Investigation finds 'systemic,' 'heartbreaking' abuse in women's soccer, and failures at highest level of sport
(EDITOR'S NOTE: This story includes graphic depictions of sexual abuse and vulgar language that could be disturbing to some readers.)
A U.S. Soccer-commissioned investigation into abuse throughout the National Women's Soccer League unearthed new allegations of verbal, emotional and sexual misconduct at the highest levels of the sport, and found that coaches, executives, the NWSL and the federation itself "failed" countless players.
U.S. Soccer on Monday released the results of the yearlong investigation, which was led by former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates.
"Our investigation has revealed a league in which abuse and misconduct had become systemic, spanning multiple teams, coaches, and victims," Yates wrote in a 319-page report. "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."
U.S. Soccer tabbed Yates to lead the investigation after allegations of sexual harassment and coercion against longtime NWSL coach Paul Riley led to a league-wide reckoning and player demands for accountability and change last fall. Other alarming allegations against then-Chicago Red Stars coach Rory Dames later emerged. Yates' report confirms those allegations, and includes others that were previously unreported, including allegations of sexual misconduct against then-Racing Louisville head coach Christy Holly, who was abruptly fired for cause last year.
Holly, who is male, called a player, Erin Simon, in for a film session and told her that he'd touch her “for every pass [she] f***ed up,” according to Yates' report. He allegedly proceeded to “push his hands down her pants and up her shirt.” Simon, after the session ended, "broke down crying."
Holly also allegedly sent Simon sexually explicit photos and messages, and demanded that she reciprocate. And when he requested they meet at his house for a separate film session, he instead showed her pornography, and masturbated in front of her.
Yates and her investigative team conducted over 200 interviews in total, including over 100 with current and former NWSL players. Yates wrote that they "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 investigation found that NWSL clubs, the league and U.S. Soccer — the sport's national governing body, and manager of the NWSL until 2020 — "not only repeatedly failed to respond appropriately when confronted with player reports and evidence of abuse, they also failed to institute basic measures to prevent and address it, even as some leaders privately acknowledged the need for workplace protections.
"As a result, abusive coaches moved from team to team, laundered by press releases thanking them for their service, and positive references from teams that minimized or even concealed misconduct. Those at the NWSL and USSF in a position to correct the record stayed silent. And no one at the teams, the league, or the federation demanded better of coaches."
The report also details power imbalances that emboldened and protected coaches — especially male coaches — and discouraged players in the nascent league from speaking up.
"Many assistant coaches, front office staff, and others feared retaliation for coming forward," the report states. And as the NWSL, which launched in 2012 after two previous women's soccer leagues had folded, prioritized staying afloat rather than employee well-being, players were encouraged to "protect it from scandal and were told to be grateful that they had an opportunity to play professional soccer at all. The threat of team or league failure was acute and persistent."
Yates, in conclusion, outlined 12 recommendations "aimed at preventing abuse in the future, holding wrongdoers accountable, enhancing transparency, and fostering a professional environment where players are treated with respect."
Those recommendations, some of which U.S. Soccer has already pledge to heed, include that teams should be required to "accurately disclose misconduct to the NWSL and USSF"; that U.S. Soccer "should require meaningful vetting of coaches" and timely investigations of allegations; and that the "NWSL should determine whether discipline is warranted in light of these findings."
Key findings of the Yates' report: Paul Riley and the Thorns
The report focuses on three coaches — Riley, Dames and Holly — and the systems, processes and people who enabled their abuse. It frames them, however, as examples of widespread problems; Yates wrote that she narrowed the focus "to illustrate the gravity and breadth of the misconduct at issue and institutional failures that perpetuated it."
In Riley's case, sexual misconduct allegations "were brought to the attention of leadership" at the NWSL and/or U.S. Soccer "every year from 2015 through 2021," according to Yates' report. Riley, however, continued to coach the North Carolina Courage until two former players, Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly, came forward to accuse him of sexual coercion in an explosive article published by The Athletic last September.
In fact, in 2014, after Riley's first year with the Portland Thorns, players said in response to an anonymous survey that Riley was “verbally abusive,” “sexis[t]" and “destructive." Those survey results were shared with U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati and CEO Dan Flynn, in addition to NWSL executive director Cheryl Bailey. Bailey later distributed similar but separate concerns about Riley to Thorns leadership, but no action was taken by the team, the league or U.S. Soccer.
The Thorns parted ways with Riley in 2015 after investigating a complaint from Shim, but publicly framed his departure as a decision not to renew his contract rather than a firing. Although U.S. Soccer and NWSL leaders were aware of Shim's complaint, neither organization disciplined Riley. A few months later, he got another head coach job in the league, with the Western New York Flash — after Thorns general manager Gavin Wilkinson allegedly conveyed to the Flash that Riley was “put in a bad position by the player,” and that he'd “hire [Riley] in a heartbeat.”
Yates' report confirmed that, per "numerous players," Riley "created a sexualized workplace throughout his tenure in the NWSL. Riley frequently talked with players about sex and encouraged them to do the same. He fixated on players’ sexual orientations and targeted players with grooming behavior that included late-night texts, drinking and flirtatious comments about their appearance. Riley’s abusive conduct was considered an 'open secret,' but it never prompted an institutional response."
Yates' investigation found that U.S. Soccer and the NWSL were again warned about Riley's misconduct in 2018, 2019 and 2021, but allowed him to continue coaching. The report also includes extensive, detailed allegations that he overruled medical staffs and forced players to play despite injuries; and shamed them to lose weight, to the extent that he "promoted eating disorders," while in Portland and North Carolina.
The Thorns' then-head athletic trainer told Yates' team that she spoke to Wilkinson about Riley's medical interference and his weight shaming; and that Wilkinson’s response was simply, “we’ll look into it.”
Among the people who were aware of Riley's alleged misconduct, several have left their positions, but Wilkinson remains the Portland Timbers GM; Thorns owner Merritt Paulson still owns the Thorns and Major League Soccer's Timbers; Flynn retired from his U.S. Soccer post in 2019, but is now working with FIFA on the 2026 men's World Cup.
Key findings of the Yates' report: Christy Holly
Holly, meanwhile, was allowed to work for U.S. Soccer and in the NWSL even after verbally abusing and mistreating players during his first NWSL coaching stint, with Sky Blue FC, the club that has since rebranded as NJ/NY Gotham FC.
According to the Yates report, Sky Blue players complained that he was “paranoid, ultra-aggressive, short-tempered, nasty, mean, patronizing, humiliating,” “angry, disorganized, erratic” and “abrasive on the sidelines." He also allegedly had a "relationship with a player." He was asked to leave the club midway through the 2017 season, his second in charge — but the club said that it and Holly had "mutually" parted ways, and publicly thanked him.
Yates' investigation found that U.S. Soccer did not inquire about the reasons for his departure when it tabbed him to do part-time work including assistant coaching for the youth national team, opposition scouting and talent identification.
Racing Louisville hired him in 2020, and "Holly repeated the same pattern of misconduct — verbal and emotional abuse of players and a relationship with a staff member that caused problems," the Yates report reads.
He also targeted Simon. At one film session, "he touched her genitals and breasts each time she made an errant pass in the video," Yates found. "In other circumstances, he grabbed and groped her in public, but out of view."
Holly spoke to investigators, and denied some but not all of the allegations. (Dames and Riley did not cooperate with the investigation.)
Louisville fired Holly in August of 2021, and specified that it was "for cause," but did not say more. The Yates investigation found that the team and Holly had signed "mutual non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements," which, until now, had kept his abuse hidden from public view.
Key findings of the Yates' report: Rory Dames
Dames, who resigned last year as The Washington Post prepared to expose his abuse, was initially hired by the Red Stars without a background check and despite a history of "tirades against the young girls who played for him" at his Chicago-area youth club, Eclipse Select, the Yates investigation found.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: The vulgar language below could be disturbing to some readers.)
"Former players recalled him screaming and calling them 'cunts,' 'fat ass,' 'pussy,' 'retarded,' and 'bitches,'" Yates wrote. "Separately, former Eclipse players informed us that Dames’s sexualized team environment—in which he spoke to players about foreplay, oral sex, and their sex lives—crossed the line to sexual relationships in multiple cases, though those relationships may have begun after the age of consent."
A few years into Dames' Red Stars tenure, in anonymous surveys, Red Stars players reported to the NWSL and U.S. Soccer that Dames was “abusive” and “unprofessional,” and warned that players would not speak honestly about him "out of fear.” U.S. women's national team players separately reported Dames to U.S. Soccer in 2014 and 2018.
But in 2014, Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler responded to informal complaints by arguing that the players wanted “this league to shut down” and simply had an “axe to grind” with Dames, according to Yates' investigation. In general, he interpreted the abusive behavior as “Rory being Rory.”
In 2018, U.S. Soccer hired outside counsel to investigate Dames, and the "resulting report substantiated many of the players’ core complaints," Yates wrote. But Lydia Wahlke, U.S. Soccer's chief legal officer at the time, "did not distribute the report within the federation or convey its findings in detail to the NWSL or Whisler," Yates found.
Dames continued coaching until 2021. Shortly before his ouster, the Red Stars retained a psychologist to anonymously interview players about the team environment. "The psychologist observed that 70% of the players interviewed (including most starting players) reported emotionally abusive behaviors," the Yates report reads, "and that many players failed to recognize certain behaviors as abusive because they were so ubiquitous in women’s soccer."
Despite the focus on Dames, Riley and Holly, the Yates investigation also "revealed numerous other incidents of misconduct, including verbal and emotional abuse, sexually charged remarks, and coercive sexual contact. 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."
U.S. Soccer, NWSL respond to 'heartbreaking' findings
In a statement alongside the release of Yates' report, U.S. Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone said: “This investigation’s findings are heartbreaking and deeply troubling. The abuse described is inexcusable and has no place on any playing field, in any training facility or workplace."
On a video call with reporters Monday afternoon, an emotional Cone added that the findings were "infuriating," "maddening" and "shocking."
Cone said that the federation is "taking the immediate action that we can today, and will convene leaders in soccer at all levels across the country to collaborate on the recommendations so we can create meaningful, long-lasting change throughout the soccer ecosystem.”
U.S. Soccer said that in the immediate term, it would "establish a new Office of Participant Safety to oversee U.S. Soccer’s conduct policies and reporting mechanisms"; publish records from SafeSport’s database "to publicly identify individuals in our sport who have been disciplined, suspended or banned"; 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 the creations of "a new player-driven Participant Safety Taskforce" and a new board-level committee that will "comprehensively address the report’s recommendations going forward."
The NWSL — whose own investigation, which has been jointly commissioned with the NWSL Players Association, is ongoing — said in a statement that it would "immediately review the Yates Report," and that it has asked its own joint investigative team to consider the findings and recommendations of the Yates Report in its process.
"We greatly appreciate our players, staff and stakeholders’ cooperation with both investigations, especially during the ongoing season," the league said. "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. 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."
In a joint statement, Farrelly, Shim and Simon, three of the players who have publicly come forward, said: "It is time for action, accountability, and change. 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. This will be the first of many necessary steps to finally hearing our voices and keeping our players safe."
NWSL teams resisted investigative process
In the process of her investigation, Yates encountered the same attitudes that kept abusive coaches in power in the first place. The Thorns "interfered with our access to relevant witnesses and raised specious legal arguments in an attempt to impede our use of relevant documents," Yates wrote.
The report also accuses Racing Louisville of refusing "to produce documents concerning Christy Holly," and refusing to allow "witnesses (even former employees) to answer relevant questions regarding Holly’s tenure." The team cited its non-disclosure agreement.
And the Red Stars, who employed Dames for 10 years, "unnecessarily delayed the production of relevant documents over the course of nearly nine months."
It's unclear if those teams have cooperated more fully with the NWSL-NWSLPA joint investigation. That investigation is expected to be even more thorough, and has already led to the temporary suspensions of Houston Dash head coach James Clarkson, Orlando Pride head coach Amanda Cromwell, and Pride assistant coach Sam Greene.