The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Another ‘report’ on abuse in women’s sports. When is enough enough?

Former North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley was among the men implicated in a report on abuse in U.S. soccer. (Anne M. Peterson/AP)

You don’t have to lift the cover on Sally Q. Yates’s damning report on abuse in U.S. women’s soccer to know what’s in it: Some of America’s greatest young female athletes were serially coerced and groped, called c---s and p-----s, and suffered retaliations from the clammy-handed male coaches they rejected. When they resisted, they had to fear for their careers. How many times do we have to read these kinds of reports, reciting the same stomach-turning “systemic” cycles? It makes you want to pull on a pair of steel-toed cowgirl boots and take aim at something higher than a shin.

Gymnastics. Swimming. Skiing and snowboarding. Taekwondo. Equestrian, for God’s sake. Now we find that our singularly great national women’s soccer program was a hotbed of snarling crudified lowlifes such as Christy Holly, who during a film session stuck his unwanted hands down a player’s pants and up her shirt, and whose next job, judging by this report, should be cleaning the grease trap in a prison kitchen.

“The players affected are not shrinking violets,” Yates, a former acting attorney general, wrote in her executive summary released Monday, which examined complaints against literally half the coaches in the National Women’s Soccer League. “They are among the best athletes in the world. They include members of the U.S. Women’s National Team … veterans of multiple World Cup and Olympic tournaments, and graduates of legendary NCAA Division I soccer programs. 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.”

The Yates report differs from all of the others in two significant respects. For the first time, an independent investigator put a finger squarely on the extent to which American women’s athletes are so reluctant to characterize themselves as victims that they “are conditioned to accept and respond to abusive coaching behaviors.” The rare vocal complaints of a Christen Press fell on such deaf and “desensitized” ears that as late as 2019 — long after the exposure of the Larry Nassar scandal, mind you — top U.S. Soccer Federation officials seriously considered naming the utterly scurrilous Paul Riley as the next coach of the national team, despite receiving a detailed report of Riley’s relentless unwanted sexual pursuit of Portland Thorns player Meleana Shim, whom he benched when she rejected him.

Second, Yates takes dead aim at the false front that is the U.S. Center for SafeSport — and it’s high time. SafeSport is a flimsy bill of goods the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee frantically sold to Congress in 2018 as a preventive measure against future abuse scandals. But as Yates establishes with breathtaking specificity, SafeSport is little more than another coverup operation, a litigation-avoidance ploy and bottomless pit in which to dump complaints and disguise inaction.

By Yates’s count, SafeSport somehow found a way to administratively stymie 1,350 of the 1,509 complaints it received from 2019 to 2020, with no action. Just 122 led to a formal resolution. One reason is that SafeSport is so abuser-friendly that its appeals process is “unlike that even afforded criminal defendants,” Yates wrote. It forces complainants to rehash their abuse through multiple cycles and can prohibit bodies such as U.S. Soccer from sharing any specific allegations against an abuser “even if they are supported by substantial evidence.” On top of that, SafeSport is farcically underfunded: It has just 30 employees to deal with 11 million American athletes. That’s not a system; it’s a sham.

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

Yates’s leadoff point bears repeating: The women who compete in the NWSL and for U.S. Soccer are not wilting lilies. They are footballers. They are elites, achievers. If this is how we treat our best, what treatment has been dealt out to those who don’t have as much stature or recognition? Imagine how many of our young female athletes fail because they just can’t cope with the Christy Hollys, Paul Rileys and Rory Dameses. (Also: It has been 50 years since Title IX. We have generations of women with firm grasps on the rules and strategies of sports. How about we turn over the coaching to them and give the men so intent on bossing around girls jobs in a barn?)

Every time one of these abuse scandals breaks, the people in positions of power feign ignorance by soliciting some sort of report — and then act surprised when the results are so scathing. How many more times are we going to do this charade? How many times must we send the elevator back down to clean up the filthy floors of these sports federations? What will break the cycle? What’s the solution? One answer is to say: “Don’t let your daughter compete in an Olympic sport. It’s not worth it. It’s 50-50 whether she’ll get harassed, assaulted, humiliated or pawed by a dirtbag, and there’s a 100 percent chance that no one in charge will help her.”

Our Olympic sports are not like our other leagues. They’re highly formative activities for our youngest athletes, and more broadly, they tangentially define standards for how we cultivate promise. They’re a kind of youth sports national resource. They also define ultimate success only one way: making the national team. This creates an inordinately unbalanced power dynamic in which every coach along the way can create a blockade for any reason, and it’s a magnet for potential abusers. That makes it all the more crucial that Olympic feeder programs be led by the right kind of people, who are thoroughly vetted. That’s not happening, and no one at the top seems to be answering for it.

Here is a modest alternative suggestion: All who want the prestige, prominence and pay that come with running a national sports governing body also should accept federal consequences and penalties for their failures to protect athletes. Congress has stepped in before to try to cleanse the Olympic system, and it’s time to do so again — this time with real teeth, not just bureaucratic reshuffling.

Make it a federal crime for any sports federation official under the U.S. umbrella to fail to act on a charge of sexual misconduct against an athlete. Yates’s report documents that top officials at the USSF, including ex-president Sunil Gulati and former CEO Dan Flynn, received multiple reports of coaches who were at a minimum exploitative of the power imbalance in the locker room, including allegations of sexual misconduct with players, if not worse. Yet the officials ignored or dismissed complaints, even when they came from an Olympian such as Press.

The next time a U.S. sports official receives a complaint and does not personally direct a rigorous fact-finding, the next time a suit protects the commercial enterprise over the athlete, the next time a young woman sends a beseeching email asking for official protection from a soft-middled sexual crook with whiskers you wouldn’t let your Labrador lick, only to find herself shelved or belittled or benched, someone at the top should risk exchanging their shirt cuffs for handcuffs. To date, not one person at the top of these cascading pyramids of abuse has faced serious legal consequences. All they ever face is an embarrassing report.