Abuse is rife and 'systemic' in women's soccer. What will U.S. Soccer, NWSL do about it?

Among the emphases of Sally Yates' investigative report on abuse in women's soccer was that the problem is "systemic." Yates' investigation, the shorter of two independent probes into the sport, revealed a vicious cycle of power imbalances and insufficient safeguards that followed elite players to the National Women's Soccer League, but did not begin there.

Beyond the three abusive coaches on whom the investigation focused, it "revealed numerous other incidents of misconduct, including verbal and emotional abuse, sexually charged remarks, and coercive sexual contact," Yates wrote. "Some of the misconduct dates to predecessor leagues and some to youth soccer. The roots of abuse in women’s soccer run deep and will not be eliminated through reform in the NWSL alone."

The questions she then confronted, that U.S. Soccer is already addressing, and that countless stakeholders are now grappling with, are: What reforms could eliminate it, or at least meaningfully mitigate it? And how, in U.S. Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone's words, can the national governing body "prevent anything like this from ever happening again"?

Yates purposefully limited the scope of her investigation because the goal, she said, was not to identify every individual perpetrator; it was "to identify systemic shortcomings and to be able to make recommendations for change."

Cone read those recommendations, which are spelled out over 16 pages, and although she's still digesting Yates' findings, and still fighting through emotion, she concluded: "We need to make systemic changes at every level of our game."

She called upon "all constituencies" in American soccer to help not only "make our sport safe, but to rebuild our sport's culture."

"This report is just a step," Cone told reporters on a Monday Zoom call. "A first step in taking a hard look at the entire soccer ecosystem in this country, and what we need to do."

Yates' recommendations

Throughout the yearlong investigation, Yates and her team encountered a network of powerful coaches and executives who allowed one another to move freely from job to job in spite of alleged abuse. Teams concealed misconduct in “thank you for your service” news releases. And a league and governing body without proper standards and player protection mechanisms allowed this network to flourish.

So, Yates recommended that U.S. Soccer and/or the NWSL require teams to accurately disclose misconduct; that the federation establish and publicize a database of individuals who've been "disciplined, suspended, or banned" for misconduct; and that the NWSL "eliminate the use of non-disclosure and nondisparagement agreements that act to shield information about abusive coaches."

Yates also recommended that the federation require more robust vetting of coaches at various levels of soccer — something that the federation has the power to do via its coach licensing system. The current system "is essentially a 'diploma' system," Yates explained, wherein coaches get certified and automatically stay certified. She recommended a reformed "accreditation program requiring annual recertification."

Cone, responding to this suggestion, said it was one of many that sounds simple, but is "really not a simple process." She said U.S. Soccer would "seriously" look into it, and in general, the federation has said that it is "committed to thoroughly addressing the report’s recommendations." But Cone was hesitant to immediately commit to doing things "without a plan and a timeline for how we're actually going to implement things."

FILE - Cindy Parlow Cone, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, speaks following a U.S. women's match against Nigeria at Audi Field, Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022, in Washington. An independent investigation into the scandals that erupted in the National Women's Soccer League last season found emotional abuse and sexual misconduct were systemic in the sport, impacting multiple teams, coaches and players, according to a report released Monday, Oct. 3, 2022. Cindy Parlow Cone called the findings “heartbreaking and deeply troubling.” (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)
U.S. Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone said Monday that the Yates report "makes it clear that we need to make systemic changes at every level of our game." (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)

Another glaring takeaway from Yates' report was that, from youth to pro leagues and everywhere in between, abuse and misconduct became "normalized." Players were "conditioned to accept and respond to abusive coaching behaviors as youth players," the report states. "By the time they reach the professional level, many do not recognize the conduct as abusive."

Their experiences "impacted their ability to discern what was out of bounds in the NWSL." But so too did a lack of "clear guidelines." Boundaries were blurry and undefined. Yates recommended that U.S. Soccer rectify this by publicly outlining "uniform and clear policies and codes of conduct," which would apply across the American soccer landscape.

She also recommended that the federation "require the NWSL to conduct annual training for players and coaches" that would "clearly delineate" between acceptable and unacceptable behavior using "real life scenarios."

Yet another problem identified during Yates' investigation was that players were often "uncertain what to do if they were subjected to inappropriate conduct and feared retaliation if they raised concerns." In part to clarify the reporting process, Yates recommended that teams, the NWSL and U.S. Soccer each appoint a player safety officer. She also encouraged the league to maintain the anonymous reporting line that it established last fall, and resume the annual solicitation of feedback from players — and act on the resulting feedback, rather than ignore it, as some executives did in the past.

Next steps for NWSL, U.S. Soccer

Yates acknowledged, both in her report and on a conference call with reporters, that U.S. Soccer's power to overhaul the NWSL is limited. It cannot, for example, dispose of an NWSL owner who enabled years of abuse — as at least two current owners did.

That power rests with the league, which has, alongside the NWSL Players Association, commissioned its own joint investigation that is still ongoing. U.S. women's national team captain Becky Sauerbrunn said Tuesday that she hopes the joint investigation "will have recommendations for discipline," including of the executives and owners she wants "gone."

U.S. Soccer's influence over the NWSL is rooted in its sanctioning of the league. It establishes and enforces "Pro League Standards" that the NWSL must meet to continue operating at the top of the American soccer pyramid. In theory, the federation could amend those standards to include several of Yates' recommendations. Cone said Monday that a new board-level committee would "take a really hard look at" how the Pro League Standards could be utilized.

That new committee was established in the wake of Yates' investigation to "comprehensively address the report’s recommendations going forward," U.S. Soccer said Monday. The committee will "thoroughly study" them and "share an action plan" by the end of January. It will be chaired by former USWNT player Danielle Slaton and vice-chaired by longtime youth soccer executive Mike Cullina.

Cullina's involvement is, in part, an acknowledgement that much of U.S. Soccer's work must occur below the sport's top tier, at amateur levels, where abuse so often begins. To that end, "in the immediate term," the federation said it would heed a few of the Yates report recommendations: It will publish SafeSport records, and establish a new "Office of Participant Safety," and "mandate a uniform minimum standard for background checks for all U.S. Soccer members at every level of the game, including youth soccer."

It also announced "a new player-driven Participant Safety Taskforce to convene leaders in soccer at all levels across the country — from professional leagues to youth and grassroots clubs — to coordinate efforts to implement the report’s recommendations and to ensure increased clarity on conduct-related policies and procedures." It said that "at least one-third" of the task force's members will be athletes, and promised to "release more information about its mission, membership roster and timeline for progress within the next 30 days."

The difficulty will be implementation. There are millions of soccer players in the United States, and they fall under a variety of sanctioning organizations that Cullina, in an interview with Yahoo Sports last month, referred to as the "alphabet soup." There is U.S. Youth Soccer (USYS), U.S. Club Soccer (USCS) and the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO). There are state associations, and scholastic athletic associations, and the Elite Clubs National League (ECNL), YMCA leagues and more. Together, they — and not the NWSL — oversee the majority of female soccer players in the U.S.

"The successful implementation of several of the report’s recommendations will require collaboration and coordination between U.S. Soccer, its membership and other key stakeholders with parallel or overlapping missions and responsibilities," U.S. Soccer said Monday. It called upon all those stakeholders "to join in these efforts and prioritize making needed changes."

Part of U.S. Soccer's work, Cone said, will be "educating organizations, educating parents, educating players and coaches on how to make sure the players are safe." But also, she said: "To implement many of the recommendations, U.S. Soccer can't do it alone, we have to get buy-in from our membership."