or abuse.
Most teams had no human resources representative, and some even didn’t have medical staff.
When the NWSL launched, there was no mechanism in place to independently report abuse or complaints.
There was also no coaching code of conduct.
Despite all of these missing pieces, since the USSF conducts oversight of all certified pro soccer leagues in this country, it does already have Professional League Standards in place. These standards are minimal — they require teams to demonstrate an “ongoing commitment to the promotion of soccer,” and to make sure certain staff positions are filled.
So, at least there were some baseline standards to hold teams to, right? Well, in theory. But the USSF is permitted to grant waivers for these standards if it finds “good cause” to do so. And in the NWSL, these waivers were provided so freely, they were considered a mere “formality.”
With no oversight, many owners provided pro players with embarrassingly subpar facilities and rat-infested housing
So, clearly, the USSF’s failure to provide NWSL teams with regulations and accountability had consequences. But before diving into those, let’s look at the USSF’s financial requirements for NWSL owners when the league started, because if nothing else I find it really interesting.
This is directly from the Yates report:
Specifically, teams must designate one principal owner with an individual net worth of at least $15,000,000, and each team ownership group must have a combined net worth of at least $25,000,000. Each team also is required to annually post a performance bond of $100,000 to secure salaries, stadium lease commitments, and vendor obligations, primarily for the purpose of insuring the League in the event the owner were to walk away mid-season. The Standards do not specify how much operating capital owners must dedicate to the team.
I am not an expert on the financial holdings of owners across the sports landscape, but it is striking to me that owners only had to provide a $100,000 performance bond per year, and that there was no minimum capital requirement.
Unsurprisingly, this ensured everyone was on shaky ground. Here are a few other quotes from the Yates report that show how under-resourced teams were from the start:
“Most teams struggled operationally and financially, and some resisted putting additional money towards League operations, or even their own team.”
“Ownership was empowered to invest however much or little they wanted to into facilities and player accommodations, resulting in some teams failing to provide basic necessities.”
I’d like to dig a bit more into the bolded part — because “failing to provide basic necessities” is a very mild way of putting it. While the USSF is certainly at fault for not holding owners to professional standards, team owners still could have chosen to treat players like true professionals, because it’s the right thing to do and a good way to protect your investment. But many owners did not choose that route.
Let’s start with on-the-field, practice, and locker-room accommodations. The issues at Sky Blue FC (Now NY/NJ Gotham FC) have been widely reported over the years, but I’m going to stick with excerpts from the Yates report.
In 2013, multiple Sky Blue FC players “expressed concerns that both the training facility and the match day facility lacked locker rooms, showers, and laundry services.”
At FC Kansas City in 2014, players didn’t have a training room, so instead they “used one of the players living room in apartment for first four months” to prepare their bodies for elite competition.
In 2015 Chicago Red Stars players said there was “no laundry, no locker room, no showers.”
In 2018, Sky Blue trained at a club field that had no bathrooms or showers, so they were using porta johns and taking ice baths in trash cans.
As recently as 2020, OL Reign players complained that their practice field and facilities “should not be in a high school or on a baseball field.” Which really seems like something that doesn’t need to be specified.
Multiple teams also provided woefully inadequate housing. Again, from the Yates report:
At Sky Blue, players “reported living in houses with broken windows, cracked floors, leaking ceilings, dried mucus on the walls, and in one instance, a whole human toenail sitting on a windowsill.”
One player “reported finding a bag of cocaine in her bedsheet.” A few players moved into their team-provided housing to find an older man already living there, who expected to be their roommate. Another player moved in with a husband, wife, and daughter, and the husband expected her to provide childcare.
Red Stars players, meanwhile, “reported problems with mice, leaking water, and mold, and expressed hesitation about raising concerns about their living conditions to the owner of the team, who also served as General Manager.” Yes, that’s right. Players live in housing owned and property managed by team owner Arnim Whisler.
Coaches were hired without background checks, employment contracts, or even proper certifications
Continuing our descent down the power chain, it’s time to look at the coaches. In particular, it’s time to look at *how* the head coaches got their jobs.
Let’s start with Rory Dames in Chicago. According to the Yates report, Dames began as a volunteer coach for the Red Stars during the 2011 season of WPS. Remember, WPS was the previous pro women’s league in the United States. It was the league where the national team players competed. And Whisler thought a volunteer coach was appropriate. Furthermore, the Red Stars never “conducted a background check on Dames or undertook any due diligence before hiring him.”
Instead, Whisler relied on Dames’ reputation as the leader of the Eclipse Youth Club. Unfortunately, players who played for Dames at both the Red Stars and Eclipse told Yates that his “verbal and emotional abuse [was] way worse” at the youth level. In fact, former youth players report that Dames “created a sexualized team environment in which he asked questions about their sex lives; spoke to youth players about foreplay, oral sex, and male climax; spent alone time with youth players at his apartment, in hotel rooms, and in their childhood bedrooms; and touched one youth player inappropriately on her thigh.”
So yeah, perhaps some due diligence could have been useful! Let’s look a bit deeper into the relationship between Whisler and Dames:
Is there any clearer sign that Whisler viewed the Red Stars as a charity project than the fact that he let a volunteer coach his team?
And believe it or not, Dames wasn’t the only man who volunteered his way directly to the top of the league. Christy Holly “walked onto the Sky Blue Field as a part-time volunteer reserve team coach in 2013, and despite a marked lack of experience, got the Head Coach job there in just three years.”
Even more egregious than that? “Holly never had the requisite license to be a head coach in the NWSL.” Let that sink in: He literally did not have the credentials. He didn’t have a coaching license in 2016, when he became the head coach at Sky Blue, or in 2021, when he was hired to be head coach at Racing Louisville. It is beyond me how that goes unnoticed.
Of course, it’s also worth noting that both Holly and Paul Riley got second chances to work as head coaches in the league after being let go from their first tenures due, at least in part, to inappropriate relationships with players. This week we’ve seen that questionable coaching hires are common across the sports landscape, but in the NWSL, it seems the bar for coaches — particularly male coaches — to clear was missing entirely. And the consequences for players was dire.
Who needs enemies when these are your allies?
People in women’s sports, especially players, are used to dealing with haters and doubters. It comes with the territory. Every day they’re sent messages — both directly and indirectly — from media, sponsors, family, friends, coaches, schools, and strangers on the internet, that nobody cares about women’s sports. That they don’t matter.
That’s why what’s happened in the NWSL is so staggeringly painful. The USSF, team owners, coaches — they’re supposed to be on the side of women’s soccer. They’re supposed to be the ones who see value in the sport and the players. And yet, they still let the antagonists set the narrative. The USSF wanted a pro women’s soccer league, but not enough to protect it. The owners enjoyed the prestige and power that came with having a pro women’s team, but not enough to treat players with respect or properly vet the coaches. At the root of everything was the Myth.
Women’s pro soccer was doomed to sink, and the USSF and owners wanted credit for keeping it afloat. But they sent the players out to sea in a life raft full of holes, and blamed them for not reaching the shore in record time.
I’m not saying that launching a pro women’s soccer league was an easy undertaking, or that the USSF and owners didn’t have legitimate financial concerns. However, if you’re not willing/able to establish a league that has safeguards and mechanisms in place to prioritize the safety of players, on and off the field, then you shouldn’t be willing/able to establish a league, period. It didn’t have to be this way.
In the next edition of the NWSL Abuse Files, we’ll look at the many ways players reached out for help during their voyage, and how their captains failed them at every turn.
(I guess I plan on riding this metaphor until it deflates completely.)