There is, predictably, much handwringing and mea culpa-ing over Sally Yates’ damning report on the misogynistic and abusive culture that existed in the NWSL and U.S. Soccer, along with sober pronouncements from the powers that be of the respect they have for the brave women who came forward to reveal the toxic mess.
If the NWSL, U.S. Soccer and anyone else who had a hand in creating, tolerating and perpetuating the abusive atmosphere really want to make amends, strong, substantive measures are needed.
Portland Thorns owner Merritt Paulson and Chicago Red Stars owner Armin Whisler should be forced to sell their NWSL teams; considering the problems at Paulson’s other team, the Timbers, strong consideration should be given to making him sell that, too. Gavin Wilkinson, who is no longer the Thorns general manager but still has that same role with Paulson’s other team, the Timbers, should be barred from working in American soccer. Same for Mike Golub, president of business for both the Thorns and Timbers.
And while former NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush is no longer affiliated with the soccer world, the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee should make it clear he has no place as USA Curling’s CEO.
“On day one of this report, I don’t know that it’s constructive to really talk about that today,” U.S. Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone said. “I think the report shows we have systemic issues beyond any one individual.”
Yes, but something needs to be done to get the attention of all those who continue to believe women have less value and treat them as if they’re disposable. These men aided and abetted the coaches who abused players and, in some cases, harassed them themselves. They have no business profiting off women’s sports when they clearly think so little of the women who play them.
“When teams, the NWSL and (U.S. Soccer) failed to adequately respond to player complaints, they created the impression that certain types of misconduct were acceptable,” Yates wrote in her report. “In doing so, they not only failed to address reported misconduct, they left other players who could be future victims at risk.”
U.S. Soccer hired Yates, a former U.S. Attorney General, last October to investigate abuse and sexual misconduct in the NWSL. The investigation followed a report by The Athletic on decades of sexual coercion, misconduct and harassment by former Thorns coach Paul Riley, as well as a report by The Washington Post on verbal and emotional abuse by former Red Stars coach Rory Dames.
By the end of the 2021 season, half of the league’s teams had parted ways with their coaches following player complaints.
The treatment of the women was abysmal enough. Grown women, some of whom were part of World Cup and Olympic champion teams, were berated and bullied. Coaches sexualized the atmospheres at their teams, talking to players about their sex lives, showing them pornography and engaging in inappropriate relationships.
Some even sexually abused players, knowing the women would not say anything for fear it would jeopardize their careers.
Worse, though, was the acceptance or minimizing of such behavior.
After U.S. Soccer officials told Paulson and Wilkinson in 2014 that national team players had complained Riley had “created a hostile environment,” and “belittle[d]” and “verbally abuse[d]” players, “no action was taken,” Yates wrote.
The Thorns eventually fired Riley after another player reported his unwanted advances and retaliation but made no mention of that publicly. When the New York Flash hired Riley, Plush said Wilkinson had told the Flash that Riley had been “put in a bad position by the player,” and that he’d hire Riley again “in a heartbeat.” Paulson congratulated the Flash president on the hire and wrote that he had “a lot of affection” for Riley.
Players told Yates’ team that Paulson made inappropriate comments to them. The Thorns acknowledged to Yates that Golub was undergoing “remediation” after former players told The Oregonian that he’d created a toxic work environment for women and working mothers.
Whisler told Yates he’d received complaints as far back as 2014 about Dames making “sexist, racist, abusive, and other prejudicial remarks” to Red Stars players and creating a “hostile work environment”. Yet even now, Whisler said he doesn’t think anything he saw or was told about Dames “constituted abuse or misconduct or required him to take action.”
Let that sink in for a minute. Players said Dames would get so enraged that he would spit in their faces while screaming at them. He also belittled and demeaned them, and created a fear-based culture.
But Whisler is still cool with all of it!
Paulson, Wilkinson, Whisler and Plush don’t appear to be chastened by last year’s revelations of abuse, either.
According to Yates’ report, the Thorns “interfered with our access to relevant witnesses and raised specious legal arguments in an attempt to impede our use of relevant documents.” The Red Stars “unnecessarily delayed the production of relevant documents over the course of nearly nine months.”
Plush, who helped bury damaging info about abusive coaches, “never responded to our outreach.”
Cone is right that the issues are systemic, and that their roots are in the youth soccer system. She’s also acknowledging reality when she says U.S. Soccer can’t tell the NWSL, which is conducting its own investigation with the NWSL Players Association, what to do about its misogynistic owners.
But when leaders of the game like Whisler and Paulson have so little regard for women players, it gives others permission to do the same.
No woman should be abused like the NWSL players were. No girl should be subjected to an atmosphere that minimizes her value and makes her believe she has no power. If Paulson and Whisler are allowed to continue as NWSL owners, U.S. Soccer and the league’s promises of change will be nothing more than empty words.
And it will only be a matter of time before some other women pay the price.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.