An investigation commissioned by the U.S. Soccer Federation and conducted by former U.S. deputy attorney general Sally Yates was released Monday, and it includes revelations that are sure to send shockwaves throughout women’s soccer and raise tough questions about accountability and player safety.
The report’s findings focus heavily on three coaches in the National Women’s Soccer League who have been accused of serious sexual misconduct and abuse: former Racing Louisville coach Christy Holly, former Portland Thorns coach Paul Riley and former Chicago Red Stars coach Rory Dames. It sheds new light on the alleged misconduct by these three coaches, as well as the repeated failures by team owners, U.S. Soccer officials and others to heed warnings and complaints from players about them.
“Our investigation has revealed a league in which abuse and misconduct — verbal and emotional abuse and sexual misconduct — had become systemic, spanning multiple teams, coaches, and victims,” the summary of the investigation’s findings says. “Abuse in the NWSL is rooted in a deeper culture in women’s soccer, beginning in youth leagues, that normalizes verbally abusive coaching and blurs boundaries between coaches and players.”
Here are the bigger questions around the contents of the report.
Why was this investigation commissioned, and why was Yates chosen to lead it?
U.S. Soccer hired Yates to investigate after a report last year in The Athletic detailed that Riley had been fired by the Portland Thorns in 2015 for misconduct, but the Portland Thorns and the league kept the manner of his exit hidden from the public, allowing Riley to quickly be hired by another NWSL team.
Two former Thorns players interviewed on the record recalled that Riley verbally abused and disparaged them, sent them lewd photos, gave them alcohol and sexually harassed them. On one occasion, he allegedly told the players to kiss each other to get out of training drills, and in another, he greeted a player for a game film review session in his underwear before the player quickly left. He was also accused of sexual relationships with players.
Within days of the article, U.S. Soccer announced it had retained Yates “to lead an independent investigation into allegations of abusive behavior and sexual misconduct in women’s professional soccer.” The federation added that Yates “will be given full autonomy, access and the necessary resources to follow the facts and evidence wherever they may lead.”
Riley’s firing last year was one of five other dismissals of coaches in the league for allegations of abuse.
Yates, who specializes in internal and independent investigations, has experience as a federal prosecutor, also serving as the deputy U.S. attorney general and briefly as acting U.S. attorney general. U.S. Soccer cited her “extensive experience conducting complex and highly sensitive investigations” and the “three decades in public service at the Department of Justice under both Republican and Democratic administrations.”
Did everyone cooperate with the investigators?
The report says some teams and individuals did not fully cooperate, despite public statements claiming otherwise.
According to the investigators, Racing Louisville “refused to produce documents concerning Christy Holly and would not permit witnesses (even former employees) to answer relevant questions regarding Holly’s tenure, citing non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements it signed with Holly.” These agreements, the report adds, meant that “Holly’s misconduct has remained largely unknown, including to anyone who might seek to employ him as a coach.”
The Portland Thorns “interfered with our access to relevant witnesses and raised specious legal arguments in an attempt to impede our use of relevant documents,” the report says. The Thorns tried to prevent Yates’ reps from accessing the club’s 2015 investigation into Riley, citing “attorney-client privilege,” the report adds, “despite all evidence to the contrary.” Meanwhile, the Chicago Red Stars “unnecessarily delayed the production of relevant documents over the course of nearly nine months.”
It also notes that Jeff Plush, the former commissioner of the NWSL, “never responded” to investigators. He led NWSL from 2015 to 2017 and although Plush was aware of allegations of sexual abuse against Riley, he did not step in to prevent Riley from continuing to coach in the league. He is now the CEO of USA Curling.
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What does the report say about Holly, and why he was fired?
Although much of the allegations against Riley and Dames became public last year through investigative journalism, the manner of Holly’s exit from Racing Louisville is detailed for the first time in the Yates report.
Holly had previously coached for Sky Blue FC (now known as NJ/NY Gotham FC) and players complained that Holly was “paranoid, ultra-aggressive, short-tempered, nasty, mean, patronizing, humiliating,” — they also alleged he had a romantic relationship with a player, the Yates report says. He was asked to resign in 2017 because of these complaints, per the report, but the club issued a news release characterizing the split as “mutually agreed,” thanking him for his service.
After that, Holly did per diem work as a scout for U.S. Soccer and served as an assistant coach for the youth women’s national teams. “We found no evidence that anyone at USSF sought to determine the reason for his departure from Sky Blue or conducted any vetting prior to Holly’s work for USSF,” the report says.
In 2019, Racing Louisville hired him as the expansion team’s first head coach, citing his experience at U.S. Soccer. He allegedly continued the same behavior from his time at Sky Blue and started sexually harassing one particular player, sending her “sexually explicit photos and messages” and demanding she reciprocate. He asked her to meet with him to review game film at his house and instead showed her pornography and masturbated in front of her, the Yates report says.
In another incident, again under the guise of watching game film, he told her he’d touch her “for every pass [she] f—ed up.” The report says “he pushed his hands down her pants and up her shirt. She tried to tightly cross her legs and push him away, laughing to avoid angering him. The video ended, and she left. When her teammate picked her up to drive home, [the player] broke down crying.”
Louisville investigated quickly, firing him Aug. 31, 2021, and although the club did disclose publicly that it had fired Holly for cause, it declined to give details.
Could Riley’s alleged abusive behavior have been addressed sooner?
Riley was fired last year by the North Carolina Courage after the Athletic report detailed sexual harassment and coercion from him toward players when he coached the Portland Thorns from 2014 to 2015. One player, Mana Shim, revealed that she had reported Riley’s behavior to both the NWSL and the Thorns’ front office in 2015.
However, the Yates report says red flags were known about Riley as early as 2014 in his first season in Portland, but former U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, former U.S. Soccer CEO Dan Flynn and current Thorns owner Merritt Paulson failed to take action on player complaints.
The NWSL had issued an anonymous player survey in which players identified Riley as verbally abusive, sexist and “destructive,” and said he “s— on [the] players every day.” Per the report: “The survey results were shared with NWSL Executive Director Cheryl Bailey, USSF President Sunil Gulati and Flynn, but no one provided them to the team and no action was taken.”
Also in 2014, players on the U.S. women’s national team reported to both Gulati and USWNT head coach Jill Ellis that Riley “belittle[d]” and “verbally abuse[d]” players and “created a hostile environment.” That feedback was then shared with Flynn, Bailey and NWSL general counsel Lisa Levine. Bailey sent that information to Paulson, “but no action was taken in response to those comments either,” according to the report.
The report adds that there was a culture in Portland in which inappropriate comments to female employees and players seemed to be accepted or downplayed. The report says Portland Timbers/Thorns head of business operations Mike Golub said to former coach Cindy Parlow Cone: “What’s on your bucket list besides sleeping with me?” When Cone, who is now the president of U.S. Soccer, later reported the incident to Paulson, he told her he wished she had told him when it happened, per the report. Thorns players told the investigators that Paulson made inappropriate comments, too, such as trying to discuss with them leaked nude photos of a former USWNT player.
Why did Riley keep coaching in the NWSL after Shim filed her complaint?
Although the Thorns conducted an investigation into Riley in 2015, the Yates report says it “did not address the most serious of Shim’s allegations.” The Thorns’ report of the club’s investigation did not include the terms “sexual” or “harassment” anywhere, despite Shim providing records of repeated harassment by Riley, including a text he sent to her that read, “I am so horny I want to f— you,” the report says. The Thorns report also omitted Shim’s allegations of retaliation by Riley.
But the Thorns’ investigation did conclude that Riley sent “inappropriate texts,” served alcohol to players, invited Shim to his hotel room and danced with her, “touching her while doing so.” The Thorns privately fired Riley, but publicly the club said it was not renewing his contract and thanked him for his service.
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After that, executives in both the NWSL and at U.S. Soccer opted not to discipline Riley, “whether by suspending his license or otherwise,” the report says. Within months, Riley was hired by another NWSL team, the Western New York Flash, the team that was later relocated and renamed the North Carolina Courage.
The Thorns have previously admitted that the club’s general manager Gavin Wilkinson gave Riley a positive recommendation for the job with the Flash, but said Wilkinson’s recommendation was focused strictly on Riley’s performance as a coach.
The Yates investigation contradicts that narrative: “In an email to Gulati, Flynn, and Levine, Plush conveyed his understanding that Gavin Wilkinson [Thorns General Manager] told the Flash that Riley was ‘put in a bad position by the player,’ and that Wilkinson would ‘hire [Riley] in a heartbeat.’ Although Plush, Gulati, Flynn, and Levine all had received Shim’s detailed complaint — and Plush and Levine received the 2015 Thorns Report — none appeared to provide the Flash with additional information.”
Wilkinson confirmed to Yates’ investigators that he recalled speaking to the Flash about Riley and confirmed saying he would hire Riley again. The Flash told investigators that Wilkinson “referenced only one incident with a disgruntled player” and Wilkinson urged the club to hire Riley, telling them “to get him if we could.”
After Riley was hired by Western New York, per the report, Paulson sent a note to the president of the Flash that said: “Best of luck this season and congrats on the Riley hire. I have a lot of affection for him.”
The union for the U.S. women’s national team, the USWNTPA, warned the federation about Riley’s behavior in 2018 and again in 2019 when he was publicly discussed as a potential candidate for the open U.S. women’s national team coaching job. “Following at least 14 conversations among 11 people at the Federation, the League, the Portland Thorns, and the NC Courage, Riley publicly withdrew himself from consideration,” the report says.
Sources have previously told ESPN that Paulson and North Carolina Courage owner Steve Malik discussed that it would “be a good idea” if Riley withdrew from consideration for the job to keep the manner of his exit from the Thorns from becoming public. Messages obtained by the investigators show that Paulson attempted to keep the fact that Riley had been fired a secret from Malik, with Paulson texting Malik: “Paul’s contract was up when he left us and we didn’t renew it. A technicality but a distinction.”
After Riley withdrew from the running for the USWNT job, the report says, Paulson texted Malik: “Smart.” Malik responded, “Obviously I talked to him,” referring to Riley.
Why weren’t decades-old allegations of abuse by Dames noticed sooner?
Last year, a series of reports in the Washington Post revealed that Dames had been accused of abuse as far back as 1998, with one former youth player of his at Chicago Eclipse Select going as far as filing a police report. A player said he made sexual comments toward players, while another recalled hearing rumors of Dames dating players.
Dames coached for the Chicago Red Stars since the NWSL began in 2013 and five years later, forward Christen Press filed a formal complaint to U.S. Soccer, alleging verbal and emotional abuse toward players. He resigned last year. The Yates investigation found the Red Stars “never performed a background check and did not undertake any due diligence prior to his hire, relying instead on the reputation of his youth club, the Eclipse Select Soccer Club.”
At Eclipse, Dames fostered a “sexualized team environment,” according to the report, in which “he spoke to players about foreplay, oral sex, and their sex lives.” It appears those conversations took place after players reached “the age of consent,” the report says, but one player told investigators she recalled Dames talking to another coach “about the age of consent” and “how it was lower in some places.”
When USWNT players raised concerns about Riley in 2014 to Gulati and Ellis, they also flagged Dames as creating “a hostile environment” and verbally abusing players. That feedback was shared with Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler, who “complained that the National Team players wanted ‘this league to shut down’ and simply had an ‘axe to grind’ with Dames,” per the report.
Player surveys in 2014 and 2015 found that Red Stars players deemed Dames “abusive” and “unprofessional.” Whisler acknowledged he was aware of those complaints, the report says, but largely dismissed those concerns, chalking it up to “Rory being Rory.”
After the 2014 player survey, Whisler told Bailey, then the executive director of the NWSL, that Dames had “offered his resignation because of the embarrassment” of the player feedback, but Whisler had rejected it. After the 2015 survey, Plush emailed the results to U.S. Soccer CCO Jay Berhalter, Flynn and Ellis, telling them that some of the allegations are “quite disturbing,” but no action was taken.
According to the Yates report: “Players and staff recall raising complaints about Dames’s verbal and emotional abuse nearly every year that Dames coached at CRS. One player, for example, remarked that she raised concerns about Dames to Whisler over multiple years, and every year, Whisler would ask: ‘Was he a little bit better this year?'” The player eventually stopped reporting Dames’ behavior to Whisler, declaring it “a lost cause.”
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Why was Dames allowed to keep coaching the Red Stars after Press reported him to U.S. Soccer?
Although Press filed a complaint about Dames in 2018, he was allowed to coach in the NWSL until last year as the Washington Post prepared to publish its report about allegations the club previously failed to address.
The Yates report says Press’ complaint “prompted USSF to hire outside counsel to investigate,” though that is the last action U.S. Soccer took with the complaint. The report continues: “Although the investigation into Dames’s conduct was limited in its scope, the resulting report substantiated many of the players’ core complaints. Lydia Wahlke, USSF Chief Legal Officer, received the investigation report, but she did not distribute the report within the Federation or convey its findings in detail to the NWSL or Whisler.”
Later in 2018, another player, Samantha Johnson, filed a complaint to the NWSL about Dames in which she alleged he was “engaging in inappropriate relationships with players.” She said she had previously tried to report her allegations to Whisler, who dismissed her concerns. When the league contacted Whisler about Johnson’s complaint, per the report, he responded that the player was “trying to take Rory out.” Against the advice of the NWSL’s legal counsel, Whisler discussed Johnson’s complaint with Dames, and within six days of her complaint she was traded to the Utah Royals.
Last year, only after the news about Riley broke and he was fired did the Red Stars retain a sports psychologist to interview players about Dames. The psychologist’s report found that 70% of the players interviewed, including most of the team’s starting players, “reported emotionally abusive behaviors and that many players failed to recognize certain behaviors as abusive because they were so ubiquitous in women’s soccer.”
How thorough was the Yates investigation, and was it truly independent?
The 319-page report says it was “independent of interference or influence” and was based on “well over 200 interviews,” which included coaches, owners, front-office staff and “more than 100” current and former players in the NWSL and the U.S. women’s national team. The investigation team reviewed “over 89,000 documents” it deemed relevant. U.S. Soccer reps have likewise insisted they stayed out of the investigation and let Yates handle it.
The report names former U.S. Soccer leaders — Gulati, Flynn, Wahlke and Berhalter — as being aware of some allegations of abuse and failing to act, but no currently serving U.S. Soccer executives are named in the report. The NWSL was founded by U.S. Soccer and managed by the federation until last year.
“Teams, the League, and the Federation not only repeatedly failed to respond appropriately when confronted with player reports and evidence of abuse, they also failed to institute basic measures to prevent and address it, even as some leaders privately acknowledged the need for workplace protections,” the report says.
“As a result, abusive coaches moved from team to team, laundered by press releases thanking them for their service, and positive references from teams that minimized or even concealed misconduct. Those at the NWSL and USSF in a position to correct the record stayed silent. And no one at the teams, the League, or the Federation demanded better of coaches.”
Why was such abuse so widespread throughout different teams in the NWSL?
The report cites a litany of contributing factors, although there are some recurring ones that have been cited frequently since last year’s string of high-profile coach dismissals.
“Both U.S. Soccer and the league’s owners failed to institute the most basic of workplace protections,” the report says. “For most of the league’s 10-year existence, it has not had an anti-harassment policy, an anti-retaliation policy or a no-fraternization policy, and it did not have ways for players to report inappropriate behavior. Teams also largely lacked a human resource department and did not conduct proper due diligence when hiring coaches.” This resulted in “the systemic abuse of players,” the report says.
The report says sexist and demeaning remarks are normalized as “tough coaching” for female players at the youth level, such that by the time they reached the NWSL, many could “not recognize the conduct as abusive.” Sexual relationships between players and coaches had also been normalized, the report says: Riley, Dames and Holly are all married to former players, which “desensitized the system about power imbalances.”
Even when team owners and executives for the league or U.S. Soccer were tipped off to problems through player surveys and pcomplaints, they “either minimized the reports” by claiming the players wanted to kill the NWSL or the coach had been put in a different position, or they “ignored them entirely.” In some cases, players were told to be grateful to have the opportunity to play professional soccer.
The few times investigations were initiated, they “often narrowly focused on whether a coach’s conduct was ‘unlawful,’ rather than whether it was abusive or even appropriate for a coach of professional women athletes,” the report says. Coaches, meanwhile, were allowed to move around freely between clubs and the federation because teams “repeatedly failed to adequately or accurately disclose the reasons for a coach’s separation.”
“In general, teams, the NWSL, and USSF appear to have prioritized concerns of legal exposure to litigation by coaches — and the risk of drawing negative attention to the team or League — over player safety and well-being.”
Former NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird discusses her response to Mana Shim’s allegations of sexual coercion against Paul Riley. E60: Truth Be Told airs October 4 at 7pm ET on ESPN & ESPN+.
So what comes next? And what kind of disciplinary measures can be expected?
It’s important to remember that Yates’ report doesn’t mark the end of investigations into NWSL abuse. The league itself is conducting a joint investigation with the NWSL Players Association, which has already resulted in two coaches being suspended this season. It’s unclear when that investigation will be complete, but that should prompt big policy changes in the league.
In the meantime, Yates recommended specific actions from U.S. Soccer. Those include:
• Changing coaching licenses from a one-time diploma to an accreditation program that requires regular recertification and requires coaches to disclose new complaints of misconduct
• Enforcing existing requirements for licenses required by NWSL coaches
• Requiring the NWSL conduct annual training on abuse, sexual misconduct, harassment and retaliation
• Revoking the licenses of anyone who commits misconduct or fails to act on misconduct
• Requiring the NWSL conduct swift investigations into abuse and bar teams from investigating themselves and that all owners, staff and players cooperate with such investigations
• Requiring the NWSL to conduct player surveys and maintain a confidential reporting line for allegations of abuse
• Enforcing its Professional League Standards and imposing meaningful penalties on leagues, like the NWSL, that fail to meet such standards
The USSF said it has already made some changes with regards to player safety. These include: establishing a new Office of Participant Safety to oversee the USSF’s conduct policies and reporting mechanisms; publishing soccer records from SafeSport’s Centralized Disciplinary Database to publicly identify individuals in the sport who have been disciplined, suspended or banned; mandating a uniform minimum standard for background checks for all U.S. Soccer members at every level of the game, including youth soccer, to comport with the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee standards.
In addition to those steps, the USSF has created a new committee of its board of directors to address the report’s recommendations going forward. The committee will be chaired by former U.S. women’s national team player Danielle Slaton alongside vice chair Mike Cullina, CEO of U.S. Club Soccer.
In terms of discipline, the USSF is limited as to what it can do. USSF president Cindy Parlow Cone mentioned on Monday that the Federation could prevent the league from receiving the required USSF sanction to operate, but that seems heavy-handed as nobody wants the league to die. Cone noted that the USSF has influence, but “not the power to force anything.” Given that limitation, holding bad actors who are still part of the league accountable will ultimately come down to the NWSL.
Is the NWSL capable of cleaning house? There is a new generation of owners that have come on board, such as Angel City FC lead investor Alexis Ohanian, as well as Chris and Angie Long in Kansas City. These are business people at heart who, in the case of the Longs, are investing over $130m into facilities and the club. They will likely not stand idly by while their investment is jeopardized by what has taken place. The joint investigation by the NWSL and the NWSL Players Association is still to be released, and that will likely determine the direction in which the league heads.