Overtime: The NWSL Is Not Protecting Its Athletes

​​The NWSL has failed its athletes after ignoring multiple allegations. (Courtesy of Twitter)

​​The NWSL has failed its athletes after ignoring multiple allegations. (Courtesy of Twitter)

Founded in 2012, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) served to be the primary organization in the United States to take women’s soccer to the next level. Quickly put together after the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) won the gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics, the shaky foundation of the organization and lack of management contributed to a larger systemic problem within the organization.

Last year, U.S. Soccer hired former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates to investigate claims of sexual harrasement, assault and misconduct within the NWSL. This comes after complaints from members of the Portland Thorns related to former coach Paul Riley became public, detailing his verbal abuse, gross misconduct and harassment of the female players. Riley was fired in 2015, but went on to find new employment with the North Carolina Courage.

Once the information was made public in 2021, Yates looked into the allegations as well as claims against two other coaches: former Louisville Racing coach Christy Holly and former Chicago Red Stars coach Rory Dames. Others included in the investigation were team owners who were responsible for dealing with the initial complaints and chose to ignore them.

The firing of Riley from the Courage came about through an article in The Athletic being published detailing Riley’s sexual harrasment and coercion of players on the Thorns back in 2015. He is also reported as being verbally abusive towards players. However, the scary thing about the Riley situation is that Mana Shim, the player who reported this information to the organization, would later see Riley be reinstated as head coach for another team in the league. 

This is the hallmark for the failures of the NWSL and U.S. Soccer. Throughout many of these investigations, the coaches were recommended to other jobs as ownership decided to turn the other way.

Complaints even reached the ears of then USWNT head coach Jill Ellis and U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati. However, once again, no action was taken.

Holly also had similar allegations against him from his time as coach at Sky Blue FC, now known as NJ/NY Gotham, and later at his next job in Louisville. He was said to be combative and rude as well as potentially getting romantically involved with a player. When asked to resign in 2017, the organization went on to thank him for his service as coach.

The organization should have never allowed that message to be public. Those words serve as a reaffirmation of the horrible behavior by coaches that should not be replicated to any athlete ever. By allowing this to continue, it perpetuates the cycle of abuse by coaches over these women. 

The Yates report reveals scary information in regards to Riley and the complaints made by Shim. Specifically, while the Thorns did an investigation into Riley back in 2015, they did not fully investigate the claims made by Shim to the fullest extent. In their report, they never once used the words “sexual” or “harrasment” once, even with Shim providing illicit text messages from the former coach. Even further, the ownership for the Thorns gave Riley a positive job recommendation ultimately leading to his hiring at the Courage.

Dames was also accused of similar behavior, however the allegations against him date back all the way to 1998, spanning youth leagues to the Red Stars. One of the more recognizable faces from the USWNT, Christen Press, also came forward, filing a formal complaint citing emotional and verbal abuse. It went nowhere. 

It’s difficult to get through the 319-page report and absorb all the times these athletes were ignored. So many of these women now have long lasting trauma from their time being coached by these men. Unfortunately, this is the reality for not just women, but all athletes, when people in positions of power believe they have the authority to do these things.

I can only hope that the NWSL can make massive strides to turn this around and shape an organization that follows through on allegations without influence of public opinion or ownership. In a way, they have already started, with ownership from NJ/NY Gotham, Thorns and Red Stars stepping away from their organizations. However, until there is concrete change within the NWSL, I fear that women athletes will be failed once again.