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Tara Sullivan

We should be outraged about the toxic atmosphere around the NWSL, but we should not be surprised

The NWSL has 12 teams that play an April-to-October schedule.Craig Mitchelldyer/ISI Photos/Photographer: Craig Mitchelldyer

Tucked near the bottom of page 157 is a sentence I cannot let go.

“This should be the beginning, not the end, of focus on ensuring player safety and respect,” wrote Sally Yates, the author of a 172-page investigation report released earlier this week.

Yates is the former acting US Attorney General who was hired to investigate the National Women’s Soccer League after repeated complaints from players about predatory sexual behavior by coaches and toxic atmospheres within multiple franchises were ignored and silenced by league leadership.

The result of her work was a well-deserved excoriation of one of the few women’s professional sports leagues operating in this country, a takedown that continues to reverberate with front office resignations, sponsor backlash, and player outrage. It was alternately excruciating, painstaking, and heartbreaking to digest.


One thing it wasn’t?


So let’s ignore the predictable official reactions, the feigned shock and faux outrage from the failed soccer leaders who have been laid bare for their levels of ignorance and incompetence. For showing a level of misdirection, obfuscation, and utter disregard for doing what is right that could make the NFL blush.

The sad truth for female athletes like those harassed for many years in the NWSL isn’t only that this happened. What’s also sad is that they had come to expect nothing less, emerging from a youth soccer culture built on control and abuse, conditioned to put gratitude for the chance to play at all over the demand to be treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.

The sad truth is in joining a sorority so many other sports have already formed, from gymnastics to figure skating to swimming to snowboarding, all of them tainted by scandals involving abusive coaches and institutional failure. In this year, the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the landmark legislation that opened so many doors to participation, it is so utterly disheartening to realize just how many of those opportunities have been corrupted by bad actors and useless leaders.


If this isn’t, as Yates wrote, the time for a new beginning, when will it ever be?

Sally Yates is a former US Deputy Attorney General.Steven Senne/Associated Press

The report is rife with disgusting details. A player in Louisville, Erin Simon, forced to watch film with her coach Christy Holly while he groped her for every bad pass she made. Two players in Portland, Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly, groomed into inappropriate relationships with their coach Paul Riley. US national team star Christen Press, so beaten down by an abusive, sexist, racist, unpredictable, and explosive coach in Chicago, Rory Dames, that she forced her way out of town.

Bosses from each of those franchises, up through the league office, all the way up to the league’s partner and national governing body, the US Soccer Federation, doing nothing about it despite being given detailed evidence of the sordid behavior.

“There have been too many years of inaction and too many empty promises made while players suffered at the hands of the league,” Farrelly, Shim, and Simon said in a joint statement. “No one involved has taken any responsibility for the clear role they played in harming players — not the teams, not the league and not the federation. They chose to ignore us and silence us, allowing the abuse to continue.

“It is time for action, accountability, and change. Owners 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.”


Their voices should ring out in perpetuity as heroic and brave, just as those from the likes of gymnasts Rachel Denhollander, Aly Raisman, and Simone Biles. Like that of US national team star and NWSL player Alex Morgan, whose role in helping Shim and the others navigate league protocols, which were either nonexistent, confusing, or tilted toward owners, should not be overlooked. There’s no doubt Morgan’s cachet and star power helped force the league into action, to the almost impossible-to-believe warning she had to personally issue when Riley was under consideration to be the national team coach.

Because the NWSL consistently hid the reasons for coaches being fired, resigning, or generally moving on, those coaches were consistently able to emerge elsewhere. Most egregious was the case of Riley, whose abuses in Portland should have prevented him from ever landing in North Carolina, but didn’t because nobody told the truth. His unchecked power only got worse as he delivered championships.

Erin Simon appeared in 21 games for Racing Louisville FC.Will Newton/Associated Press

All of that goes back to the league’s foundation, built as it was with reckless urgency, understaffed or actually unstaffed in critical areas of player protection, from human resources to medical training. Of course women were grateful to have a pro league rebuilt so quickly after two previous, the WUSA and WPS, folded after three seasons each.


But as Yates put it, “In the haste to get the League off the ground, the Federation conducted limited financial due diligence on the new league’s prospective owners and did not put in place the infrastructure or planning necessary to support the League over the long haul. Instead, the focus was on putting eight teams on the field.”

The result?

“Multiple players reported that they were discouraged from raising concerns and repeatedly told to be ‘grateful’ that they had an opportunity to play professional soccer. Team and Federation leadership explicitly encouraged players to protect the League from failing as its predecessor leagues had.

“Some former players and veterans endorsed this message. As a result, players felt as though they had to tolerate unprofessional — and even unsafe — conditions.”

It’s time to be transparent. It’s time to listen to players. It’s time to stop covering up or ignoring problems. It’s time for a new beginning.

Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.