A yearlong investigation into the National Women’s Soccer League has found patterns of abusive behavior by male coaches toward female athletes, with team officials often hiding the problems and allowing the accused coaches to continue in the league. The blistering report released on Monday has led to outcry across women’s soccer and beyond.
“Our investigation has revealed a league in which abuse and misconduct — verbal and emotional abuse and sexual misconduct — had become systemic, spanning multiple teams, coaches, and victims,” the report from former acting US Attorney General Sally Yates and the law firm King & Spalding said.
A day after the report’s release, team and league officials responded publicly, along with fans and elected officials.
At 156 pages, plus 16 pages of recommendations, the report is in-depth, but its authors acknowledge they could’ve investigated even further into the problems they uncovered. The report points to issues at numerous teams and an abusive culture with its roots in the youth ranks for girls.
Investigators looked closely at three coaches with patterns of abusive behavior, including former Portland Thorns coach Paul Riley. Accusations against Riley a year ago, published by The Athletic, shook the Portland franchise and the league, leading to a suspension of games and the initiation of the report released on Monday.
In the case of Riley, players reported abusive and sexually coercive behavior to Thorns leadership in 2015. Team officials chose not to renew Riley’s contract, but didn’t mention the accusations when they let Riley go, nor did they alert other teams to the accusations. The Western New York Flash hired Riley after he lost his job with the Thorns. The investigative report found that the league knew that Riley was “verbally abusive,” “sexist,” and “destructive” through an anonymous player survey conducted in 2014.
The just-released report said that the Thorns’ lack of transparency continued through this most recent yearlong investigation.
“[T]he Portland Thorns vigorously attempted to prevent our investigation from using the 2015 Thorns Report—which had been in [United States Soccer Federation’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,” the report said.
On Monday night, a few dozen protesters demonstrated outside Providence Park, the Thorns and Timbers’ home field, to put pressure on team leaders and show support for players who came forward to share their experiences.
The Portland Thorns have stayed mostly quiet in response. Officials say they agreed to refrain from making statements until another report, led by the league and players union, comes out.
“We have promised the NWSL that we will not do media or make any public statements related to the investigations until the joint NWSL/NWSLPA Investigation is released in November, which is tremendously difficult,” said Merritt Paulson, the CEO and owner of the Portland Timbers and Thorns in a prepared statement.
Paulson said that he is removing himself, as well as the team’s President of Soccer Gavin Wilkinson and President of Business Mike Golub, from “all Thorns-related decision making” until the additional investigation is over.
The team’s general counsel Heather Davis will make decisions on the Thorns in the meantime.
In an interview with OPB’s Think Out Loud before the team statement came out, the president of a Thorns and Timbers supporter group called out team leaders for being dishonest.
“It just becomes blatant that we’ve been told lies about certain details,” said Gabby Rosas, the president of the 107ist. “We’ve been told lies about how engaging they are and (how) participating they are with the investigation.”
The 107ist, a team group that’s helped fuel one of the most supportive fan bases in professional sports, is calling for the men at the top of the organization to go, and for a change in ownership.
“We absolutely think that Gavin Wilkinson and Mike Golub should not have a future with this club — they need to be let go,” Rosas said. “They need to either resign or be fired, and that Merritt Paulson needs to sell the club.”
People outside of sports are weighing in on the report as well, including Oregon’s Democratic senior U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden.
“The charges outlined in the National Women’s Soccer League report are devastating,” Wyden said in an emailed statement on Tuesday. “Management in every workplace has a responsibility to set a no-tolerance standard for sexual misconduct. These allegations leave Oregonians demanding answers immediately because the Thorns players, staff and fans across the state deserve far better than the pattern of abuse outlined in this report.”
Editor’s note, updated: As of October 7, 2022, Mike Golub has resigned from OPB’s board of directors.