An independent investigation has found that abuse and misconduct have been systemic in the US National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) top-tier competition.

The investigation, carried out by former US deputy attorney general Sally Yates and the King & Spalding LLP law firm, had its findings released yesterday (October 3), detailing how the league, individual teams, and the US Soccer governing body failed to protect their players properly.

The investigation was commissioned in October last year following a media investigation that outlined allegations of sexual abuse against Paul Riley, former coach of the North Carolina Courage team.

Amid the fallout, half of the 12 NWSL teams got rid of their head coaches by the end of the 2021 campaign after further player complaints, while NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird also left her post.

Now, the report has stated: “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 Yates report added that all parties – the league, its teams, and US Soccer – failed to “respond appropriately when confronted with player reports and evidence of abuse.”

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Specific revelations have been made regarding misconduct at Racing Louisville, the Portland Thorns, and Gotham FC.

In terms of specifics, Yates said that “abuse in the NWSL is rooted in a deeper culture in women’s soccer that normalizes verbally abusive coaching and blurs boundaries between coaches and players.

“The players who have come forward to tell their stories have demonstrated great courage. It’s now time that the institutions that failed them in the past listen to the players and enact the meaningful reform players deserve.”

The report said that the allegations it has investigated were made known to US Soccer and the NWSL before they were published on The Athletic site last year and that coaches accused of abuse were able to move from team to team instead of being properly investigated.

US Soccer operated as the NWSL’s managing body during the period the investigation focused on between the league's launch in 2012 and 2020 – and, indeed, still oversees the competition.

The governing body’s president, Cindy Parlow Cone, said the findings of the investigation were “heartbreaking and deeply troubling.”

She stated: “The abuse described is inexcusable. US Soccer is fully committed to doing everything in its power to ensure that all players – at all levels – have a safe and respectful place to learn, grow and compete.”

The NWSL, meanwhile, has said it will review the findings immediately and that a joint investigation alongside its players’ association is now ongoing.

In a statement, the league said: “We greatly appreciate our players, staff, and stakeholders' cooperation with both investigations, especially during the ongoing season.”

"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.”

The report has recommended a range of possible reforms, aimed at boosting transparency and accountability in the league.

It has also suggested that the issues of low pay and a lack of human resource officers at some teams must be seen as contributing factors to the culture of systemic misconduct and that therefore these should be addressed as a priority.

Image: Katharine Lotze/Getty Images