NWSL abuse investigation: Misconduct had become "systemic"

NEW YORK — An independent NWSL abuse investigation released on Monday showed misconduct "had become systemic" in the top-flight National Women's Soccer League and the governing body U.S. Soccer said it would move immediately to implement reforms.

NWSL was forced into a reckoning a year ago as a report from The Athletic outlined allegations of sexual abuse by former North Carolina Courage head coach Paul Riley, after speaking to more than a dozen players he had coached since 2010. 

The Athletic said Riley denied "the majority" of the allegations. 

The fallout engulfed the league, prompting the departure of former Commissioner Lisa Baird and demands for reform, while half of the NWSL teams parted ways with their head coaches over player complaints before the end of the 2021 season. 

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U.S. Soccer brought on Sally Q. Yates and King & Spalding LLP to conduct the independent inquiry and released the full findings. 

"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," the Yates' report said. 

U.S. Soccer founded the NWSL in 2012 and operated as manager, providing logistical and financial support, through 2020. It continues to provide oversight over the league. 

The Yates report said the league, its teams and U.S. Soccer failed to put in "basic measures" for player safety at the NWSL's inception, or "respond appropriately when confronted with player reports and evidence of abuse." 


U.S. Soccer President Cindy Parlow Cone called the investigation's findings "heartbreaking and deeply troubling."

"The abuse described is inexcusable," said Parlow Cone. "U.S. Soccer is fully committed to doing everything in its power to ensure that all players - at all levels - have a safe and respectful place to learn, grow and compete." 

The NWSL said it would immediately review the findings. 

A joint investigation between the league and its players' association is ongoing. 

"We greatly appreciate our players, staff and stakeholders' cooperation with both investigations, especially during the ongoing season," the league said in a statement. 

"We recognize the anxiety and mental strain that these pending investigations have caused and the trauma that many – including players and staff – are having to relive." 

The Yates report said that allegations of abuse in the league were made available to the NWSL and U.S.Soccer long before they came to light in The Athletic report. 

The 172-page report said that coaches accused of abuse were able to move from club to club because teams, the NWSL and U.S. Soccer "failed to identify misconduct and inform others." 

The report recommended a variety of reforms aimed at boosting accountability and transparency, including a requirement for misconduct to be disclosed. 

"Abuse in the NWSL is rooted in a deeper culture in women’s soccer that normalizes verbally abusive coaching and blurs boundaries between coaches and players," Yates said in a statement. 

(Reporting by Amy Tennery in New York; Editing by Ken Ferris)

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