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U.S. Soccer ‘failed’ women’s players, report finds, as new abuse claims emerge

Former Racing Louisville FC coach Christy Holly was accused of sexually abusing a player in an investigative report released Monday by Sally Q. Yates, the former acting attorney general. (Howard Smith/
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Abuse and misconduct were pervasive and systemic at the highest tiers of women’s professional soccer, and the sport’s governing bodies and team executives repeatedly failed to heed warnings or punish coaches who abused players, according to an investigative report released Monday by the U.S. Soccer Federation.

The year-long probe by Sally Q. Yates, the former acting attorney general, found that some of the game’s top coaches were the subjects of numerous allegations of sexual misconduct, including some that previously had not been made public. The coaches also leaned on vicious coaching tactics, Yates found, including “relentless, degrading tirades; manipulation that was about power, not improving performance; and retaliation against those who attempted to come forward.”

“Players described a pattern of sexually charged comments, unwanted sexual advances and sexual touching, and coercive sexual intercourse,” Yates wrote in her report.

U.S. Soccer hired Yates to investigate last year amid reports in The Washington Post and the Athletic of widespread allegations of abuse against coaches in the National Women’s Soccer League.

“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 report states. “Abuse in the NWSL is rooted in a deeper culture in women’s soccer, beginning in youth leagues, that normalizes verbally abusive coaching and blurs boundaries between coaches and players. The verbal and emotional abuse players describe in the NWSL is not merely ‘tough’ coaching. And the players affected are not shrinking violets. They are among the best athletes in the world.”

Rory Dames was accused of misconduct decades ago. He coached his way to prominence anyway.

Yates also found the sport’s power brokers repeatedly failed the players by ignoring red flags and dismissing complaints.

“Players repeatedly raised their concerns,” Yates said Monday during a call with reporters. “But the teams, the league and the federation either minimized the reports or ignored them entirely.” It appeared, she added, that officials “prioritized concerns of legal exposure to litigation by coaches and the risk of drawing negative attention ... over player safety.”

While several allegations of abuse and misconduct had been made public in media reports, Yates’s report opens with a previously undisclosed allegation involving Christy Holly, the male former coach of Racing Louisville. According to the report, Holly requested a one-on-one film session with player Erin Simon in April 2021.

“She knew what to expect,” the report states. “When she arrived, she recalls Holly opened his laptop and began the game film.”

The coach told Simon that he intended to touch her for every bad pass, according to Yates’s report, and “pushed his hands down her pants and up her shirt.”

“She tried to tightly cross her legs and push him away, laughing to avoid angering him,” the report states. “The video ended, and she left. When her teammate picked her up to drive home, Simon broke down crying.”

According to the report, the Louisville organization declined to aid investigators with any information concerning Holly’s employment, pointing to nondisclosure and nondisparagement agreements signed with Holly. Louisville abruptly fired Holly on Aug. 31, 2021, but never disclosed the circumstances surrounding his dismissal. “As a result, Holly’s misconduct has remained largely unknown, including to anyone who might seek to employ him as a coach,” the report states.

“There are too many athletes who still suffer in silence because they are scared that no one will help them or hear them,” Simon said in a statement Monday. “I know because that is how I felt.”

The report spans 172 pages, plus footnotes and exhibits, and is based on interviews with more than 200 people, including more than 100 players, plus coaches, owners and front-office staff from 11 current and former teams. But Yates’s team encountered several obstacles.

Louisville blocked current and former employees from speaking with investigators about Holly, the report says. The Portland Thorns, whose former coach, Paul Riley, has been accused of abusing players, “interfered with our access” to witnesses and “raised specious legal arguments in an attempt to impede our use of relevant documents,” according to the report. And the Chicago Red Stars, whose former coach, Rory Dames, has been accused of mistreating pro and youth players, “unnecessarily delayed the production of relevant documents over the course of nearly nine months,” the report states. Some witnesses, such as Jeff Plush, the former NWSL commissioner, didn’t respond to investigators. Representatives for Racing Louisville, the Red Stars and the Thorns did not immediately respond to requests to comment Monday.

The report focuses largely on Holly, Riley and Dames, recounting allegations of sexual misconduct, abusive behavior and coercive tactics.

During his time as coach of the Thorns, Riley “sexually pursued” player Meleana Shim for months, the report states, “and benched [her] after she declined his advances.” The team investigated and the NWSL was aware of the allegations, but Riley was allowed to depart the team and take another coaching job in the league without the wrongdoing becoming public. The report also details a sexual relationship, first reported by the Athletic, that Riley is alleged to have had with another player, Sinead Farrelly, and noted that the NWSL failed to investigate a complaint she filed in 2021. (Riley previously denied the allegations to the Athletic.)

U.S. Soccer and the NWSL were aware of anonymous player surveys as far back as 2014 in which players said Riley was “verbally abusive,” “sexis[t]” and “destructive,” the report states. Neither organization acted on those complaints, according to the report, which calls Riley’s conduct — allegedly including grooming behavior, late-night texts with players and flirtatious comments — an “open secret.”

Shim’s complaint was received in 2015, and U.S. Soccer received further warnings about Riley in 2018 and 2019, when he was under consideration for the U.S. women’s national team coaching job.

Yates found the NWSL received four complaints about Riley in the spring of 2021. “The League largely ignored the complaints, and instead, weeks before the publication of The Athletic article, NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird was actively trying to keep Riley from resigning over his anger about the post-season schedule,” the report states.

Player surveys in 2014 and 2015 also included allegations that Dames was “abusive” and “unprofessional,” warning that players would not “be as honest out of fear,” the report says. According to the report, Christen Press, the longtime national team member who played for the Red Stars, sounded alarms in 2014, complaining to former U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati and Jill Ellis, the national team’s head coach, that Dames “created a hostile environment for players.”

‘Nobody cares’: NWSL players say U.S. Soccer failed to act on abuse claims against Red Stars coach

Complaints were shared with Arnim Whisler, the owner of the Red Stars, “virtually every season of Dames’s tenure,” according to the report, but he declined to do anything other than talk to Dames. He said the national team players wanted “this league to shut down” and had an “axe to grind” with Dames, according to the report.

Dames abruptly resigned from the Red Stars in November, two days after coaching in the NWSL title game, as The Post prepared to publish a story detailing players’ allegations against him. Dames never faced a background check, according to Yates’s report, despite having faced allegations of misconduct as a youth coach in the 1990s.

“Mr. Dames denies engaging in any misconduct as a coach, sexual or otherwise,” his attorney, Susan Bogart, told The Post in a statement. She added: “Upon advice of counsel, Mr. Dames has declined to discuss these matters publicly in any detail.”

Holly was also allowed to pursue another coaching job despite past allegations of abuse. He was forced to leave New Jersey-based squad Sky Blue midway through the 2016 season because of his “verbal abuse” and his “relationship with a player,” according to the report. But the details never became public, and Holly went on to perform contract work for U.S. Soccer, coaching with the under-17 and under-23 teams.

That experience helped Holly land the coaching job with Louisville in 2020, where, according to Yates’s report, he “repeated the same pattern of misconduct.”

The report says he sent Simon explicit photos. He requested that she come to his house to review game film “and showed her pornography instead, masturbating in front of her before she left,” the report states.

Holly has not publicly addressed the allegations, and The Post was unable to reach him for comment Monday. He denied to investigators having sexual contact with Simon, according to the report, but admitted to sending and soliciting sexual photos. He told investigators he lost his job because of his “unique” relationship with the former player.

U.S. Soccer President Cindy Parlow Cone said Holly, Dames and Riley are no longer licensed to coach in the United States.

“The investigation’s findings are heartbreaking, infuriating and deeply troubling,” she said Monday. “This conduct and abuse is entirely inexcusable and has no place in soccer, on or off the field. I think this report makes clear we need to make systemic changes at every level of our game.”

Abuse in the NWSL exploded into the public eye last year after reports in The Post and the Athletic led players to demand action from soccer officials. Games were canceled, five of the league’s 10 coaches resigned or were fired, and Baird resigned as commissioner. U.S. Soccer retained Yates and her law firm, King & Spalding, in October 2021 to investigate.

The NWSL and its players’ union retained the law firms Covington and Burling and Weil Gotshal & Manges, respectively, to investigate. Early findings from that probe have led to temporary suspensions for Houston Coach James Clarkson, Orlando Coach Amanda Cromwell and Orlando assistant coach Sam Greene.

Three of the principal players cited in the report issued a statement Monday evening calling for further accountability, including for team owners.

“Owners who have driven a culture of disrespect, who are complicit in abusing their own players, have no place in this league and should be removed from governance immediately,” said the statement by Farrelly, Shim and Simon. “This will be the first of many necessary steps to finally hearing our voices and keeping our players safe.”

Yates’s report notes numerous systemic issues that acted as barriers to players reporting abuse: The league didn’t have an anti-harassment policy until last year. Most teams lacked a human resources department. There wasn’t an independent, anonymous reporting line until last fall. And the league and U.S. Soccer didn’t have someone on staff responsible for player safety.

The report also highlighted cultural issues that remain prevalent in women's soccer, beginning at the youth level. The report states that players, coaches and staff were “conditioned to accept and respond to abusive coaching behaviors as youth players. By the time they reach the professional level, many do not recognize the conduct as abusive.”

Further, it noted that the league didn’t adopt an anti-fraternization policy until 2018, and intimate relationships between coaches and players “normalized.” It noted that coaches such as Riley, Dames and Holly married former players.

Yates focused on the three coaches accused of sexual misconduct, but the report also found that complaints of verbal and emotional abuse against former Washington Spirit coach Richie Burke dated from at least 2015, during his time as coach of Major League Soccer squad D.C. United’s under-23 team. In 2020, a year before players told The Post about their experiences with Burke, player surveys described him as using “demeaning language” and threats, the report found. A Spirit staff member, the report found, likened Burke’s treatment of players to “battered wife syndrome.”

The Yates report includes a series of recommendations, though it notes U.S. Soccer has limited authority over league and team operations. The report urges teams to accurately disclose and explain misconduct to prevent other teams from hiring coaches and suggests U.S. Soccer have better engagement with its licensing process, which could help “weed out problematic coaches.”

In a statement, the NWSL said it urged its investigative team to take Yates’s findings and recommendations into consideration as it continues its probe.

“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 league’s statement read. “We continue to admire their courage in coming forward to share their stories and influence all the changes necessary to keep moving our league forward. Establishing trust and confidence between the League, its players, and other key stakeholders remains a central focus for the NWSL, and we know that we must learn from and take responsibility for the painful lessons of the past in order to move the League into a better future.”

U.S. Soccer said it will immediately begin working on implementing Yates’s recommendations. The organization will establish an office of Participant Safety, will publicize records from the U.S. Center for SafeSport’s database and will mandate minimum standards for background checks from youth soccer through the sport’s highest levels. It also will establish a committee that will focus on implementing these recommendations — headed by Danielle Slaton, a former national team player — with an action plan due by the end of January.

“I’m focused on the systemic changes we need to make to address all the findings and recommendations in Sally’s report,” Cone told reporters Monday. “The gravity of these issues requires us to not simply turn the page. We can and we must use this report as a galvanizing moment for forward progress.”

This story has been updated and corrected. An earlier version incorrectly stated that the NWSL Players Association hired Covington and Burling to investigate. The union hired Weil Gotshal & Manges.