The latest investigative report on abuse and misconduct in the NWSL was released on December 14. The 128-page PDF was a joint effort by the league and the players association and spanned multiple years and nearly every team in the league, plus some folded and/or relocated teams. It’s an expansive and difficult-to-read public accounting of a multitude of systemic and structural failings, breakdowns, and neglect.
The hope, for players and fans, is that this report will not only be the last of its kind, but also be a catalyst for change. Let’s take a human look at the harm done, how the culture of abuse was created and enabled, the validation the report brings, and what the league needs to do in response.
The expansiveness and depth of this report forces you to absorb a range of words you know are bad: "sexual harassment", "verbal abuse", "racism", "antisemitism", "bullying", "retaliation", "body/weight shaming", "homophobia". It can become a lot to ingest, almost too much, and as such can be covered with a blanket of sadness. It’s also important to remember that each one of these instances had at least one player at the center who absorbed the full impact.
Not only were players victimized in specific instances, but afterward (even during) experienced cowardly, indifferent or neglectful responses when they spoke up to protect themselves, their teammates, or whoever the next player would be to end up in the crosshairs. It’s a helpless feeling to be wronged, to communicate that wrong, and see nothing happen.
In many cases, players were told that the behavior was normal, or that they simply weren’t used to "tough coaching." Or worse yet, like in Chicago with Rory Dames after Christen Press informed the NWSL and USSF about his varieties of misconduct, the system in place not only protected Dames, but team owner Arnim Whisler identified Press to Dames (page 42).
Internal reporting, then, was flung back onto players in the form of gaslighting, at best, and at worst an even larger target placed on them. It also shouldn’t be forgotten that what broke this trend was multiple players telling their stories to major media outlets.
One of the most consistent themes in each instance of abuse and/or harassment uncovered is that it was allowed to persist because no one wanted the responsibility of dealing with it. At every layer – coaches, club front offices, NWSL leadership and U.S. Soccer attorneys, coaches and even past presidents – reports from players were ignored, caught in a loop.
Another reason for this negligence is the way in which the NWSL was constructed. The recent ESPN documentary, Truth Be Told: The Fight for Women’s Professional Soccer, did a good job of walking viewers through the history of women’s soccer leagues prior to the NWSL. Through this, two things became clear: 1) USSF’s backing was essential for the stability of the early stages of the league (the federation paid the salaries of USWNT stars if they played in the NWSL), and 2) There wasn’t much thought beyond that.
In practice, what this meant was that players were placed into a situation to be extraordinarily wary of the collapse of the league, while the league and USSF offered no protections to the players. Even basic workplace harassment policies did not exist. The result was a welcome mat laid for volatile personalities, bad actors and dangerous egomaniacs to claim positions of power and authority.
Another part of the public acknowledgment of wrongs came from the unveiling of important context for players who have suffered in silence.
For Christen Press, who told The Washington Post about Rory Dames’ numerous abuses, the report details the full extent of her burden. At the time, Press received negative coverage and whispers of selfish behavior for wanting a trade away from the Red Stars (free agency did not exist).
She received even more scrutiny (and lost a callup to a national team camp) once she refused to join the Houston Dash, who were then coached by Vera Pauw. Pauw, who’s also featured in the latest report, was noted with obsessive, controlling behaviors, extreme weight monitoring, and body shaming.
Press played a year in Sweden then eventually ended up in Utah, where the owner was forced to sell his team due to a culture of misogyny, inappropriate conduct and racism. Now, she is at one of the more progressive and ambitious clubs in the league — Angel City FC.
Another such player is former Washington Spirit player Kaiya McCullough, who previously disclosed then-head coach Richie Burke’s abusive and racist behaviors to The Washington Post. Here, she reflected on what it meant:
McCullough retired from professional soccer altogether and is now pursuing a law degree at Harvard.
Given all the bad, the volume and audacity of it, the immediate solution would seem to be as simple as "do the opposite of what’s been done." But given the expansiveness of abuses, harassment and misconduct, implementing measures of protection must be more thorough than simply telling employees not to touch a hot stove.
Instead, the NWSL needs — and the players deserve — a far more comprehensive approach. The league’s first NWSL/NWSLPA Collective Bargaining Agreement should only be a start. In it, players demanded the implementation of basic infrastructure – policies that specifically guard against abuse, and effective processes to report, investigate and punish.
While necessary steps, the approach from the current NWSL Commissioner, the front office she assembles and owners across the league must be more holistic. Things like an increase in minimum player wages and autonomy, prioritizing anti-racist and anti-bias learning, dismantling siloed front offices, truly diverse hiring processes for league and club positions, all contribute to various forms of player safety.
In early October, USWNT defender Becky Sauerbrunn was asked how safe she would feel without leadership change at her club. She replied, "It doesn't matter if I feel safe, everyone's not 100% safe and that's not good enough. Everyone should be safe and free of abuse." If the NWSL is going to keep this culture and era of abuse in the past, that must be the guide.