The aftershocks from the release Monday of the Yates Report into abuse in the National Women’s Soccer League are still reverberating throughout the sport.
Not only have players on the U.S. women’s national team reacted to the report’s disclosures of systemic verbal, emotional and sexual abuse of the league’s players, but fans, sponsors, domestic violence experts and politicians are speaking out about how to process this and move forward, particularly as it relates to the involvement of three teams at the heart of the investigation: the Chicago Red Stars, Portland Thorns and Racing Louisville.
– USSF report finds systemic abuse in NWSL
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For years, the Red Stars organization persisted with Rory Dames as manager despite numerous complaints about his behavior. While the Portland Thorns fired Paul Riley back in 2015, it hid the reasons for his termination for years and even helped him find a new job. As for Louisville, it’s hiring (and, for a short time, shielding) of Christy Holly cast it in a poor light, even as the club ultimately fired Holly for multiple incidents of Holly groping one of the team’s players.
The fact that all three clubs engaged in tactics that either impeded or delayed the investigation, to varying degrees, was also a sore point with some of the game’s constituencies. Late Tuesday, both Merritt Paulson of the Portland Thorns and Arnim Whisler of the Chicago Red Stars said they would be stepping aside until the joint NWSL/NWSL Players Association investigation was complete.
By Wednesday night, the Red Stars board of directors formally removed Whisler as chairman of the board, a move they said in a statement would “codify his removal from any further participation with either club or board operations.” In Portland, a significant step toward accountability also came on Wednesday when it was announced that Portland’s president of soccer Gavin Wilkinson and president of business Mike Golub had been fired.
However, the end to the investigation’s impact is nowhere in sight. Here’s a recap of other reactions so far.
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While both Paulson and Whisler expressed regret at the events documented in the Yates Report, it’s impossible to take at face value given all that transpired and their roles in keeping the misconduct silent. It was also insufficient for U.S. women’s national team captain Becky Sauerbrunn, who spoke on the topic during Tuesday’s media availability ahead of England vs. the U.S. at Wembley on Friday.
“For so long, this has always fallen on the player to demand change, and that is because the people in authority and decision-making positions have repeatedly failed to protect us and they have failed to hold themselves and each other accountable,” she said during a conference call with reporters. “And what and who are you actually protecting and what values are you upholding?
“You have failed in your stewardship. And it’s my opinion that every owner and executive and U.S. Soccer official who has repeatedly failed the players and failed to protect the players, who have hidden behind legalities and have not participated fully in these investigations should be gone.”
When asked if the people in power will make the necessary changes, Sauerbrunn said, “I don’t know. I don’t know if the right people are in place to do what is needed.”
Former Racing Louisville defender Brooke Hendrix — a friend of Erin Simon, who said she was groped multiple times by Holly, as detailed in the Yates report — told local television station WHAS that several players went to club management to complain about Holly, but to no avail.
“They’re just like, ‘No, he’s doing his job. He’s doing this.’ They didn’t really get anywhere,” Hendrix said. “And we were never going to until this whole incident came out.”
She added, “I personally didn’t think it was going to stop in Louisville. I was very nervous for Erin.”
The Athletes Council, which represents athletes’ interests within the U.S. Soccer Federation, said, “There is a great deal of work to be done and we are ready to partner with our larger U.S. Soccer family to make positive, significant and long-lasting changes to the system and those changes must happen now.”
Angel City forward Sydney Leroux put it succinctly in a tweet: “There is no damage control. Just damage.”
On Wednesday, USWNT midfielder Lindsey Horan spoke to assembled media in London during mixed zone availability ahead of Friday’s game against England. She has played for the Portland Thorns since 2016, though is on loan with French side Lyon this season.
“Personally, I feel in a weird spot just because I learned new things in this investigation that I didn’t know before,” Horan said. “I wanted to wait and read it for myself, and to be a part of an organization that was in this, it’s really hard for me. So, I just want to make sure I echo what Becky has stated and thank those players for coming forward.
“I also want to say that this isn’t just it. It’s not just the NWSL. This is women’s football in general. It’s women in general. We have these problems all over the world. It’s a global, systemic problem. So, I don’t want that to be the end point — like, this investigation came forward and obviously we’re thankful for that, but it took way too long. This whole thing was prolonged incredibly and I sit here and I’m like, ‘It’s not done.’ This is all over the world and, being a player in Europe right now, I know that.”
Erin Simon, the player who shared her allegations of Holly’s abuse in the Yates report, reflected Wednesday night on her story being made public.
“This has not been an easy journey by any means. However, the outpouring of love and support I have received from so many people has given me more strength, hope, and motivation to continue moving forward towards making a change,” she wrote in part on her Instagram page. She added that she was “on the road to continual healing” and “still able to smile through it all.”
“My prayer is that in all of this, every single person who has been impacted by what has come to light would challenge themselves to not give up on this game we love,” she closed her message. “Instead, that we see this as an opportunity to be a catalyst for change. Let us be the voices who turn this sport back to a safe place we all deserve.”
Fans and support groups
On Tuesday, the 107ist, the organizational arm that encompasses the Timbers Army and Rose City Riveters, which support the Portland Timbers in MLS and the Portland Thorns in the NWSL, respectively, announced it was ceasing contact with Portland’s front office. Relations between the team’s leadership and the clubs’ fans had been strained for some time, whether it was the saga over waving the Iron Front flag in 2019, the first disclosures of Paul Riley’s alleged abuse in 2021, its handling of the Andy Polo domestic violence incident earlier this year to the most recent Yates report.
What was the tipping point?
“We always believed the players; always, always, always,” Tina Ettin, a member of the Rose City Riveters steering committee, who also serves as a capo for the supporters sections at Timbers and Thorns games, told ESPN. “But seeing how egregiously they mishandled every single situation and how they dropped the ball for every single player and provided little to no help to any of the players asking for help and bringing forth these awful situations, it was really the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Mana Shim discusses her alleged sexual misconduct under former coach Paul Riley, and why she decided to speak out. Watch the documentary, E60: Truth Be Told, now ESPN+.
When news emerged of Wilkinson’s and Golub’s firing on Wednesday, Ettin told ESPN by telephone that it was “awesome, but it shouldn’t have taken this much, so many players having to come forward with their stories, a yearlong investigation for them to do something. But it’s nice to actually see some form of accountability happening.”
Ettin added that Paulson needs to go as well. “He still needs to accept for how he’s failed these players. So I still think that he needs to be looking into selling the team.”
The Lavender Legion, an official supporter group of Racing Louisville, put out a similar statement, ripping its front office for its hiring of Holly.
“The Lavender Legion is disgusted by the findings of the Yates investigation. Our [front office] hid the sickening behavior that Christy Holly displayed towards our players. Trust is broken. The cover of abuse is deep seated within the NWSL and must be stopped. As a board, we echo the sentiments of Becky Sauerbrunn, saying that all those involved should be removed from power.
“Protect the players at all costs.”
The Louisville Ledgehogs, an independent Racing Louisville supporter group, demanded that anyone in the organization who had knowledge of Holly’s transgressions before his hire, “resign immediately.” The statement continued that “we also call upon the NWSL to stop issuing statements and take immediate and preventative actions.”
Chicago Local 134, the official supporter group for the Red Stars, said in a quote tweet of the 107ist’s statement, that, “We stand in solidarity with our friends and are ready to contribute resources to support their collective actions.”
Team and league sponsors
Sponsors appear to also be walking a fine line as well, condemning the behavior described in the report, but not abandoning the teams entirely — at least not if the clubs make changes.
Providence, the health care organization that holds the naming rights to the Thorns’ stadium, shared a letter from William Olsen, CEO of the company’s Oregon branch. “The Yates report is deeply disturbing,” the letter reads. “Providence stands in support of Portland Thorns players, past and present, on and off the pitch. We also stand with anyone who has been abused or who has been affected by any form of sexual harassment or misconduct.”
It continued, “We are following the situation closely, and are in contact with the Thorns, who issued a statement today. We will keep you updated on any future developments.”
Alaska Airlines, a longtime partner of the Timbers and Thorns, said it was “deeply concerned” by the report and that “our priority is supporting the players and ensuring any action we take contributes to positive systemic change. We are currently assessing options to fulfill those objectives.”
Danner Boots has been responding to Thorns fans individually on Twitter with the message: “The Portland players and fans are at the core of our sponsorship, and we believe they deserve better. We are in communication with the Timbers regarding our concerns.”
Former NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird discusses her response to Mana Shim’s allegations of sexual coercion by Paul Riley. The documentary, E60: Truth Be Told, is available now on ESPN+.
Union Wine, which has previously partnered with the Timbers and Thorns on club-branded wines, offered one of the strong statements from sponsors.
“While we continue to stand with and support the players of the Portland Thorns and Timbers FCs, Union Wine Company will no longer participate as an official sponsor of either team,” the company said. “We will only reconsider future sponsorship if the organization makes meaningful institutional transformation that help lead to positive systemic change.”
Tillamook, a sponsor featured prominently in Providence Park, offered a similar response demanding change: “We are dismayed by the findings in the Yates investigative report released by the U.S. Soccer Federation, as they are counter to our values at Tillamook that prioritize an inclusive culture and workplace where all team members feel respected, safe and supported. We stand in full support of the Portland Thorns players. We will only reconsider future sponsorship if the organization makes meaningful, institutional changes.”
Laurelwood Public House and Brewery indicated they may also reconsider working with the Timbers/Thorns organization: “We want to make clear that the findings in this report do not reflect the values of Laurelwood Brewing Co., its ownership or management. We will wait to see what happens with team ownership and management before we make any decisions about next season.”
A Red Stars sponsor, Sloan Valve, a plumbing fixtures company, said in a statement to ESPN that “we wholeheartedly condemn the abhorrent behavior detailed in the Yates Report and applaud the bravery of those who have come forward. We are proud to sponsor these world-class athletes and support their pursuit of justice.”
A spokesperson for Red Stars sponsor CIBC said the company was aware of the Yates Report, but said they would have no further comment at this time.
Alex Morgan shares her frustration at the NWSL’s failure to support Meleana Shim after speaking out against Paul Riley in this behind-the-scenes clip from E60: Truth Be Told, available now on ESPN+.
GE said in a statement supplied to ESPN: “As a sponsor of Racing Louisville, Louisville City FC and the LouCity/Racing Academy, we support the athletes of the NWSL and USWNTPA. To the athletes, we believe in your talents, your tenacity in this sport and your enduring desire to prevail in the face of adversity.
“GE Appliances condemns the actions and systemic failures outlined in the investigation of abuse against these players. We believe all athletes deserve a safe and professional environment in which to compete and train. Our financial support is a commitment to help close the gaps in opportunity faced by female athletes. Our continued sponsorship hinges on the ability of this team to make real changes that ensure a safe and positive environment for the athletes.”
All told, ESPN reached out to over a dozen sponsors of the Thorns, Red Stars and Racing Louisville. The sponsors include PNC and Humana (Racing Louisville); United Airlines (Chicago); Dutch Bros., Widmer Brothers, Toyota, and Old Trapper (Portland).
What does the way forward look like?
Brenda Tracy is a gang rape survivor who now advocates for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, and who also runs Set the Expectation, a nonprofit which seeks to provide education to young men about ending sexual violence. For her, the findings of the investigation are all too familiar.
“I’m beginning to believe more and more that people just don’t care that much about this because it’s happening to women,” she said. “It’s frustrating. But we say this over and over and over, and it’s always the protection of the abuser over the victim. It’s a constant ongoing thing, and really frustrating. It’s disgusting.”
In a news release sent in conjunction with the findings of the Yates investigation, the USSF announced it was already instituting some changes as it relates to player safety. These include: establishing a new Office of Participant Safety to oversee the USSF’s conduct policies and reporting mechanisms; publishing soccer records from SafeSport’s Centralized Disciplinary Database to publicly identify individuals in our sport who have been disciplined, suspended or banned; mandating a uniform minimum standard for background checks for all U.S. Soccer members at every level of the game, including youth soccer, to comport with the USOPC standards.
In addition to those most steps, the USSF has created a new committee of the board of directors to address the report’s recommendations going forward. The committee will be chaired by former U.S. women’s national team player Danielle Slaton alongside vice chair U.S. Club Soccer CEO Mike Cullina.
To be implemented:
1. Teams should be required to accurately disclose misconduct to the NWSL and USSF to ensure that abusive coaches do not move from team to team
2. Putting teeth into licensing requirements (require recertification, not make it a diploma)
3. USSF should require the NWSL to conduct timely investigations into allegations of abuse, impose appropriate discipline, and immediately disseminate investigation outcomes
4. USSF should adopt uniform and clear policies and codes of conduct that apply to all Organization Members and are found in single place on USSF’s website
5. USSF should require the NWSL to conduct annual training for players and coaches on applicable policies governing verbal and emotional abuse, sexual misconduct, harassment, and retaliation
6. USSF, the NWSL, and teams should each designate an individual within their organizations who is responsible for player safety
7. USSF should require the NWSL to implement a system to annually solicit and act on player feedback.
Tracy said there has to be more than just good intentions when it comes to fixing what ails the sport.
“Until there becomes a zero tolerance for abusers and enablers, and there’s transparency and accountability, nothing is ever going to change,” she said. “A report can come out, and then we can say, ‘Oh, we’re going to put in all these policies.’ Policies are only as good as the people [enforcing] them. I mean, you can give me 105 recommendations, and we can implement every single one of them, but until you have people that actually care and are doing the right thing, and are embracing transparency and embracing accountability, nothing is going to change.”