An independent investigation into scandals that rocked the US National Women’s Soccer League last season found emotional abuse and sexual misconduct were systemic, affecting several teams, coaches and players, according to a report released on Monday.
“Abuse in the NWSL is rooted in a deeper culture in women’s soccer, beginning in youth leagues, that normalises verbally abusive coaching and blurs boundaries between coaches and players,” former deputy US attorney general Sally Yates wrote in her findings.
US Soccer commissioned the investigation by Ms Yates after former NWSL players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim came forward with allegations of harassment and sexual coercion dating back a decade involving former coach Paul Riley.
Their account was published by The Athletic last year.
Riley, who denied the allegations, was quickly fired as head coach of the North Carolina Courage, and NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird stepped down.
Five of the 10 head coaches in the NWSL last season either were fired or resigned amid allegations of misconduct.
“The players affected are not shrinking violets. They are among the best athletes in the world,” Ms Yates wrote.
More than 200 people were interviewed by investigators. About two dozen entities and people provided documents.
US Soccer also provided documents and the firm reviewed 89,000 deemed likely to be relevant.
US Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone called the findings “heart-breaking and deeply troubling”.
“The abuse described is inexcusable and has no place on any playing field, in any training facility or workplace,” Ms Parlow Cone said.
The report made recommendations to give priority to player health and safety.
Among them is the requirement that teams accurately disclose coach misconduct to the league and the federation to ensure coaches are not allowed to move between teams.
“We recognise the anxiety and mental strain that these pending investigations have caused and the trauma that many — including players and staff — are having to relive," NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman said.
"We continue to admire their courage in coming forward to share their stories and influence all the changes necessary to keep moving our league forward."
The investigation focused on three former coaches — Riley, Christy Holly of Racing Louisville and Rory Dames of the Chicago Red Stars.
It recounts an April 2021 encounter between Holly and a player, Erin Simon, who now plays in Europe.
Holly invited her to watch game video with him and allegedly told her that for every pass she messed up, he was going to touch her.
Simon told investigators that Holly “pushed his hands down her pants and up her shirt”.
Simon, 28, now with Leicester City, said too many athletes suffer in silence because they are afraid they will not be heard.
“I know because that is how I felt,” she said. “Through many difficult days, my faith alone sustained me and kept me going.
"This report allows our voices to finally be heard and is the first step toward achieving the respectful workplace we all deserve.”
Holly's contract was terminated but Racing Louisville declined to publicly state the reason.
Farrelly said the harassment she experienced began in 2011 when she was a player with the Philadelphia Independence of the Women’s Professional Soccer league. Riley was her coach.
She told The Athletic the abuse by Riley continued when she was with the Portland Thorns in 2014 and 2015.
Shim, a former Thorns player, also said she experienced harassment. Neither woman is playing in the NWSL now.
The Thorns said they investigated Riley in 2015 while he was with the team and reported the findings to the league. They did not renew his contract but did not make the reasons public.
The report said the Thorns were not forthcoming with certain information and they tried to prevent investigators from using the team’s 2015 report.
“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,” Ms Yates wrote.
Riley went on to coach the Western New York Flash, which later moved to North Carolina and was renamed.
When the scandal broke last year, former Thorns forward Alex Morgan, posted on social media: “The league must accept responsibility for a process that failed to protect its own players from this abuse.”
Morgan also said Shim and Farrelly asked the NWSL last year for a new investigation into Riley’s behaviour but were rebuffed.