US women’s pro soccer: Abuse from coaches went unaddressed at all levels

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo and Amy Ta, produced by Marcelle Hutchins

The Portland Thorns' warm-up shirts say "No More Silence." The Houston Dash narrowly defeated the Thorns 3-2 on October 6, 2021 at Providence Park in Portland, Oregon. This was the first Thorns match after the temporary hiatus in National Women’s Soccer when the Paul Riley sexual harassment scandal broke. Photo by John Rudoff/Sipa USA.

Paul Riley, Chris Holly, and Rory Dames are three National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) coaches named in a new scathing report about how the league failed its players. The report, released on Monday by former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, shows how coaches fostered a culture of abuse and harassment, while team owners and the president of U.S. Soccer at the time failed to stop the abuse, despite years of complaints from players. 

One of the biggest takeaways is that U.S. Soccer failed at every level to take action, says Rachel Bachman, senior sports reporter for the Wall Street Journal. That includes complaints of speaking to players in a sexualized manner, berating them, calling them “fat” and other names, and initiating sexual contact. 

“The report found that people really at every level — at the teams, at the NWSL office, and at the U.S. Soccer Federation — were aware of a range of these misconduct reports, and in some cases, shuffled around responsibility to one another or to other entities to deal with them. And in many cases, they just simply weren't dealt with,” Bachman explains.

The findings also stress that the behaviors of Riley, Holly, and Dames began when they coached youth players, which raises the question of whether kids’ soccer needs better safeguards.

“A lot of the players who spoke with the investigator said, ‘Look, we were used to being screamed at or we were used to this manipulative behavior from our youth leagues. And so when we encountered it in the National Women's Soccer League, we just shrugged and thought oh this is just how it is.’”

While the three coaches no longer work with the NWSL, Bachman says what happens to them in the future is important. 

“It's an open question — the extent to which they [U.S. Soccer Federation] could keep some of these coaches from training players. So one of the things that I think needs to happen — and leaders have to call on to happen — is for there to be a better delineation of who has the responsibility to monitor coaches, and if need be, to take away their licenses and not allow them to coach girls or anyone,” she says.

Bachman adds that no sport is immune to abuse and harassment.

“Where there is a power imbalance, where there's a coach with a lot of power to name people to teams or to start or not start players, and where there is little oversight … there is a danger of abuse. … This is across all sports and really all activities that involve adults and young people.” 

Download and read the full report here