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Archive for October 3, 2022

Oct. 3, 2022 — The bombshell before the bombshell

Tomorrow night on ESPN, there is going to be a documentary called “Truth Be Told — The Fight For Women’s Professional Soccer” that documents the problems that have beset the National Women’s Soccer League over the last couple of years, with almost every team having had some sort of scandal involving coaches or front-office personnel committing verbal, mental, and even sexual abuse of players.

Today, a formal report to U.S. Soccer was released by former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates. In it, she finds that there were no checks, balances, or reporting mechanisms for these kinds of abuses either in the league or within the U.S. Soccer Federation. This allowed continual coercive behavior on the part of coaches who often found themselves moving around from team to team.

If this sounds familiar, it should. Reporting as early as 1999 in Sports Illustrated shows that youth sports coaches with predatory behavior often have no problems leaving one position after being caught, then quietly starting up elsewhere to abuse more children.

Only this time, these were adults in a professional league, one which has been growing exponentially in the last 10 years.

But while the NWSL was the focus of the investigation, the report cast fault on the culture of organizations in and around the sport. The report mentions that there were problems with the original WUSA in the early 2000s as well as the WPS league, which folded after the abusive Dan Borislow tenure over Washington Freedom/MagicJack FC.

The report also casts a dim eye on SafeSport, the administrative body charged with investigating cases of abuse on the part of coaches in Olympic and other sports. It calls SafeSport an under-resourced body which has been overwhelmed with thousands of notes and tips regarding abusive coaches, yet has a staff of 30. SafeSport is also seen as a body that tends to make overly-quick decisions on investigations and is liable to administratively close cases without making a public pronouncement on a person’s guilt or innocence.

Having had a worm’s-eye level of women’s soccer as a writer, a volunteer PA announcer, and as the secretary of a supporters’ group, I can tell you that the culture of imbalanced power in regards to women’s soccer has been around since the start of the USISL’s W-League in the mid-1990s.

Almost every coach in that league, and many of the front-office personnel, were male. A lot of them got their positions through deep pockets. One owner had a construction company; another had gotten rich off youth soccer camps. Another owned a pizza place, while one owner/coach was the franchisee of a local Motel 6, and got some of his employees to try to staff home games.

Soccer back then was very much a mom-and-pop operation. You found a coach through word of mouth, and the coach’s reputation would either help or hurt through the way the team did over the course of the season. Players, who were not paid, had little or no standing. Sure, you had the likes of Kristine Lilly playing for the Delaware Genies or Mia Hamm making a single appearance for the Raleigh Flyers, but there was no union to speak for players who may have had grievances.

Indeed, an ethic of “be grateful you even have a league” would extend from the W-League into the WUSA, even as the league’s $40 million in initial investment disappeared after one year. It also stretched into WPS, as the Borislow situation and an embarrassing scenario involving an alternate home field for the Western New York Flash that cast doubt on the long-term viability of the women’s game in the States.

But when the NWSL started in 2012, the world of women’s soccer was changing. Men’s professional clubs started women’s sides to boost their brands, pushing aside a number of clubs which had been stalwarts of the women’s game such as Doncaster Ladies in England and Tyreso FF in Sweden.

You started seeing recognizable soccer brands such as Arsenal, Juventus, Club America, Barcelona, Paris-St. Germain, and Bayern Munich with women’s teams. And you also saw, especially in North America, a flow of talent away from the NWSL. Players like Alex Morgan, Christen Press, Tobin Heath, Carli Lloyd, and Heather O’Reilly played in Europe rather than staying at home.

I found that very, very telling, especially when the term “professionalism” was used when discussing the preparation of the European teams during the course of a match week.

The contrast, it seemed to me, was damning testimony of the culture of the NWSL, It was a culture which was exposed for all to see last year with the firing of a number of coaches for cause.

In the report, coaches like Paul Riley, Rory Dames, and Christy Holly are accused of horrible crimes. But I want to focus on Holly’s situation for a moment. Holly was the head coach of Racing Louisville. It was an expansion team for the 2021 season, but Holly’s reign lasted less than a year.

You might think the front office of Racing Louisville would have been more than transparent, showing that Holly’s behavior ran counter to a team culture that the front office of this brand new team was trying to build. But the report says that Racing Louisville was one of three NWSL clubs which were unwilling to cooperate with the Yates investigation.

The fact that it took less than a year for a club to agree to a code of silence in order to not cooperate with the investigation is shocking. To me, this kind of behavior is learned. It’s not something which is part of human nature. It is, frankly, a product of a culture of power in women’s soccer which sees players as little more than chattel.

While tomorrow night’s documentary should cause a sensation amongst those who care about the women’s game and women’s sports in the United States, today’s report is an even bigger bombshell. It seems to me that more people should pay attention to the findings.