US soccer’s Becky Sauerbrunn leads ‘heartbroken and frustrated’ players in condemning NWSL abuse


United States captain Becky Sauerbrunn is leading a chorus of professional women’s soccer players in condemning the systemic abuse within the National Women’s Soccer League. 

‘The players are not doing well,’ the 37-year-old defender said during a media session in London. ‘We are horrified and heartbroken and frustrated and exhausted and really, really angry.’

An independent investigation into the scandals that erupted in the National Women’s Soccer League last season found emotional abuse and sexual misconduct were systemic in the sport, impacting multiple teams, coaches and players, according to a report released Monday.

One coach called in a player to review game film and showed her pornography instead, according to the New York Times. Meanwhile, another was reportedly known to berate his players and then quiz them about their sex lives.

Another coach was said to have coerced multiple players into sexual relationships and was fired by his team for the disturbing behavior but the club failed to warn another franchise when he was hired by a rival team only a few months later.

Former acting US Attorney General Sally Q. Yates and the law firm of King & Spaulding released a report Monday after being retained by US Soccer to investigate allegations of abuse in the NWSL following a series of scandals last year.

The NWSL and its players association are conducting another investigation.

Five of 10 NWSL coaches either were fired or stepped down last season amid allegations of misconduct. Among them was North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley, who was dismissed after two former players, Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly, accused him of sexual coercion and harassment dating back a decade. Riley denied the allegations.

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United States captain Becky Sauerbrunn is leading a chorus of professional women's soccer players in condemning the systemic abuse within the National Women's Soccer League

Becky Sauerbrunn #4 of the Portland Thorns FC during a game between Chicago Red Stars and Portland Thorns FC at Providence Park on November 14, 2021 in Portland

Becky Sauerbrunn #4 of the Portland Thorns FC during a game between Chicago Red Stars and Portland Thorns FC at Providence Park on November 14, 2021 in Portland

United States captain Becky Sauerbrunn is leading a chorus of professional women’s soccer players in condemning the systemic abuse within the National Women’s Soccer League

Sinead Farrelly

Sinead Farrelly

Mana Shim

Mana Shim

Five of 10 NWSL coaches either were fired or stepped down last season amid allegations of misconduct. Among them was North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley, who was dismissed after two former players, Mana Shim (right) and Sinead Farrelly (left), accused him of sexual coercion and harassment dating back a decade. Riley denied the allegations 

US Soccer commissioned the investigation by Yates and the law firm King & Spaulding after former NWSL players Sinead Farrelly and Shim came forward with allegations of harassment and sexual coercion dating back a decade involving former coach Paul Riley (pictured), who has denied the allegations

US Soccer commissioned the investigation by Yates and the law firm King & Spaulding after former NWSL players Sinead Farrelly and Shim came forward with allegations of harassment and sexual coercion dating back a decade involving former coach Paul Riley (pictured), who has denied the allegations

US Soccer commissioned the investigation by Yates and the law firm King & Spaulding after former NWSL players Sinead Farrelly and Shim came forward with allegations of harassment and sexual coercion dating back a decade involving former coach Paul Riley (pictured), who has denied the allegations

Yates’ report focused on three former coaches, including Riley. Not only did the investigation find misconduct by all three, it also said their teams did not fully cooperate. 

‘We are angry that it took a third-party investigation,’ Sauebrunn said. ‘We are angry that it took an article in The Athletic and the Washington Post and numerous others. We’re angry that it took over 200 people sharing our trauma to get to this point right now.’

England’s Lucy Bronze offered support to her American counterparts ahead of a match at Wembley.

‘Every single one of us [in the team] are in solidarity with all of those players, particularly the ones who have spoken out and told their truths, because I can imagine — well, I can’t even imagine — how hard it must be to have gone through it, and then to speak out,’ Bronze said.

Yates’ report focused on three former coaches, including Riley. Not only did the investigation find misconduct by all three, it also said their teams did not fully cooperate.

‘I think for so long this has fallen on the players to demand change,’ Sauerbrunn said. ‘That is because the people in authority and decision-making positions have repeatedly failed to protect us and they have failed to hold themselves and each other accountable. Who are you actually protecting and what values are you upholding? You have failed in your stewardship.

‘And it’s my opinion that every owner and executive and US Soccer official who has repeatedly failed the players and failed to protect the players, who have hidden behind legalities and have not participated fully in these investigations, should be gone.’

Portland Thorns fans hold signs referencing player abuse during a game in 2021

Portland Thorns fans hold signs referencing player abuse during a game in 2021

Portland Thorns fans hold signs referencing player abuse during a game in 2021

As Sauerbrunn was speaking in London, her NWSL team, the Portland Thorns, announced owner Merritt Paulson, general manager Gavin Wilkinson and executive Mike Golub would immediately withdraw from any Thorns-related decision-making until the league investigation is complete.

Farrelly and Shim played for the Thorns when Riley was coach from 2014-15. At the time, the Thorns conducted an internal investigation of the allegations and decided not to renew Riley’s contract. But no reason for the decision was made public and Riley went on to coach elsewhere in the league.

Sauerbrunn was asked about increasing pressure on Paulson to sell the team. She said it was her belief the NWSL’s joint investigation would make its own recommendation as far as discipline.

‘I don’t know if anything is going to come out in this other report that’s going to make any sort of difference. And so at the end of the day, if people continue to fail the players and they don’t comply to anything that gets asked of them or gets implemented because of these reports, then they need to be gone,’ Sauerbrunn said.

Shim says she first informed the Thorns front office about Riley's inappropriate behavior in 2015 she discloses the coach's 'sexual harassment towards me'. But while the team declined to re-sign Riley when his contract expired, he was still hired by the NWSL's Western New York Flash the following season and by the Courage in 2017

Shim says she first informed the Thorns front office about Riley's inappropriate behavior in 2015 she discloses the coach's 'sexual harassment towards me'. But while the team declined to re-sign Riley when his contract expired, he was still hired by the NWSL's Western New York Flash the following season and by the Courage in 2017

Shim says she first complained about Riley in 2015 when she played for him on the Portland Thorns. But while the team declined to re-sign him when his contract expired, he was still hired by the NWSL’s Western New York Flash the following season and by the Courage in 2017

Some of the details in Yates’ report were disturbing.

‘I think we’re all reckoning with the things that were said in the report. Still kind of working through that, in all the ways that we individually do,’ said defender Alana Cook, who plays for OL Reign. ‘I think we have such a momentous occasion on Friday playing at a sold out Wembley Stadium, and it’s marred by this report, and it’s marred by the atrocities that have been condoned and tolerated and allowed to go on.’

The report made numerous recommendations to prioritize player health and safety. Among them is the requirement that teams accurately disclose coach misconduct to the league and the soccer federation to ensure coaches aren’t allowed to move between teams. It also calls for meaningful vetting of coaches and timely investigations into allegations of abuse.

US Soccer also said it would immediately implement programs to protect players.

‘It was a difficult day, yesterday, lots of emotions, different emotions. Personally, I’m saddened by the report in everything that we saw in it,’ US coach Vlatko Andonovski said. ‘At the same time, I feel a lot of empathy for the players, and I have tremendous respect for the bravery of the players who spoke out and the players who participated in this report. Soccer is is a game we all love and it should be a safe space.’

Shim, one of the whistle blowers, was failed by her club, league, and the system at large, according to her friend and former teammate, US National Team star Alex Morgan (pictured)

Shim, one of the whistle blowers, was failed by her club, league, and the system at large, according to her friend and former teammate, US National Team star Alex Morgan (pictured)

Shim, one of the whistle blowers, was failed by her club, league, and the system at large, according to her friend and former teammate, US National Team star Alex Morgan (pictured)

Shim, one of the whistle blowers, was failed by her club, league, and the system at large, according to her friend and former teammate, US National Team star Alex Morgan.

‘She went through all the right steps, and she was failed,’ Morgan told ESPN’S E:60 in a segment that aired Tuesday evening. ‘She was failed by the system.’

Both Shim and Farrelly claim Riley, 58, often took them drinking and used those moments to pressure them into sex, according to The Athletic’s report. In one alleged 2012 incident, Riley, a Liverpool native who was 47 and married at the time, took Farrelly and another player to his hotel room and had sex with both of them.

Riley’s refrain, which Farrelly said she often repeated to herself after having sex with her coach, was that they would be ‘taking this to their graves.’

Among other allegations, Shim told ESPN that Riley invited her to his hotel room one evening.

‘He quickly shut the door behind me,’ Shim said. ‘I saw he was in his underwear.

‘He told me to get on bed and watch film,’ she continued. ‘There was no film pulled up. I knew at that point I had to find a way out and I was not willing to compromise myself for my career or for this person.’

Former US Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates conducted the investigation on the NWSL

Former US Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates conducted the investigation on the NWSL

Former US Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates conducted the investigation on the NWSL

Shim says she first complained about Riley in 2015 when she played for him on the Portland Thorns. But while the team declined to re-sign him when his contract expired, he was still hired by the NWSL’s Western New York Flash the following season and by the Courage in 2017

Shim credits Morgan with helping her come forward.

‘From the moment I told her, she was such a fierce friend,’ Shim said.

‘I had helped mana do the right thing, which was reporting Paul to the league and hoping that they would take action and hold him accountable,’ Morgan told ESPN.

‘I never had a teammate experience that and confide in me the way that she did.’

The problem, they explained, was that there was no protocol for reporting these issues within the NWSL.

‘I couldn’t find HR contact; I couldn’t find an anonymous hotline; I couldn’t even find an anti-harassment policy that might lay out what he was doing that was reportable,’ said Morgan.

The Thorns said they investigated Riley in 2015 while he was with the team and reported the findings to the league. They did not renew his contract but did not make the reasons public, and Morgan told ESPN that investigators spoke to her for only 20 minutes or so.

The law firm’s investigation found the Thorns were not forthcoming with certain information and they attempted to prevent investigators from using the team’s 2015 report.

When the scandal broke last year, Morgan tweeted: 'The league was informed of these allegations multiple times and refused multiple times to investigate the allegations. The league must accept responsibility for a process that failed to protect its own players from this abuse

When the scandal broke last year, Morgan tweeted: 'The league was informed of these allegations multiple times and refused multiple times to investigate the allegations. The league must accept responsibility for a process that failed to protect its own players from this abuse

When the scandal broke last year, Morgan tweeted: ‘The league was informed of these allegations multiple times and refused multiple times to investigate the allegations. The league must accept responsibility for a process that failed to protect its own players from this abuse 

US national team captain Megan Rapinoe thanked The Athletic's Meg Linehan for her report

US national team captain Megan Rapinoe thanked The Athletic's Meg Linehan for her report

US national team captain Megan Rapinoe thanked The Athletic’s Meg Linehan for her report

Riley went on to coach the Western New York Flash, which later moved to North Carolina and was renamed. He was fired after The Athletic released its report last year. 

When the scandal broke in 2021, Morgan posted to social media: ‘The league was informed of these allegations multiple times and refused multiple times to investigate the allegations. The league must accept responsibility for a process that failed to protect its own players from this abuse.’

‘The verbal and emotional abuse players describe in the NWSL is not merely ‘tough’ coaching. And the players affected are not shrinking violets. They are among the best athletes in the world,’ Yates wrote.

More than 200 people were interviewed by investigators. Some two dozen entities and individuals provided documents. US Soccer also provided documents and the firm reviewed 89,000 deemed likely to be relevant.

‘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,’ Yates wrote in her report on the investigation.

NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird resigned from her position in October of last year after The Athletic's original reporting over the allegations came out

NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird resigned from her position in October of last year after The Athletic's original reporting over the allegations came out

NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird said in a statement that the league is referring the allegations to the US Center for SafeSport for investigation. She has since resigned from her position 

But it was clear the problems were widespread. Five of the 10 head coaches in the NWSL last season either were fired or stepped down amid allegations of misconduct.

The report made numerous recommendations to prioritize player health and safety. Among them is the requirement that teams accurately disclose coach misconduct to the league and the soccer federation to ensure coaches aren’t allowed to move between teams. It also calls for meaningful vetting of coaches and timely investigation into allegations of abuse.

The NWSL said it was reviewing the report. The league and the NWSL Players Association are also conducting an investigation.

‘We recognize the anxiety and mental strain that these pending investigations have caused and the trauma that many – including players and staff – are having to relive. We continue to admire their courage in coming forward to share their stories and influence all the changes necessary to keep moving our league forward,’ NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman said in a statement.

‘Establishing trust and confidence between the league, its players and other key stakeholders remains a central focus for the NWSL, and we know that we must learn from and take responsibility for the painful lessons of the past in order to move the league into a better future.’

Christy Holly of Racing Louisville

Christy Holly of Racing Louisville

The investigation focused on three former coaches: Riley, Christy Holly of Racing Louisville and Rory Dames (pictured) of the Chicago Red Stars

The investigation focused on three former coaches: Riley, Christy Holly of Racing Louisville and Rory Dames (pictured) of the Chicago Red Stars

The investigation focused on three former coaches: Riley, Christy Holly (left) of Racing Louisville and Rory Dames (right) of the Chicago Red Stars

The investigation focused on three former coaches: Riley, Christy Holly of Racing Louisville and Rory Dames of the Chicago Red Stars. The Associated Press reached out to the Thorns, Racing Louisville and the Red Stars for comment but did not receive immediate responses.

The report recounts an April 2021 encounter between Holly and a player, Erin Simon, who now plays in Europe. Holly invited her to watch game film with him and allegedly told her that for every pass she messed up, he was going to touch her. Simon told investigators Holly ‘pushed his hands down her pants and up her shirt.’

Simon, now with Leicester City, said too many athletes suffer in silence because they are afraid they won’t be heard.

‘I know because that is how I felt,’ the 28-year-old said in a statement. ‘Through many difficult days, my faith alone sustained me and kept me going. I want to do everything in my power to ensure that no other player must experience what I did. This report allows our voices to finally be heard and is the first step toward achieving the respectful workplace we all deserve.’

Holly was terminated for cause but Racing Louisville declined to publicly state the reason. Yates’ report noted that Racing did not provide investigators with details about Holly’s employment, citing mutual nondisclosure and non-disparagement clauses.

Holly did speak with investigators and denied some, but not all, of the allegations against him, according to the Times. Dames did not speak with investigators, and while Riley said he would provide written responses, he never submitted them, the Times reported.

Farrelly (pictured) said the harassment she experienced began in 2011 when she was a player with the Philadelphia Independence of the Women's Professional Soccer league

Farrelly (pictured) said the harassment she experienced began in 2011 when she was a player with the Philadelphia Independence of the Women's Professional Soccer league

Farrelly (pictured) said the harassment she experienced began in 2011 when she was a player with the Philadelphia Independence of the Women’s Professional Soccer league

Farrelly said the harassment she experienced began in 2011 when she was a player with the Philadelphia Independence of the Women’s Professional Soccer league. Riley was her coach. As Farrelly told The Athletic, there were multiple occasions in which she felt coerced into having sex with Riley, a decorated coach who reportedly had been considered for US national team duties.

Farrelly said the abuse continued when Riley coached her with the Portland Thorn of the NWSL. As she explained, Farrelly felt manipulated by Riley, who praised her talent to the media, but routinely threatened to demote her to a bench role.

Riley’s underlying message, according to Farrelly, was that she could become a great player, but needed him to make that happen.

‘He really ingrained in my brain that I had a lot of potential, was one of the best players he’d ever seen — but I needed the right coach to get me to where I wanted to go,’ Farrelly told The Athletic. ‘And that’s what he did, he took players and he made them great.’

For instance, when Farrelly returned from a brief call-up to the US national team in 2011, she says Riley told her she was disloyal to him and her teammates by accepting the assignment. She deserved the opportunity, but only if Riley were coaching her on that stage, Farrelly said of his mindset.

Weeks later, when the USWNT offered the final World Cup roster spot to Farrelly, she declined.

Farrelly told the website that the abuse continued when she was with the Portland Thorns of the NWSL, but the two never had sex during his tenure there.

Shim, a former Thorns player, also said she experienced harassment. Neither is playing in the NWSL now.

‘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,’ Yates wrote.



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