The former NWSL commissioner did not respond to Sally Yates despite telling staff at his current organization that he was an “open book” and was “enthusiastic” about an investigation into why complaints of abuse and sexual misconduct went ignored by both the league and U.S. Soccer.
In a call last October with staff at USA Curling, where he has been CEO since February 2020, Jeff Plush defended his actions as NWSL commissioner and said he would “fully disclose” what had occurred. Details of the call were provided to USA TODAY Sports by people with knowledge of it. They requested anonymity for fear of retaliation.
“I am enthusiastic about a full investigation,” Plush said on the 6½-minute call, which took place Oct. 5, 2021, five days after The Athletic reported that Paul Riley had gone on to coach other NWSL teams after being fired by the Portland Thorns following complaints of sexual coercion and harassment.
“I have absolutely no equivocation whatsoever that I did the right thing. I know that I did the legal thing, I did the only things I could do by the law. I’m happy to let that come out,” Plush said, adding that he had told USA Curling’s Board of Directors the same thing.
U.S. Soccer hired Yates, a former U.S. Attorney General, last October to investigate abuse and sexual misconduct in the NWSL. In her report issued Oct. 3, Yates noted that Plush “never responded to our outreach.”
It’s not known whether Plush is cooperating with a separate, joint investigation by the NWSL and the NWSL Players Association. The NWSL has said it has asked “clubs and individuals participating in the investigation refrain from making statements that would improperly influence or jeopardize the integrity of the Joint Investigative Team’s report or its findings.”
USA Curling spokeswoman Jenna Martin said the federation does not comment about “what was or wasn’t said in internal meetings.” She also said USA Curling’s Board of Directors would comment after an independent investigation is completed. In a letter to U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee staff after release of the Yates report, USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland said USA Curling’s board was “reviewing” the findings, as well as its own investigation done last year.
Plush was the NWSL’s commissioner from January 2015 to March 2017. During that time, several players alerted the league and U.S. Soccer to abuse by their coaches that included verbal tirades, retaliation, sexual harassment and sexual coercion. There often was no punishment and, in the instances where there were repercussions, coaches were allowed to move to other teams without anyone at the league or federation raising an alarm.
“It’s about an ecosystem that doesn’t protect people and which needs to be fixed,” Plush told the USA Curling staff. “Again, I feel pretty confident we did the right things when I was there.”
But the Yates report shows that the league took no action after Portland Thorns player Mana Shim informed Plush directly in 2015 about coach Riley’s persistent and unwanted advances, as well as his retaliation when she asked him to stop.
“I opened the investigation hours after getting the claim and seven days later (Riley) was out of a job,” Plush told the USA Curling staff. “So I’m very confident that I acted properly and appropriately and expeditiously and legally, frankly. But suffice to say, he’s continued to coach, he’s continued to cause harm to people.”
Though the Thorns did fire Riley, he was not banned by the NWSL and went on to coach two other teams in the league.
According to the Yates report, Plush did not tell the Western New York Flash why Riley had been fired by the Thorns – or even that he’d been fired – when the Flash hired him a few months later. And when North Carolina Courage owner Steve Malik was considering hiring Riley in 2017, he told Yates that he tried to find out why the coach had left the Thorns and asked Plush for a copy of a 2015 report “that allegedly ‘cleared’ Riley.”
“Malik’s best recollection was that Plush either demurred that he would look into it or declined to share … in light of confidentiality issues,” according to Yates’ report.
Also in 2015, Plush was given results of player surveys that described Chicago Red Stars coach Rory Dames as “abusive.” He forwarded the results to U.S. Soccer with a note saying some of the information “is quite disturbing.”
“Neither the League nor (U.S. Soccer) took any action in response to the survey results,” Yates wrote. “(The Red Stars owner) also does not recall ever receiving the 2015 feedback.”
Dames was allowed to resign last November ahead of a report by The Washington Post detailing complaints of emotional and verbal abuse.
Plush closed his call with USA Curling staff members by saying he was happy to answer any questions, either at that moment or in the months ahead.
“This will be an ongoing, fairly intensive investigation at the league level, at the U.S. Soccer level, at the FIFA level,” Plush said. “So I’ll have to be responsive to that when the time comes, and I welcome it. Welcome’s probably the wrong word. I want it to happen. It won’t be any fun. But I’m very confident what we did was correct.
“In all seriousness, if you’ve got questions, ask me. I’m an open book. Sometimes maybe too open. But I’ll tell you anything you want to know.”