Content warning: The following is a summary of the report of an investigation done by the U.S. Soccer Federation and Sally Yates/King & Spalding into misconduct across the NWSL. It references accounts of sexual and verbal abuse.
On Monday, the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) released the full report of its year-long investigation into alleged sexual abuse and misconduct across the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). The investigation was led by former U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates, and the findings paint a damning picture of a women’s soccer landscape that, at all levels, fails to protects its players, does not do enough to address evidence of misconduct, and enables an intrinsic and systemic culture of abuse and fear.
The report also brings to light new information and context about how those in power within the Thorns organization failed to adequately address the reports of Paul Riley’s alleged abuse and misconduct while he was head coach, as well during and after his departure and subsequent hiring elsewhere.
The report lists new examples showing how Timbers and Thorns owner, Merritt Paulson, knew of alleged non-sexual abuse as early as 2014, the role that Gavin Wilkinson played in Riley being hired to a new team, and how the Thorns impeded the investigation.
Below is a broad summary of the findings of the investigation, as well as the involvement of Merritt Paulson, Gavin Wilkinson, and Timbers and Thorns President of business Mike Golub.
Summary of findings
In its findings, the report of the investigation outlines nine main conclusions and gives painful detail about the alleged abuses and misconduct by three former NWSL head coaches:
- The NWSL lacked the basic structures to protect players from its very beginning: “From the League’s inception, teams, the NWSL, and USSF failed to put in place basic measures for player safety.”
- Abuse in the NWSL is systemic, and not having basic structures in place led to the failure of preventing the sexual misconduct of three coaches in particular: former Portland Thorns coach Paul Riley, former Chicago Red Stars coach Rory Dames, and former Racing Louisville head coach Christy Holly.
- The NWSL teams, the league, and USSF failed to adequately address reports and evidence of misconduct.
- Stemming from that: “Abusive coaches moved from team to team, and even to USSF, because teams, the League, and USSF failed to identify and inform others of coaches’ misconduct.”
- “A culture of abuse, silence, and fear of retaliation perpetuated the misconduct.”
- “Players lacked job security and protection from retaliation, further chilling reports of misconduct.”
- The NWSL and USSF should supplement SafeSport’s efforts to maintain player safety. It should also move more independently to implement sanctions and policies beyond what SafeSport dictates, citing “serious limitations to its effectiveness in professional soccer.”
- The failure to adequately address reports had the knock-on effect of putting more players at risk, and created a toxic tone: “USSF’s, the NWSL’s, and certain teams’ failure to adequately respond to reports and evidence of misconduct put additional players at risk and created a toxic tone from the top.”
- Finally, and perhaps most worryingly: “Abuse in women’s professional leagues appears rooted in youth soccer.
It concludes this section by sharing: “During the course of our investigation, we confronted multiple historical reports of verbal and sexual abuse of youth soccer players. Players also told us that their experiences of verbal abuse and blurred relationships with coaches in youth soccer impacted their ability to discern what was out of bounds in the NWSL.”
Overall, the findings of the investigation paints the clearest and most powerful picture yet of the failure of the NWSL to fully protect its players. The report offers very detailed accounts that expose the lack of specific institutional protections and the clear fostering of a culture of abuse and silence. It also connects the conclusions to an overall failure by the USSF itself — impacting women’s soccer at all levels in this country.
It’s not just women’s leagues that are at fault: The report is clear that every level and facet of the U.S. soccer pyramid is complicit in allowing this culture to continue. Several clubs mentioned in the report have ties to MLS clubs (in particular, the Portland Thorns) and several coaches and manager whose conduct was investigated have ties to youth soccer clubs. The findings are clear that “verbal and emotional abuse is common in youth soccer.”
The report concludes that the misconduct was preventable and that many people across multiple facets of soccer in this country refused to prevent it — whether willingly or otherwise.
Summary of involvement of by the Portland Thorns organization
As it relates to the Portland Thorns’ role specifically, the investigation outlines the decisions made by Thorns leadership — specifically CEO and owner, Merritt Paulson, and general manager, Gavin Wilkinson — about the allegations of abuse and sexual misconduct by then Portland Thorns head coach Paul Riley.
It also reveals that the Thorns impeded the progress of the investigation.
Despite assertions made by Merritt Paulson in an open letter published on October 4, 2021, where he committed to “fully cooperate” and be “transparent” with the upcoming investigation into Riley’s misconduct, the report shares that the Thorns withheld relevant documents for months, impeding interviews with key witnesses and causing months of delays.
In the Thorns’ actions to impede the investigation’s access to certain witnesses, it cites the example of the team’s former human resources director who, after initially agreeing to be interviewed, rescinded her agreement after communication from Thorns counsel. Timbers and Thorns president of business, Mike Golub, was also made unavailable for an interview, although he apparently did speak with the upcoming yet-to-be-released joint investigation from the NWSL and NWSL Players’ Association.
Golub does show up in the report, however: He made a sexual comment to then Thorns coach and current U.S. Soccer president, Cindy Parlow Cone. The report states, “Golub asked her, ‘what’s on your bucket list besides sleeping with me?’ Parlow Cone told Golub never to speak to her like that again, and she reports that he did not. Several months later, when she was leaving the Thorns, she reported the incident to Thorns owner Merritt Paulson, who told her he wished she had told him about the remark at the time it happened. Per the Thorns, ‘there was no formal complaint made, and the concerns were addressed with Golub at the time.’ ”
As it relates to the investigation into Riley’s actions specifically, the report highlights that the Thorns tried to prevent the investigation from accessing the club’s report from 2015 about Riley’s misconduct that was submitted to USSF: “[T]he Portland Thorns vigorously attempted to prevent our investigation from using the 2015 Thorns Report — which had been in USSF’s possession since 2015 — on the grounds that it was protected by attorney-client privilege and common-interest privilege, despite all evidence to the contrary.”
In addition to contradicting the words penned by Paulson in October of last year, the findings of the investigation also contradict Paulson’s proposed timeline of what he knew and when.
According to the report, after Riley’s first season as Thorns head coach in 2014, U.S. Women’s National Team players reported the abusive actions of Riley to U.S. Soccer, which was passed on to the Thorns. The investigation states, “National Team players reported to Gulati and Jill Ellis, National Team Head Coach, that Riley ‘created a hostile environment,’ and ‘belittle[d]’ and ‘verbally abuse[d]’ players.”
The feedback was distributed to Merritt Paulson and Mike Golub, but no action was taken. Decision-makers in the Thorns organization were aware of reports of non-sexual abuse from Riley in 2014 — and nothing was done with it. This was before Thorns player Mana Shim made her first formal complaint to the Thorns around Riley’s abuse and misconduct directed towards her and teammate Sinead Farrelly in 2015.
The report recounts the alleged abuse and misconduct of Riley during his time as head coach of the Thorns. It also goes into detail about his misconduct both before and after that time, describing it as an “open secret” and highlighting the culture of silence created around women’s soccer.
As it relates to Riley’s firing and subsequent hiring elsewhere, the report outlines the actions taken by Wilkinson and Paulson.
Contrary to the conclusions of the internal investigation conducted by law firm DLA Piper earlier this year by the Thorns, Wilkinson did indeed discuss the details of Riley’s firing from the Thorns with his next club, the Western New York Flash.
Wilkinson put blame for Riley’s separation from the club on Mana Shim, and he also gave a glowingly positive referral of Riley: “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.’ ”
According to accounts from the Flash, who hired Riley in 2016, “Wilkinson ‘referenced only one incident with a disgruntled player but indicated that an internal investigation resulted in no findings of wrong doing [sic] against Mr. Riley and the investigation was otherwise closed. His comment at that time was to get him if we could.”
While owner Merritt Paulson shared that he “understood the League would share the substance of Shim’s allegations and the 2015 Thorns Report with WNY Flash” and that he “agreed that it would be important for the WNY Flash to know about Riley’s conduct,” the Thorns declined to share the results of their investigation with WNY directly on advice from legal counsel.
The reports shares that “The next month (March 2016) Paulson emailed WNY Flash President Sahlen, ‘Best of luck this season and congrats on the Riley hire. I have a lot of affection for him.’ ”
When the Flash relocated to North Carolina in 2017 and became the Courage, North Carolina FC chairman and owner, Steve Malik, was assessing whether Riley should remain as head coach. He contacted Paulson, among other sources. He asked Paulson “specifically” why Riley left the Thorns: “According to Malik, Paulson told him that Riley was not retained and purportedly went into detail regarding Riley’s difficulties managing the roster when national team players were unavailable and working with national team players.”
“Paulson also informed Malik that ‘players came to Riley’s apartment after drinking in a nearby bar and that it was investigated and basically was [a case of] ‘poor judgment’,” the report continues. “According to Malik, Paulson told him that Riley was essentially cleared, even though what he did was not smart and exhibited bad judgment.”
In addition to Riley, the report outlines abuse and misconduct by former Chicago Red Stars head coach Rory Dames and former Racing Louisville head coach Christy Holly. The themes of failure to properly respond to reports and the abuse being systemic and fostered by a culture of silence and fear are prevalent in the timeline of events and actions in those sections as well.
Summary of recommendations
The report concludes with several recommendations to increase the transparency and accountability at all levels of women’s soccer in the U.S. It focuses on areas such as encouraging the NWSL to have more accurate reporting and more vigorous investigations by teams into reports of abuse, and instituting stronger policies to protect player safety and foster player respect at all levels, down to youth soccer.
For disciplinary actions, USSF does not have the power to make specific decisions over the NWSL. The report could not recommend actions pertaining specific individuals who are currently actively working in the league who were named in the report — such as Wilkinson, Paulson, or Golub.
However, the report does state the league should consider whether the findings presented warrant disciplinary action, stating, “We recommend that the NWSL, which has governing authority over NWSL teams, owners, and personnel, determine whether disciplinary action is appropriate for any of these owners or team executives, in light of our findings and the findings of the NWSL/NWSLPA Joint Investigation.”
Mana Shim, Sinead Farrelly, and Erin Simon (all cited in the investigation) issued a statement on Twitter after the investigation’s publishing, claiming that, “Owners who 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.”
The Portland Thorns and Portland Timbers have yet to release a statement, but have told various media outlets that they will “provide comment upon reading the report later today.”
If you want to read the full text of the investigation, you can do so here. In addition. Ryan Clarke of The Oregonian has also published a full review of the report, as has ESPN’s Jeffrey Carlisle. The Athletic also has a running log of the responses and reactions to the report, and The Athletic journalists Steph Yang and Meg Linehan have an explainer of the investigation as well.
If you want to take actions to help support the players of the NWSL financially, you can donate to the following groups:
- The Black Women’s Players Collective
- The NWSL Players Association Players National Emergency Trust fund
While it is not clear what immediate next steps will be taken by the NWSL or the PTFC organization in light of these findings, what is clear is that this just the beginning of the process of healing and fixing the culture around women’s soccer in the U.S.