Emotional abuse, sexual misconduct in women’s professional soccer prompts calls for change

A year-long independent investigation into the National Women's Soccer League uncovered systemic patterns of emotional abuse and sexual misconduct, and that the league and U.S. Soccer Federation failed to act for years to address players’ complaints. Former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates led the inquiry and joined Amna Nawaz to discuss the findings.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A yearlong independent investigation into the U.S. National Women's Soccer League found systemic patterns of emotional abuse and sexual misconduct and that the league as well, as the U.S. Soccer Federation, failed to address players' complaints for years.

    Amna Nawaz has our report.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, the report documents allegations of verbal and sexual abuse across multiple teams, shows how players' complaints were dismissed by league officials, and lays out in disturbing detail the misconduct of three past coaches.

    According to the report, former Racing Louisville coach Christy Holly used his power to sexually abuse and retaliate against his players. Paul Riley, former coach of the North Carolina Courage, coerced players to have sex with him, and his abuse was a so-called open secret. And Chicago Red Stars former coach Rory Dames was known for his tirades and — quote — "crossed the line" into sexual relationships with his former youth league players.

    The investigation was led by former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, who joins me now.

    Ms. Yates, welcome back to the "NewsHour." Thank you for joining us.

    I want to ask you about how you chose to begin your report, because you begin with a story. And it's the story of current player Erin Simon, and her April 2021 account of when she was abused by her then-coach, Christy Holly.

    Tell me why you chose to begin with that particular story.

  • Sally Yates, Former U.S. Deputy Attorney General:

    Well, as we were investigating this, and we saw just how prevalent the instances of abuse were, we thought it was going to be really important to actually tell this as a story, for it not to be at a 10,000 foot level, where you're giving an overview and people can look away.

    It seemed really important for everyone to have to look up close and personal at the individuals, at the women who suffered in this instance.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The abuse you find in your report was systemic. You also say it was inevitable.

    What did you mean by that?

  • Sally Yates:

    Well, the league, the NWSL, was founded after two prior leagues had failed. And there were issues with abuse and misconduct in the prior leagues.

    In fact, many say that one such incident was a big cause of the failure of the predecessor league. So, against that backdrop, the very idea that it was set up without any basic protections in place is just crazy, and not just for the first year, but it went on year after year.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We have to point out, in…

  • Sally Yates:

    So, in some instances…

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I apologize. Go ahead.

  • Sally Yates:

    No, I said, in some instances, I would say, what did they expect to happen without having set up those protections?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We should point out, in each of these cases with each of these coaches, players complained. They went to league officials. They went to the league commissioner in one case.

    What did you find in your investigation about how the league and how U.S. Soccer Federation responded.

  • Sally Yates:

    And that was one of the most disturbing things.

    After this first came out, I heard people saying, well, the players should have complained. Well, they did complain in various ways through player surveys, through going to team ownership, going to the league, going to the federation. And those complaints were generally either ignored completely or, sometimes, there were some individuals, particularly owners, who would ascribe bad motives to the players for making those complaints instead.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You conducted over 200 interviews for this, and that includes over 100 former and current players.

    How many of those players had experienced some kind of abuse?

  • Sally Yates:

    You know, I will confess I haven't gone back and tallied it up.

    But most of the players we spoke with either had witnessed or experienced it personally themselves, and in varying levels. I'm certainly not suggesting here that every player was abused or that every coach is abusive. But this climate, this environment was familiar to most of the players.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Three of the players that you name in the report who did come forward with abuse complaints, Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim and Erin Simon, issued this statement yesterday after your report.

    And in part of it, they say — quote — "No one involved has taken any responsibility for the clear role they played in harming players." They are calling for accountability and change.

    And they also say, Ms. Yates, they say they want owners who have been complicit to be removed. What do you make of that?

  • Sally Yates:

    Well, look, I certainly understand this.

    Everyone, I think, is interested and anxious to move forward. But I don't think that it's very realistic to think that anyone or the players can move forward without there being some measure of accountability for what's happened in the past.

    And accountability begins first with taking responsibility for one's actions. And so I think that's basic human nature. And that's what the players are asking for.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I also have to ask. You mentioned youth soccer and youth leagues several times. These coaches who are named in here all had ties to youth soccer leagues.

    You also say your investigation was just focused on the professional league. You didn't pursue information that came up related to youth leagues. But millions of parents are going to read that and they're going to be worried.

    So what should they know about what you found about what's going a lot in youth soccer leagues?

  • Sally Yates:

    Yes, we — our investigation was of the NWSL, of women's professional soccer.

    But player after player told us about their experiences in youth soccer. And, again, there's a range of conduct here in the abuse, but one of the really common threads we heard was that these young players got used to being verbally abused by their coaches. And, frankly, some of the parents, I think, got used to that as well.

    And there were also very gray lines in the relationships between players and coaches. I think that we all need to wake up and step up and look at what is going on in our youth leagues and take control of that.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates joining us today with this report on the National Women's Soccer League.

    Thank you so much, Ms. Yates.

  • Sally Yates:

    Thanks for having me.

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