Change needs to be made to protect NWSL players. Coaches and executives need to be held accountable. Illustration by Hannah Nellen.

TW: Mentions of sexual assault and abuse

On Monday, Oct 3, after a yearlong investigation into the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) on patterns of abuse by male coaches towards female athletes, commissioned by the U.S. Soccer Federation, and conducted by former U.S. deputy attorney general Sally Yates, was released. This report sent shockwaves throughout soccer communities around the world, especially in Portland, with many people hoping for change. 

The 172 page report outlines a pattern of systemic abuse and failure by NWSL coaches and executives, focusing heavily on three coaches accused of sexual misconduct and abuse: Paul Riley, Chirsty Holly, and Rory Dames.

Allegations against the former coach of Thorns FC, Western New York (WNY) Flash, and North Carolina (NC) Courage, Paul Riley, include at least three players being coerced into sexual relationships, considered by many to be a ‘open secret’. In 2014, an anonymous player described Riley as “verbally abusive,” “sexist,” and “destructive.” That same year, USWNT players reported Riley to former USSF President Sunil Gulati and former coach Jill Ellis that Riley was abusive, but very little was done. Mana Shim, former Thorns FC and NWSL player, filed a complaint of sexual misconduct against Riley in 2015, which resulted in the Thorns terminating Riley and an internal investigation. After stating that his contract hadn’t been renewed, Riley went on to coach the WNY Flash and NC Courage. Accusations against Riley published by The Atlantic in 2021 led to a suspension of Thorns games and the initiation of the report released Monday, Oct 3.

On Oct. 5, the Portland Timbers and Thorns FC announced in a press release that both President of Soccer Gavin Wilkinson and President of Business Mike Golub had been relieved of their duties with both clubs. Merritt Paulson, owner and CEO of the Portland Timbers and Thorns stepped aside while the investigation took place. Paulson released the following statement on Oct. 4: “Yesterday’s Yates report unveiling was the darkest day I have experienced, and I know that the same is true for everyone else who loves our team and our league. I would imagine that it was even harder and darker for those whose stories were not shared publicly… I cannot apologize enough for our role in a gross systematic failure to protect player safety and the missteps we made in 2015. I am truly sorry.” Following the release of Paulson’s statement, many fans and players protested Paulson not being held accountable, many advocating to have Paulson fired. Becky Sauerbrunn, U.S. Women’s National Team and Thorns FC defender, issued a statement saying, “I don’t think Merritt Paulson is fit to be the owner [in Portland]… We need to see these people gone.” Paulson later stepped down as CEO on October 11.

Since the publication of the 2021 article in The Atlantic, the Rose City Riveters Committee have been working on responses to, and staging protests against, the abuse of Portland Thorns players, in an effort to hold coaches and club managers accountable. They hope to spark the much needed change in the NWSL and Thorns FC teams. On the topic of the report, Marissa Minato, Franklin Women’s Varsity Soccer Assistant Coach says, “I would hope the impact would be that we hold those that need to be held accountable, accountable, and we make active changes.” The Rose City Riveters and Timbers Army have both issued official statements on the Yates report that state their collective support for the Thorns FC players and the team as a whole: “We want you to know. Whether we are in the stadium or outside of it, in the street or at home, we support the players of the Portland Thorns. We support you. You have been through enough, and we will be here no matter what happens next.” 

Fans not only need to support the players on the field, but the people under the jerseys. Diana Diaz Diurych, Franklin Women’s Varsity Soccer Coach, says, “Hopefully we [can] start to highlight the full person. I think there’s often a spotlight on players’ athleticism, especially once you get to the higher levels. But here’s also a piece of mental health, emotional health, and overall well being that plays into being successful as an athlete. I think that things like this begin to highlight [the person] that are often behind closed doors.”

The Yates Report urges club leadership to be transparent with not only the players but the public, and to disclose all misconduct reported, to prevent coaches, like Paul Riley, from transferring to a new program without being held accountable. A player’s safety should always be a team’s number one priority; we can’t continue to ignore female players’ voices and stories. As the Thorns make their way into the 2022 NWSL Playoffs, after winning 2-1 in the semifinals vs. San Diego Wave on Oct. 23, this is the perfect time to support our NWSL players. Whether that be going to games, watching them on TV, or supporting them from outside the stadium like some Riveters have done, we can all be a part of transforming the culture. 

%d bloggers like this: