The biggest takeaways from the NWSL—NWSL PA joint investigation report

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On Wednesday, the NWSL and NWSL Players Association released the full report following their joint investigation into misconduct across the league. The document, prepared by law firms Covington & Burling (hired by NWSL as an independent investigator) and Weil (counsel for the NWSLPA), details “widespread misconduct directed at NWSL players” at “the vast majority of NWSL clubs at various times from the earliest years of the league to the present.”

The report is 128 pages, and similar to the Yates report released in October, spends a considerable amount of focus on the behavior of head coaches, and the actions of ownership and other leaders at three teams: Portland Thorns FC, the Chicago Red Stars and Racing Louisville FC. The joint investigation report reveals that Paul Riley’s alleged abusive behaviors also continued during his time with the North Carolina Courage. The report is not limited to these clubs, however, with sections that address the behavior of coaches and technical staff at the Houston Dash, Kansas City Current, NJ/NY Gotham FC (formerly Sky Blue FC), OL Reign, Orlando Pride, Utah Royals FC and the Washington Spirit. 

The joint investigation report reveals a league that seemed to survive despite its own piecemeal operation, and reinforces Yates’ findings concerning the failures of investigations and reporting mechanisms between the clubs, league and U.S. Soccer. In particular, Lisa Levine, former general counsel of U.S. Soccer before moving to the NWSL to serve in the same role, and Lydia Wahlke, Levine’s successor at U.S. Soccer, were found by the investigation team to have fallen short in multiple ways when responding to players’ reports. 

But the biggest takeaway from the report is the vast systemic problem across the NWSL that has impacted the majority of the league’s former and current clubs. There are new, specific details in the document, and additional information that, when viewed with October’s Yates report, provide for a fuller picture of what has long been happening behind closed doors across the NWSL.

The following list of takeaways is not intended to be a complete list of their findings, but provide a starting point of notable findings that have a major impact on the league moving forward. The joint investigative team provides a summary of their own findings in the report. 

Note: We echo the same advisement issued by the joint investigative team. The content of the report, and our coverage, is sensitive and graphic. 


Pervasive behaviors across the league once again show major systemic problems

While the report focuses on former head coaches Paul Riley, Rory Dames and Christy Holly, the joint investigative team state they found multiple occurrences of misconduct across multiple teams. “This misconduct included sexual misconduct, inappropriate relationships with players, the blurring of professional boundaries, racially insensitive remarks, inappropriate statements about players’ weight and body types and other forms of emotional misconduct, and retaliation for reporting misconduct.”

The report also lists instances of unwanted sexual advances toward players, objectifying remarks, homophobic remarks, offensive behavior related to sexual orientation, volatile conduct, and other forms of misconduct.

The report considers offensive and insensitive behavior related to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and other identities at length. Players told the investigators that “they did not feel they could report racially insensitive and offensive conduct.” Former Washington Spirit head coach Richie Burke was reported by multiple players to have used racial epithets and to have made inappropriate jokes. The joint investigative team interviewed Burke, who confirmed many of those reports. The report says:  “When reflecting on his jokes related to Jewish people, Burke said that he did not know there had been Jewish people on the team.” One player reported a comment made by Paul Riley during his time with the Thorns to show how he discussed players’ sexual orientation, claiming he had said a player “loves a strap-on.”

“This misconduct did not occur in a vacuum,” the joint investigative team writes. “Like many institutions, the league has been influenced by sexism, racism, homophobia, and other biases.”

The joint investigative team also describes the impact the history and culture of the NWSL had on players’ decision to potentially report misconduct, from the previous failures of WUSA and WPS and the ensuing fears of the collapse of the NWSL, to the insecurity of players’ contracts as well as their national team ambitions, to baked-in sexism and the expectation that players would simply be grateful for a place to play professional soccer. Players described patronizing cultures at their clubs.

Players also reported a lack of confidence in their teams and the league itself to handle any complaints properly. The report notes, “Even when provided with anonymous reporting channels during the course of this independent joint investigation, including through the NWSLPA, some players expressed skepticism that reports would be appropriately handled due to historical distrust in the league.”

Following the sections on Riley, Dames and Holly, the report then breaks down additional reports of misconduct by infraction, with instances reported by players for each. In the cases where names are provided, we have compiled a brief summary of the findings.

 

  • Alyse LaHue: A player reported inappropriate communications from the former Gotham FC general manager. LaHue texted the player, “I don’t see us as friends,” and compared herself to a kid on the playground “pick(ing) on their crush.” LaHue participated in an initial interview, but canceled a follow-up and refused additional requests to reschedule. 
  • Craig Harrington, former assistant coach in Chicago/head coach of Utah Royals FC: Players reported Harrington making inappropriate comments about players and their appearances, as well as drinking to excess with players in a social setting following games. A player reported that following one such instance, he attempted to enter a hotel room with two players inside. Harrington denied these reports. 
  • Richie Burke: Players reported the former Spirit head coach used racial epithets, made jokes about race and ethnicity, and made multiple remarks about Jewish people. Players reported he was volatile, with what the investigation team described as “outsized, angry reactions to innocuous questions or requests.” Burke acknowledged his own conduct to the investigation team. 
  • James Clarkson: The joint investigative team states they received reports concerning “ongoing emotional misconduct and insensitivity” concerning Houston Dash coach/GM James Clarkson, including an original complaint filed in Dec. 2021. During the initial investigation, the team received another formal complaint. The players also expressed “fear that Clarkson would retaliate against them if he learned they had raised complaints.” In April, Clarkson was placed on a temporary suspension. The joint investigative team found his actions constituted “emotional misconduct,” including targeting players for excessive criticism. Players also reported volatile moods and an incident they felt created a culture that the joint investigative team describes as dictated by fear and anxiety. Clarkson did participate in the investigation, but the investigators wrote that he “exhibited a lack of candor.” 
  • Huw Williams: Players and staff detailed volatility from the former Current head coach in his only season in that role, especially when players asked questions. The report also details at greater length concerns of retaliation by Williams following a meeting between some players and the team’s owners, Chris and Angie Long. Williams was told the names of some players who participated in that meeting, which included concerns over his volatility, communication and training methods. Williams treated certain players negatively following the meeting; the report states, “Before the next season, certain players who had participated in the meeting or raised concerns about Williams were traded, waived, or not re-signed.” Angie Long participated in an interview with the joint investigation committee, but said she could not recall details of discussions about these specific player transactions. Williams was moved into a scouting role after being relieved of his head coaching role; Long pointed to his lack of results for that decision. 
  • Vera Pauw: Players reported weight-shaming comments and pressure from the former Dash head coach. “For example, players noted that Pauw wanted to exert control over ‘every aspect of (their) lives,’ including ‘everything you were putting in your body, every exercise you were doing.’” Pauw did appear for an interview, but “refused to cooperate” per the report. She provided a written statement denying what she suspected the allegations against her to be. Notably, the report states, “Pauw acknowledged that at the end of the season, a player had raised concerns to Pauw that Pauw’s mistreatment had caused a teammate’s eating disorder, but Pauw denied any role and stated that the reporting player should have ‘tak(en) responsibility as an adult’ by looking out for her teammate sooner.” 
  • Farid Benstiti: The report notes that OL Reign and Bill Predmore hired Benstiti as their head coach despite multiple public reports detailing previous weight-shaming behaviors, specifically at PSG concerning Lindsey Horan. Predmore denied knowing about Benstiti’s previous behavior, despite contradicting reports from other witnesses saying he had been made aware. Predmore told Benstiti he was not allowed to discuss players’ weight, food or nutrition with the players, but Benstiti did not comply in multiple ways, including hiding food from players. During the summer of 2021, Benstiti addressed the team in the midst of a losing streak, and criticized the players for their diets and weight. He told the players, “If I see you (eat) snacks, I will kill you.” Following a complaint made to Predmore, he suspended Benstiti; players also filed a formal complaint to the league. OL Reign asked for Benstiti’s resignation, rather than terminating his contract, with Predmore telling players at the time it was to expedite his removal from the club. Benstiti did not participate in the investigation. 
  • Amanda Cromwell (and Sam Greene): Players reported that the coaching staff of the Orlando Pride turned their backs on a player having a panic attack. As previously reported, the joint investigative team provides additional details into the retaliation from the Pride coaching staff following an earlier investigation into their behavior, including how Cromwell “wanted to waive or trade several other players who she believed were involved” in the first investigation.

Paul Riley continued abusive behaviors in North Carolina

Kaleigh Kurtz reported misconduct from Riley at North Carolina to the joint investigative team, stating she had not done so before out of fear of being labeled as a “troublemaker,” but she now believed players who came forward would be protected. Kurtz told the investigation team that Riley’s misconduct began in 2019, and what she described to the investigators follows the exact pattern he followed with Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly previously: “He shared personal information with her, talking about his ex-wife, his relationship status, and his sex life, including describing his preferred sexual positions,” the report states. “Riley invited her to share details about her romantic life, and in the following weeks and months, persistently asked her about her love life and how her relationship was going.”

Kurtz also reported comments about her weight; Riley told her she had to lose 14 pounds in order to play, telling her, “I hope you know I’m doing this because I love you.” Kurtz told the investigation team that Riley’s comments “led her to develop an eating disorder for which she later sought professional help.”

Kurtz requested a trade from the team following the 2019 season, but Courage assistant GM Bobby Hammond informed her they were unable to find one. During that offseason, Kurtz said Riley called her to inform her she had no trade value. She asked Riley if she could leave the team again in late 2020; he denied the request again. She also had a call with Hammond, who informed her that he had spoken with Riley and she was not allowed to leave the Courage. Kurtz told Hammond that her reason was not related to playing time but due to Riley’s comments about her weight; she reported to Hammond that Riley called her “chubby,” and she told the investigative team that Hammond did not ask any questions about why she did not feel comfortable having Riley as her coach. Hammond told the joint investigative team that he remembered a call from 2019 in which she requested a trade, but denied speaking to Riley about her trade request and said Riley had not communicated she could not be traded.

Hammond could not recall Kurtz being emotional, but he did report to Courage GM Curt Johnson that Riley had made an inappropriate comment about her weight. Hammond told the investigative team that Johnson did speak with Riley, who denied weight-shaming Kurtz, but Hammond noted he did not follow up with Kurtz after their call. 

Riley did not participate in the investigation.

Before the publication of The Athletic’s article on Riley on Sep. 30, 2021, two players had previously reported Riley for inappropriate comments about players weight; one complaint went to the team (which was later sent to the league), the other to the league directly. Kurtz reported Riley’s behavior to the Courage following the article’s publication, and also discussed his behavior in a group meeting with former NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird and former NWSL general counsel Lisa Levine. Another player also reported Riley for verbal abuse and creating “a culture of fear” following The Athletic story.

“Allowing Riley to continue coaching in the NWSL endangered NWSL players,” the report states. The report also follows the series of events between Riley’s dismissal from the Thorns following the 2015 season as a result of Shim’s complaint against him to his hiring at the Western New York Flash, then the franchise’s subsequent move to North Carolina.

Mostly, the joint investigative team concludes that the Courage — much like with Kurtz’s attempted trade request — did not take additional steps that could have prevented endangering players. Courage owner Steve Malik and Johnson provided a written statement via the team to the investigation report, which detailed their attempts to vet Riley via conversations with various leaders across the Thorns, NWSL and U.S. Soccer (these are all also covered in the Yates report).

The joint investigation report states: “Notwithstanding the seriousness of the conduct conveyed to Malik, and the unusual resistance Malik encountered when he sought more information, the Courage did not take further steps to try and obtain the (2015 investigation) report, such as making a written request for it, appealing to the Board of Governors, or seeking intervention from (former USSF president Sunil) Gulati or U.S. Soccer. The Courage never received a copy of the report or learned the full findings, which also discussed Riley’s other serious misconduct. That January, the Courage made Riley their first head coach.”

There was zero path forward for Arnim Whisler to stay in the NWSL

While much of the Chicago Red Stars section was previously reported, whether via Molly Hensley Clancy’s investigative stories at The Washington Post or the Yates report, the joint investigation report once again drives home the point that owner Arnim Whisler could, under no circumstances, remain with the team in any capacity. The report clearly lays out a pattern of Whisler’s various responses to complaints made against former head coach Rory Dames and his dismissal of them as far back as Dec. 2013. Whisler told the investigative team that while he had received all of the complaints that, in the report’s phrasing, he “wished he had received more information in order to take action earlier.”

In 2018, following a communication from Lisa Levine about a complaint filed by a Red Stars player concerning the behavior of Dames and Whisler himself (unrelated to Christen Press’ complaint which prompted a U.S. Soccer investigation), Whisler not only immediately guessed the identity of the player, but told Levine the player had “lost her starting job” and she might be “trying to take (Dames) out.” Following the conversation with Levine, Whisler then informed Dames of the complaint, immediately creating a situation where retaliation was made possible. Whisler and Dames kept in contact, with Dames expressing that he wanted to waive the player. Whisler then reached out to the player directly, as well as another teammate.

U.S. Soccer’s investigation in 2018 did not cover Whisler’s actions. The joint investigative team “found strong evidence to corroborate players’ concerns about Whisler. In text messages to Dames, Whisler spoke negatively of Press and expressed suspicion about players’ motives for raising concerns.”

The report also notes the “mutually beneficial” relationship between the Red Stars and the youth club owned by Dames, Eclipse Select. Whisler confirmed this to the investigative team, and said it was helpful because Chicago was “probably the poorest team in the league.”

Despite receiving the results of a damning organizational review about Dames and knowing The Washington Post was about to publish its investigative report, Whisler still considered keeping Dames on staff in a role that did not include player interaction. Ultimately, Whisler asked for Dames’ resignation, but in the club’s separation agreement, Whisler still paid Dames for the rest of the year, and the agreement included “mutual non-disparagement and confidentiality provisions.”

Louisville highlights the troubling complications of non-disclosure agreements

The joint investigative team also interviewed Erin Simon concerning her experiences with former head coach Christy Holly; the recounting of her experience and this report’s corroboration of events is largely the same as in the Yates report. The joint investigative team states that they had requested an interview with Holly, to which he initially agreed. While in the process of scheduling it, the Yates report was released, and Holly then declined to participate in the investigation.

The joint investigation report has new details, however, on how the club notified the players, as well as their severance agreement which also included non-disparagement and non-disclosure agreements. The club provided Holly with a $14,000 severance payment, and provided a mechanism for Holly to vacate his apartment (located in the same complex as Erin Simon’s team-provided housing). The investigative team found, however, that the non-disparagement agreement signed by both parties “was far more limiting on the club than what was necessary to protect (Simon’s) confidentiality,” as the agreement “prohibited the club from disclosing Holly’s sexual misconduct, including to law enforcement, unless compelled by law.” This meant that even if Simon came forward herself, the club would not be able to confirm it, or disclose what happened to any future employer of Holly.

“During this investigation, Racing Louisville initially refused to allow witnesses to discuss substantial aspects of Holly’s employment and termination, citing the severance agreement’s mutual non-disparagement and non-disclosure provisions,” the Louisville section concludes. “Racing Louisville only provided more meaningful cooperation after the USSF report criticized the club for its ‘limited’ cooperation with the investigation.”

No charges have been pressed against Holly at this time. A spokesperson from the Jefferson County Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney provided the following comment to The Athletic: “The Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office is dedicated to promoting public safety through the ethical, fair and just prosecution of criminal offenses. Although the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office is aware of the allegations against former head coach Holly we have not been presented with any potential charges to review and do not have any comment at this time.

“Generally speaking, in our jurisdiction, crimes are investigated by a law enforcement agency, not the prosecutor. An investigation may be initiated by the accuser or a third party who has information that a crime may have been committed. Once the initial investigation has been completed, the report is filed with our office. The prosecutor reviewing the investigation may send the case back to law enforcement for further investigation. Ultimately, the reviewing prosecutor decides the appropriate charge(s) if any, and presents the matter to a grand jury for an indictment if we believe a felony offense has been committed.”

The roles of Lisa Levine and Lydia Wahlke

Lisa Levine, general counsel for U.S. Soccer from 2015 to 2017, then general counsel for the NWSL from 2017 to 2021, and Lydia Wahlke, general counsel for U.S. Soccer from 2017 to 2020, were both involved in various reports concerning misconduct in the NWSL. As noted above in the Red Stars section, Levine’s communication with Whisler following a complaint directly enabled retaliation against the player who made it, according to the investigation.

The joint investigative team found that despite having direct involvement in the 2015 investigation conducted by the Thorns concerning Paul Riley’s behavior, including having received and reviewed the final report and supporting documents, Levine did not provide the Western New York Flash with any additional information that may have impacted their decision to hire Riley, and the investigation did not find that Levine provided any information in response to the Courage’s requests for more details about Riley during their own due diligence in their hiring process.

Levine was also directly involved in the response to Shim and Sinead Farrelly when they attempted to report Riley to former NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird in 2021. Levine participated in the joint investigation, but the team found that Levine “deflected criticism of the NWSL’s failure to act in response to these complaints onto the players themselves.”

The report states in that same section, “Levine claimed that Farrelly ‘withheld’ her experiences with Riley in 2015, and she asserted through her counsel that Farrelly and Shim consciously did not explain Farrelly’s ‘alleged sexual history’ with Riley when they emailed the NWSL in 2021 as part of an effort to ‘gain leverage over the league.’ Levine claimed that their failure to do so ‘contributed to (Riley’s) remaining in the league’ until Farrelly and Shim went public in September 2021.”

The joint investigative team found that Wahkle “failed to protect players” during the U.S. Soccer investigation into Rory Dames in 2018, as she did not take any action to suspend Dames during the investigation. “When the investigation concluded in Sep. 2019, Wahkle failed to share relevant information about the investigative findings with the NWSL or the Red Stars, citing U.S. Soccer’s privilege as the rationale for not sharing this information,” the report states, even despite the findings that Dames was exhibiting abusive behaviors with players. Because the 2018 report and its conclusions were never shared, Whisler and the club, the players, and the league “were left with the impression that Dames’s behavior was deemed acceptable by U.S. Soccer”

Also, the investigative team was concerned by Wahlke’s handling of Riley’s potential consideration for the USWNT head coach position in 2019. Despite receiving a copy of the 2015 investigation, she did not raise any concerns about Riley continuing to coach in the NWSL, despite being found unsuitable for the national team.

At the same time when Riley’s name was floated for the USWNT role, Levine and then-NWSL president Amanda Duffy worked with league communications staff to prepare a statement concerning the league’s handling of the 2015 investigation into Riley. Levine also forwarded an old email with the investigation report and supporting documents to Duffy, who was the one to forward the email to Wahlke. 

Who was ultimately in charge? 

The joint investigation team addresses how the lack of clear structure and guidance between the clubs, the NWSL and its board of governors, the league’s front office, and U.S. Soccer led to failures in appropriate responses to player reports. U.S. Soccer was the manager of the NWSL from Dec. 2012 until Dec. 31, 2020, but witnesses described their role as manager in vastly different ways to the joint investigative team. Former USSF CEO Dan Flynn called their oversight “quite limited,” and said federation staff only “periodically” attended NWSL board meetings.

Former NWSL staff disagreed with this characterization. Baird told investigators that the USSF had “widespread approvals over everything in the league” and were “participants in every board meeting.” Duffy said the federation had authority over day-to-day operations, and that the NWSL front office was “disempowered” due to the USSF’s role. Finally, the report states that “an individual affiliated with the USWNTPA described former U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati as a ‘puppeteer’ overseeing the league and recalled Gulati exerting authority over proposed player trades.”

The clubs believed the league would have a role in handling reports of misconduct; the league believed teams would have some form of HR function at the club level. “Gulati also stated that U.S. Soccer relied on the league and the club to develop their own policies regarding misconduct, but he did not recall ever conveying to the clubs that they were responsible for setting up these policies.”

The NWSL did not mandate background checks for coaches or other player-facing staff until Aug. 2021, when the league “implemented a process requiring clubs to submit their head coaching candidates to the NWSL for a background check and subsequent approval.” The policy was expanded to assistant coaches and other player-facing staff on Sep. 30, 2021 (the same day as the publication of The Athletic article on Paul Riley). Further “temporary protocols” were instituted by November of that year which included additional verification, including a check against SafeSport records. Additional reputation checks “can be conducted at the club’s election,” according to the report.

And one final note

There are 39 specific recommendations under six thematic sections as part of the joint investigative report, but the team notes that these recommendations are all systemic in nature. No recommendations were made concerning discipline to “specific individuals or entities.” Ultimately, these are at the discretion of NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman and the NWSL board of governors, rather than the lawyers from Covington and Weil who compiled the report.

(Photo: Credit: Maria Lysaker-USA TODAY Sports)


The Valley Voice
The Valley Voicehttp://thevalleyvoice.org
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.

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