US Soccer Report into Abusive Coaching in the NWSL

U.S. Soccer today released the full findings and recommendations of Sally Q. Yates’ independent investigation into allegations of past abusive behavior and sexual misconduct in women’s professional soccer. U.S. Soccer’s Board of Directors and leadership team will immediately work to implement recommendations contained in the report, working in collaboration with U.S. Soccer members and organizations at all levels of the game to determine a plan for implementing the recommendations that require further coordination.

Read the Executive Summary

On April 21, 2021, the Head Coach of Racing Louisville, Christy Holly, requested that a player, Erin Simon, attend a game film session with him alone. She knew what to expect. When she arrived, she recalls Holly opened his laptop and began the game film. He told her he was going to touch her “for every pass [she] fucked up.” He did. Simon reports that he 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 video ended, and she left. When her teammate picked her up to drive home, Simon broke down crying.

Holly is not the only coach to have abused an NWSL player, and Erin Simon is not the only NWSL player to have been abused.

About five months later, on September 30, 2021, The Athletic published an article about Paul Riley—one of the winningest coaches in the League1—entitled “‘This guy has a pattern’: Amid institutional failure, former NWSL players accuse prominent coach of sexual coercion.”2 The article reported that Riley left the Portland Thorns in 2015 following an investigation of a complaint by Meleana Shim, a player whom Riley sexually pursued for months and benched after she declined his advances. The League reportedly knew of both Shim’s report and the investigation that led to Riley’s departure from the Thorns. The article reported further that the League failed to investigate a 2021 complaint against Riley by another player, Sinead Farrelly, whom Riley coerced into a sexual relationship in a prior professional league.

The article brought the NWSL to an immediate standstill. The North Carolina Courage (“NC Courage” or “Courage”), Riley’s new team, terminated him; the weekend’s games were quickly canceled; NWSL’s commissioner and general counsel resigned within days. Players demanded accountability from a league that “failed to protect its own players from this abuse.”3

By the end of the 2021 season, half of the League’s teams had parted ways with their head coaches following player complaints.4

On October 2, 2021, the U.S. Soccer Federation (“USSF” or “the Federation”), the official governing body of the sport of soccer in the United States, retained Sally Q. Yates and King & Spalding LLP to conduct an independent investigation into allegations of abusive behavior and sexual misconduct in women’s professional soccer.

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. 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. They include members of the U.S. Women’s National Team (“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. 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.

Teams, the League, and the Federation 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.

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