By Ashlyn Clark
On September 30, 2021, The Athletic published an article detailing a pattern of sexual coercion by National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) coach Paul Riley against two players and the League’s subsequent failure to investigate a complaint against Riley by one of those players. The article brought the NWSL — a league that prided itself on progressive values and a diverse fanbase — to a halt. In response to the article, the US Soccer Federation, which governs professional soccer within the United States, retained Sally Q. Yates, an attorney at King & Spalding LLC, to conduct an independent investigation into abusive behavior and sexual misconduct within the NWSL.
Yates’ findings, published October 3, 2022, portrayed a league where verbal and emotional abuse, as well as sexual misconduct, were “systemic,” and reports of such misconduct were not responded to appropriately. The significant findings included the following:
- The NWSL failed to establish basic measures for player safety, including no anti-harassment policy, no anti-retaliation policy, and no anti-fraternization policy.
- Abuse of players was systemic and included verbal and emotional abuse, sexually charged remarks, and coercive sexual contact.
- The NWSL and USSF failed to adequately address reports of misconduct, minimizing reports, or ignoring them completely.
- A culture of abuse, silence, and fear of retaliation perpetuated the misconduct.
The investigation’s scope was intentionally broad, with a mandate to “follow the facts wherever they led.” As such, the investigation spanned multiple teams, coaches, and players. However, the investigation also led to information regarding other areas of soccer, particularly elite youth soccer programs. While beyond the scope of the investigation, the Yates investigation explored the impact of a pervasive culture of abusive behavior and sexual misconduct in youth soccer programs on the professional league.
In investigations I have conducted, I am constantly on the lookout for “scope creep,” or the broadening of an investigation based on new information. When receiving additional facts or related allegations, it can be tempting to expand the scope to include and address that additional information. However, doing so can dilute the investigation itself, pulling the investigator in too many, and possibly unrelated, directions.
In the NWSL case, the inclusion of similar abusive behavior and sexual misconduct that occurred in elite youth soccer programs, while outside the scope, was important and illuminating. The investigation revealed that coaches central to the investigation engaged in similar behaviors with both their youth soccer programs and their NWSL teams. Additionally, the abusive conduct and “fraternization” between coaches and players was also endemic to elite youth programs. This led to a culture where young players were “conditioned” to accept abusive behavior, which led to broader acceptance of the behavior in the professional league.
The context of similar abuse in youth soccer programs, while outside of the scope, played an important role in Yates’ findings and recommendations. The fact that there were credible reports that NWSL coaches engaged in abusive behavior or sexual misconduct in their youth programs made it more likely that they engaged in similar behaviors in the NWSL. The culture of verbal abuse and “blurred relationships” in youth programs negatively impacted NWSL players’ ability to discern what conduct was considered abusive, making it less likely that they exaggerated instances of misconduct. The fact that reports of misconduct in the youth programs were not reported to NWSL officials, and vice versa, allowed for such misconduct to continue.
While not always appropriate, in this case, looking beyond the initial scope helped capture important context and provided a fuller picture of the problems facing women’s soccer.