NWSL investigation discovers 'widespread misconduct' in 'vast majority' of teams

HARRISON, NJ - JUNE 19:  A  general view of the National Womens Soccer League logo on the scoreboard during the first half of the NWSL soccer game between NJ/NY Gotham FC and San Diego Wave FC on June 19, 2022 at Red Bull Arena in HArrison, NJ.  (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
A general view of the National Women's Soccer League logo. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Warning: This story contains depictions of alleged sexual misconduct and abuse.

A months-long investigation by the NWSL and its players' union found misconduct within the "vast majority" of clubs.

The NWSL's findings, which were summed up in a 125-page report released Wednesday, include new allegations of abuse against former Portland Thorns and North Carolina Courage head coach Paul Riley and new information regarding various firings and suspensions throughout the league.

It's the second investigation looking into abuse in women's soccer this year. In October, former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates released findings from her investigation, which was spearheaded by U.S. Soccer. Yates concluded that "abuse and misconduct had become systemic" within the NWSL.

The investigation completed by the NWSL and its players' union Wednesday came to a similar conclusion, saying, "misconduct against players has occurred at the vast majority of NWSL clubs at various times from the earliest years of the League to the present."

NWSL players reportedly felt discouraged from reporting misconduct

Wednesday's report says players worked in an environment that "dissuaded them from reporting misconduct." Players were reminded that the league was fragile and unstable and told they should be grateful to be there, according to the report. All of those factors discouraged players from speaking out.

The report also contains a new allegation about Riley, who was fired from the Courage last September after being accused of sexual coercion and making inappropriate comments. The report details how Riley demanded a Courage player lose 14 pounds to remain a starter. She told investigators she recognized Riley "had been 'grooming' her for sexual abuse" after reading The Athletic's initial story on his abuse.

Former NY/NJ Gotham FC general manager Alyse LaHue allegedly "made unwanted sexual advances toward a player," according to the report. LaHue was also accused of sending text messages to a player reading, "You were in my dream last night. Getting a massage," and "I don't see us as friends." LaHue denied those allegations in the report.

Houston Dash coach and general manager James Clarkson, who will not have his expiring contract renewed after being suspended in April, "communicated with players in a manner that created anxiety and fear for multiple players," per the report. Players told investigators they felt "scared and attacked" following one run-in with Clarkson.

The report also claims U.S. Soccer did not investigate or address issues within the league. It said U.S. Soccer avoided taking responsibility for the failures within the NWSL.

The report urged the league to strengthen its anti-harassment policy, create guidelines on the appropriate ways to interact with players and require mandatory training on anti-bullying, anti-racism and anti-harassment, among other recommendations.

NWSL and NWSLPA release statement on investigation

In a joint statement with the NWSLPA, NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman apologized to the players for the league's "failures and missteps." Berman was hired in March after Lisa Baird stepped down after the The Athletic reported on allegations against Riley.

Berman agreed with the report's findings, saying it shows "how our league systemically failed to protect our players." She thanked the players from showing bravery and courage and advocating for themselves to make this investigation happen.

Berman called on the NWSL, teams and U.S. Soccer to unite to eradicate misconduct. She also outlined some of the steps the league has taken over the past 14 months to correct its failures. Those include strengthening the league's anti-harassment policy, an enhanced hiring process, hiring a player safety officer, instituting training for players, coaches and league staff and providing guidelines on interactions with players, among many other procedures.

U.S. Soccer releases statement after NWSL, NWSLPA investigation concludes

U.S. Soccer released a statement Wednesday saying its "highest priority is participant safety at all levels of the game." It vowed to publicly unveil its plan to address all of the recommendations made in Yates' report by Jan. 31, 2023.

U.S. Soccer said it would continue to review the results of Wednesday's investigation, and stated the recommendations in that report will "inform our actions going forward."

As we review the NWSL/NWSLPA report, we look forward to gaining an even deeper understanding of the cultural and systemic dynamics that led to abuse in women’s professional soccer. We anticipate that information and recommendations contained in the report will inform our actions going forward and supplement the work underway by U.S. Soccer’s Yates Implementation Committee and Participant Safety Taskforce.

U.S. Soccer remains deeply committed to ensuring that everyone in soccer — at all levels — has a safe and respectful place to learn, grow and compete.

The NWSL also plans to provide an update on its initiatives and what further steps it will take to address the recommendations in the Yates report. The NWSL said that update will come before the start of its 2023 season in March.