"Open Secrets": A Summary of the Yates Report
On October 3, the US Soccer Federation (USSF) released the findings of an independent investigation led by former US Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates and law firm King & Spalding into the widespread allegations of abuse across the National Women’s Soccer League. While the report focused on the abusive behavior of coaches Paul Riley (whose misconduct was reported by The Athletic in September 2021), Rory Dames, and Christy Holly, it ultimately concludes that:
“Teams, the league, and the federation not only repeatedly failed to respond appropriately when confronted with player reports and evidence of abuse, they also failed to institute basic measures to prevent and address it, even as some leaders privately acknowledged the need for workplace protections.”
With this in mind, let’s break down the report by person:
Riley was the Head Coach of the Portland Thorns for the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Yates writes that he had a history of emotional and verbal abuse in addition to sexual misconduct even before his time with the Thorns, stretching back to WPS (the predecessor to the NWSL.) Riley was known to demand absolute power over his teams, which created an environment for abuse to flourish.
A prime example of Riley’s domination was his blatant disregard of medical advice. Yates writes that the medical staff at many of his teams rehabilitated players in secret so Riley could not make them play prematurely. For example, in 2014, Riley requested that an injured player travel with the team despite USSF medical staff “explicitly” telling him otherwise. USSF president Sunil Gulati and Thorns owner Merritt Paulson both knew about Riley’s distaste for medical recommendations and did little to stop him. They let the player travel.
At the end of the 2015 season, Meleana “Mana” Shim emailed the Thorns front office and NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush about abuse she suffered at the hands of Riley, including sexual harassment and resulting retaliation. Plush forwarded this email to USSF. Portland conducted an internal investigation of Shim’s claims. They also investigated Thorns player Sinead Farrelly’s claims that Riley sexually coerced her on multiple occasions. The resulting report did not take many of Shim or Farrelly’s accusations seriously. It did, however, conclude that Riley engaged in “inappropriate and unprofessional behavior and exercised poor judgment.”
Portland fired Riley “for cause” as a result, but never indicated to anyone else, including players and staff, that it had been as a result of misconduct. In fact, the public statement by the Thorns on Riley’s resignation thanked Riley for his time with the club.
Riley never faced any further consequences for his behavior, going on to coach for the Western New York Flash and its successor the North Carolina Courage. When talking to Western New York vice president Aaran Lines about Riley, Thorns General Manager Gavin Wilkinson said that he would hire Riley again “in a heartbeat.”
Sexual misconduct allegations against Riley were “brought to the attention” of the NWSL and/or USSF every year for six years from 2015 to 2021, but nothing was ever done about them.
He was actually considered for Head Coach of the United States women’s national team in 2019, but after a “well-established agent” voiced their concern about Riley to USSF, Riley took himself out of the running. North Carolina Courage owner Steven Malik quote tweeted Riley’s commitment to the Courage, adding, “Courage country should be smiling.”
Sinead Farrelly was traded from the Thorns immediately after the investigation concluded. Mana Shim was never told the true circumstances of Riley’s firing from the Portland Thorns until Yates confirmed it for her in 2022.
Dames was the Head Coach of the Chicago Red Stars from the NWSL’s founding in 2013 to 2021. He was never subject to a background check from the Red Stars. Instead he was hired on his success as owner and coach of the Eclipse Select Soccer Club, a local youth team.
As coach of Eclipse, Dames verbally abused players and spoke frequently about sex and sexual topics, even having sexual relationships with players who may or may not have been of legal age. In 1998 a police investigation was opened into Dames after he allegedly touched a female youth player inappropriately after “coaching” her on how to initiate sex. The investigation found two other incidents of abuse, but it was dismissed for being “unfounded.”
Dames had a similar behavioral pattern at the Red Stars. Said one current Chicago player about Dames’ verbal abuse:
Rory was good at getting to know you as a person and what got to you and what
was meaningful to you. He’d take that knowledge to completely shatter your world
and use it as leverage. He would tear you down to your core in that way, in such a
straight-faced, terrifying way . . . . that gets into your soul.
In addition to incredibly personal abuse, Yates found that Dames also made racist comments towards players. For example, Dames “asked a Puerto Rican player if her family had green cards.”
Dames was incredibly manipulative and controlling, forcing players to ask permission to see loved ones or attend events. If players dared to speak out about his abuse, Dames and Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler retaliated by trading or waiving players with no notice.
In 2014, US national team and Red Stars player Christen Press told USSF president Sunil Gulati and US Head Coach Jill Ellis about Dames’ verbal abuse and toxic work environment. Her allegations were corroborated by other Chicago players present at the time.
Dames intimated to Press that he saw the allegations about him and that he knew Press was the one who came forward with them. After this, she “felt an ‘ever present threat’ and ‘a clear message that she should not make a report again.’”
The results of the NWSL Players Survey in 2014 corroborated Press’ allegations. Player comments about the Red Stars from the survey were emailed to Whisler, who fervently denied them. He accused the players of “wanting this league to shut down” and having an “ax to grind” with Dames.
Dames tried to resign after this, but Whisler would not let him.
Christen Press left the Red Stars in January 2018. That June she reiterated her complaints about Dames to USSF and asked them to open an official investigation into Dames. The same day, Red Stars player Samantha Johnson lodged a similar complaint about Dames and Whisler to the NWSL. USSF obliged, and an outside law firm, Pepper Hamilton LLP, was contracted to investigate.
The preliminary findings of the report were submitted to USSF. Pepper Hamilton found that Dames created “a cycle of emotional abuse” and “a cycle of manipulation” at Chicago, and that if a player were to voice their concerns with Dames, they were retaliated against. USSF Chief Legal Officer Lydia Wahlke never shared these preliminary findings with the NWSL or with the Red Stars.
The official conclusions of the report were much less clear about whether any abusive behavior had taken place. Pepper Hamilton identified that “there is no definition of what constitutes misconduct by NWSL coaches,” so therefore it could not definitely state that Dames was abusive. Dames never suffered any consequences from USSF or the NWSL for the conduct described in the investigations.
Whisler continued to brush off complaints in the following years about Dames, simply stating that the abusive behavior was just “Rory being Rory.”
Yates goes on to describe the lasting mental health effects of Dames’ abuse. The most chilling is this: a former Red Stars player “found herself in an abusive relationship that mirrored much of her and Dames’s relationship and stated that she thought such abuse was ‘normal’ because of how Dames had treated her.”
Dames was “permitted” to resign from the Red Stars on November 22, 2021, but as of the Yates report continues to own Eclipse Select Soccer Club.
August 31, 2021. Racing Louisville announces that Head Coach Christy Holly was fired “for cause” in a three sentence press release. Speculation ran wild about why Holly was fired, but no reason was ever given - until the Yates report.
Yates found that Holly sexually coerced player Erin Simon, sending sexually explicit photos to her, showing her pornography instead of game film, and touching her breasts and genitals during a “film session.” Any time Holly requested Simon come to his apartment, she would bring teammate Brooke Hendrix as a safety measure. Holly referred to Hendrix as “a cockblock.”
After Simon made it clear she did not consent to Holly’s behavior, he began verbally abusing her. She turned to a team chaplain for guidance on how to proceed. The chaplain tried to help Simon, but was told there was no “clear precedent” on how to help a player as a chaplain. After reaching out to a superior, the chaplain eventually was cleared to meet with Racing leadership.
The chaplain was pressured into giving Simon’s name to leadership because “they had twenty-four other players to protect.” Simon was summoned within hours to meet with human resources and club management, bringing the chaplain and Hendrix with her.
At the end of that meeting, management told Simon that Holly would be fired that evening. When confronted with the allegations that he had an inappropriate relationship with a player, Holly “identified Simon by name, threw his keys across the table, and left.”
Yates is extremely clear that Holly’s abusive behaviors did not start at Louisville. In fact, they stretch back to 2016 when he was Head Coach of Sky Blue. She notes: “[n]early every player and assistant coach we interviewed from Holly’s tenure at Sky Blue and Racing Louisville used a variant of the word ‘manipulate’ to describe Holly’s conduct.”
Holly “used personal information as a weapon,” refused to tell players who was starting or traveling until the last minute, and intimidated players into playing while injured.
In addition to all of this, Holly’s relationship with captain Christie Pearce Rampone while he coached Sky Blue created an extremely toxic environment. His constant efforts to hide the relationship caused him to verbally abuse the players even more. He was fired at the end of the 2017 season because of his abusive conduct and relationship with Pearce Rampone. Those issues were seen as separate problems rather than one large abuse issue.
Holly’s firing was portrayed to the public as a “mutual decision” that was related to his poor track record that season. Nowhere in the statement does it mention that he was actually fired due to his misconduct. In fact, Sky Blue thanked Holly for his time with the club. The players were told to keep the nature of his departure quiet. One player expressed their sadness over Holly’s equanimous departure: it “breaks my heart that he could just walk away, [while we took] the brunt of it, and he was able to just get another job.”
Holly did in fact get another job with no problem. He did contract work with USSF as a scout and as an assistant coach for the US U-17 and U-23 teams. Nobody Yates interviewed was sure how Holly began working at USSF.
Jill Ellis, USWNT head coach at the time, decided to hire Holly as a scout after he started at USSF. She never performed a background or reference check on him (nor did anyone at USSF) despite hearing rumors of his relationship with Pearce Rampone at Sky Blue.
Racing Louisville did perform a reference check on Holly before hiring him in 2020. Racing president Brad Estes and Executive Vice President James O’Connor contacted Sky Blue executive officer Mary Smoot. The two men brought up Holly’s relationship with Pearce Rampone at the outset of the call, saying “they had no problem with it.” Smoot went on to warn them that “the players did not have a positive experience” with Holly. Estes and O’Connor were unresponsive to her comments. According to Smoot, they “sounded like they made their minds up” before their conversation even began.
At both Sky Blue and Racing Louisville, players and staff constantly raised their concerns about Holly’s conduct. Nothing was done by either club in response.
Erin Simon left Racing Louisville in 2022 to play in England. Teammate and friend Brooke Hendrix heard that Holly gave her negative references when she was looking for a new team, branding her as a “troublemaker.” Hendrix and her agent both speculate that despite interest abroad, there appeared to be a “network” in the NWSL that did not want her.
Christy Holly never even obtained the proper coaching license to be a coach in the NWSL.
Baird was the Commissioner of the NWSL from March 2020 to October 2021.
Yates revealed that Baird was contacted by an owner of Sky Blue, insisting that the league and Racing do a background check on Christy Holly before they hired him in 2020. Baird thanked him and did not say or do anything about vetting Holly.
Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly both emailed Baird in 2021 directly about opening a new investigation into Riley’s behavior given his history at the Thorns. She wished them both well, but said that the 2015 complaint at the Thorns was “investigated to conclusion.”
In a public statement responding to The Athletic article on September 30, Baird said that she was “shocked and disgusted” to read Shim and Farrelly’s accusations against Riley.
Their former Portland teammate Alex Morgan promptly tweeted, “[t]he 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.” Along with the tweet were screenshots of Farrelly’s email to Baird about Riley and Baird’s reply.
Baird resigned four days later on October 4, 2021.
Yates revealed new information that “[i]n the spring of 2021, the NWSL received a series of four complaints about Riley in quick succession. The League largely ignored the complaints, and instead, weeks before the publication of The Athletic article, NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird was actively trying to keep Riley from resigning over his anger about the post-season schedule.”
Other Key Takeaways
Many players reported abuse to their clubs, the League, or USSF, but there were systemic blockages in place to minimize consequences (if any at all) for abusers. There was no way to anonymously report abuse, no league-wide anti-harassment policy until 2021, and no human resources departments at most clubs. If a player did have the courage to speak up, there was almost no chance of the allegations going any further than the original recipient(s). This was because either the recipient(s) had no way to proceed due to these blockages or because they wanted to keep the allegations quiet.
The Portland Thorns, Chicago Red Stars, and Racing Louisville all tried to interfere with the investigation. According to Yates, Portland attempted to block access to key witnesses and “raised specious legal arguments in an attempt to impede our use of relevant documents.” Chicago purposely delayed giving pertinent documents to the investigation for almost nine months. Worst of all, Racing Louisville would not permit any witnesses (including former employees) to answer questions about Holly’s time at the club, citing non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements they had signed.
The roots of abuse run incredibly deep, starting at the youth level. If children are accustomed to accept abusive behavior as necessary for success, they have almost no chance of recognizing abusive behavior as adults. In fact, a sports psychologist that interviewed Red Stars players stated that 70 percent of interviewees reported emotionally abusive behaviors at the club, but many players could not recognize certain behaviors as abuse because they were so normalized in women’s soccer.
Yates and her associates put their recommendations on how to move safely ahead at the end of the report. Here are some of the most notable recommendations broken down by section:
Transparency, Yates writes, involves making it mandatory for teams to report misconduct to the NWSL and USSF to ensure the person in question cannot move to another club. USSF should, according to the report, create a database of employment history for professional coaches and another for any individual banned by USSF, a USSF Organization member, or SafeSport.
The accountability section focuses mostly on the coaching license system. Yates and team recommend that USSF should enforce their licensing requirement and suspend or revoke the licenses of those who commit misconduct. USSF should also be allowed to discipline member organizations (such as the NWSL) who do not act on misconduct. Most radically Yates recommends that the USSF restructure their coaching licenses from a diploma to a yearly accreditation. Much like how a doctor must pass a board examination each year to keep practicing, coaches should also have to prove they are qualified and conducting themselves in a safe and respectful manner.
“Clear rules” is a simple section: USSF should make clear and consistent policies for what constitutes abuse and where to go to report it. They should also make yearly trainings that clarify what abusive behavior looks like mandatory for coaches and players.
Yates spends a large chunk of the recommendations on player safety, citing the need for each team, the NWSL, and USSF to each have a Player Safety Officer so no person is confused on who to go to in case of abuse. She also writes that the NWSL must make sure every team is owned by “financially committed” parties that can maintain a safe and professional environment for all. Most interestingly she recommends that teams should ensure that a head coach does not have the sole authority on any issue.
Lastly, Yates strongly rebukes the “hot potato” dynamic that exists between USSF and SafeSport over who has the jurisdiction to act on abuse allegations. She recommends that SafeSport is ineffective by itself and that teams, the league, and USSF must not rely exclusively on SafeSport to protect players.
The Yates report is an incredibly heavy read. This article may seem long and detailed, but it just scratches the surface as to how egregious the misconduct (and the cover-ups) actually were. Yates even concedes that her team’s investigation had to focus on three coaches because if they investigated every credible abuse allegation, they would likely never stop investigating.
The true consequences of the Yates report remain to be seen, but there’s reason to be hopeful that change is coming. Sponsors of the Thorns, Red Stars, and Racing are pulling their money until ownership changes and the players are protected. Fan protests are becoming more common by the day, even at men’s soccer games. The players of the Red Stars finally felt emboldened enough to demand Arnim Whistler sell their team.
It will take an extremely long time to truly get out all the rot in women’s soccer, but the Yates report is as good a place to start as any.