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Opinion Abuse of women’s soccer players is a sadly familiar story

Christy Holly, who was accused of sexually abusing a player in an investigative report released Monday, is shown during a Racing Louisville women's soccer game in August 2021 at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J. (Howard Smith/ISI Photos via Imagn)

Coaches who abused and bullied players. Team executives who failed to stop it. A league and governing board more interested in protecting their image than protecting their players. The indignities suffered by female athletes are by now — after the scandals in U.S. gymnastics and swimming — sadly familiar. That, though, doesn’t make any less shocking or sickening the details of abuse and misconduct that are laid bare in a new report about U.S. women’s soccer.

A year after players in the National Women’s Soccer League refused to take the field because they felt their complaints about abusive coaches were being ignored, the findings of an independent investigation conducted by former U.S. deputy attorney general Sally Q. Yates confirm and amplify their complaints. The report, released Monday, was damning: “In well over 200 interviews, we heard report after report of relentless, degrading tirades; manipulation that was about power, not improving performance; and retaliation against those who attempted to come forward. Even more disturbing were the stories of sexual misconduct. Players described a pattern of sexually charged comments, unwanted sexual advances and sexual touching, and coercive sexual intercourse.”

The 172-page report focused on three coaches — Christy Holly, Paul Riley and Rory Dames — spotlighting a litany of voluminous allegations against them. And it faulted leaders of the National Women’s Soccer League and the U.S. Soccer Federation, the sport’s governing body, as well as owners, executives and coaches at all levels for their failure over many years to act on the allegations. Complaints were minimized or ignored, and offending coaches were quietly released, free to move on to a new team and new victims. The league and federation, the report said, “appear to have prioritized concerns of legal exposure to litigation by coaches — and the risk of drawing negative attention to the team or league — over player safety and well-being.”

As has happened with executives of other sports dealing with scandal, U.S. Soccer President Cindy Parlow Cone reacted with strong words. “Heartbreaking, infuriating and deeply troubling,” she said, adding the report makes clear the need for systemic changes at all levels of the game. We hope that means, as promised, quick adoption of the report’s recommendations, including setting clear rules for prohibited behavior, thorough vetting of coaches and, most important to our mind, determining whether some team owners should be disciplined or forced to sell their teams. According to the report, three organizations — the Chicago Red Stars, the Portland Thorns and Racing Louisville — didn’t fully cooperate with the investigation, despite public comments to the contrary.

The report noted the abuse that investigators uncovered is rooted in a deeper culture in women’s soccer, beginning in youth leagues that normalize abusive coaching and blur the boundaries between coaches and players. Youth soccer was outside the purview of the investigation, but it seems clear there needs to be rigorous scrutiny and, likely, changes. Unless that happens, parents might want to think twice before letting their daughters play soccer.

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