Yates report takeaways extend beyond NWSL: ‘Guardrails’ are essential for women’s pro sports

Soccer players from the U.S. and England pose for a photo with a "protect the players" banner
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U.S. Soccer and the NWSL were so focused on putting and keeping players on the field that protecting those players fell by the wayside.

That was one of the key takeaways from the U.S. Soccer-commissioned report released last week. Former acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Q. Yates and the law firm King & Spalding found that emotional abuse and sexual misconduct are systemic in women’s soccer and that league’s lack of basic workplace protections created an environment in which abuse could thrive.

“They did not institute the most basic of workplace protections,” the report explains. “For most of the League’s history, there was no anti-harassment policy, no anti-retaliation policy, and no anti-fraternization policy. Nor were there independent reporting lines, coaching codes of conduct, or any guidelines regarding the due diligence necessary to hire a coach. Most teams did not have human resource functions, and if they did, some teams did not believe those services were available to players.”

The report continues: “Without basic protections in place, what followed, almost inevitably, was the systemic abuse of players.”

It wasn’t until the spring of 2021, the start of the NWSL’s ninth season, that the league published its first anti-harassment policy. And that was only after 240 players — organized by Alex Morgan — sent then NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird a letter demanding workplace protections and a way to report complaints. (The current policy can be found here.)

While the Yates report focused on the NWSL and U.S. Soccer, its takeaways are broadly applicable to other leagues.

“We hope that other leagues, other teams, other Federations look inward. The whole goal of this is so that no one else suffers from the abuse that so many players in this league have faced,” said USWNT captain Becky Sauerbrunn. “If that takes people (being) introspective and creating policies and anti-harassment policies — things that we were very late doing — no better time to start than right now.”

Following publication of the Yates report, On Her Turf surveyed women’s professional sports leagues that compete in the U.S. about whether they have an active anti-harassment policy in place. Here is a summary of the survey:

  • WNBA players and employees are covered by a “Respect in the Workplace Policy.” The league mandates yearly training and provides an anonymous workplace hotline for reporting complaints.
  • In a statement, the LPGA said it “has had anti-harassment policies in place for its players and staff for more than a decade.” Additionally, the organization said it regularly reviews and updates these policies “to provide maximum protection to players and staff.”
  • The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) official rulebook can be found here (the relevant section of the Code of Conduct, which has been in place for over a decade, is on pages 306-310). A spokesperson for the WTA also said that the organization has a department staffed by qualified mental health practitioners that helps “educate and inform players on matters of personal safety and on WTA procedures, resources and support systems for suspected abuse. … Additionally, WTA staff with roles involving close player interaction are provided additional training to help with early identification and support of at-risk players and to guide players to the appropriate athlete assistance team for help.”
  • Athletes Unlimited (AU) — which organizes tournaments in basketball, volleyball, lacrosse, and softball — has an anti-harassment policy that can be found here.
  • The Premier Hockey Federation (PHF) directed On Her Turf to its ‘Equal Employment Opportunity Policy‘ and confirmed that players are covered by the policy. PHF SVP of Communications Paul Krotz also told On Her Turf that “this area has been prioritized and discussed in internal meetings with players and staff members. The current policy is being reviewed with the intent to launch new and increased resources for the upcoming season.”
  • The Women’s Football Alliance (WFA) has a Safe Sport policy that can be found here (page 15).

On Her Turf also reached out to four organizations that are in the process of launching leagues about their plans for player safety policies.

  • The Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA), a player-led organization that is aiming to launch its own women’s pro hockey league next year, says player safety policies (including an anti-harassment policy) will be implemented from the beginning of their planned league. “Our board has consisted (of) all players from the launch of the PWHPA, and creating a professional, safe environment has been a top priority all along. Every decision made is with a player-first mentality,” PWHPA media consultant Ashley McLellan said in a statement. The PWHPA formed in 2019 after over 200 players stepped away from the ice due to low wages, a lack of healthcare benefits, and poor working conditions.
  • Women’s Professional Fastpitch (WPF) — which was founded by USA Softball, USSSA, and Smash It Sports — played its first exhibition games this year, but will officially launch in 2023. WPF Commissioner Lauren Chamberlain told On Her Turf that a draft of the league’s anti-harassment policy is currently going through legal review and will be active for the inaugural 2023 season.
  • The USL Super League, a Division II women’s soccer league that is slated to launch in August 2023, plans to have an anti-harassment policy in place ahead of its first season and says it is taking the Yates report into consideration as it finalizes that policy.
  • The Women’s Independent Soccer League (WISL), a Division II women’s league with a 2024 launch year, plans to finalize its league-wide anti-harassment policy ahead of its first season and is also pressing individual clubs to have their own policies. “To us, it’s all about creating a safe and supporting environment,” managing director Lynn Berling-Manuel said. “And a safe supportive environment means everyone — players, coaches, front office personnel, the entire organization — there needs to be a clear series of action that will take place when you report a problem.”

Despite billing itself as a professional league, the Yates report found that the NWSL’s lacking infrastructure — from poor training and playing facilities to dangerous living situations — resulted in an environment that was far from professional.

“In the haste to get the League off the ground, the Federation conducted limited financial due diligence on the new league’s prospective owners and did not put in place the infrastructure or planning necessary to support the League over the long haul,” the report says.

“Truth Be Told,” an ESPN E60 on the NWSL that premiered last week, provided additional insight on how the league’s startup mindset and cost-cutting measures — from salaries as low as $6,000 to the use of host families to the absence of a union — led to widespread issues.

“You would have thought that, in launching a business, there were some pretty basic things you could look at: background checks, anti-discrimination policy, an anti-harassment policy, an HR person,” NWSL Players Association executive director Meghann Burke told E60. “(No one was saying) you’re not going to use a trash can to do ice baths. We’re going to give you a bathroom that’s not the woods. We’re not going to provide adequate medical staffing, we’re not going to provide adequate training facilities. It was a severe control of costs without, on the flip side, a plan for how to grow revenue.”

“The standards were low — very low — but we just wanted to play,” USWNT and San Diego Wave forward Alex Morgan said of the players’ initial mindset.

“The league was set up hastily, in a way that got it off the ground and gave us a place to play — and I think every player would say that we’re thankful and appreciative for that — but it was also done with absolutely zero guardrails. And that’s just unacceptable,” USWNT and OL Reign forward Megan Rapinoe told media last week.

Even if NWSL players wanted to speak up, fear of seeing the league collapse kept them silent.

“Players were also repeatedly enlisted in the effort to keep the League afloat by protecting it from scandal and were told to be grateful that they had an opportunity to play professional soccer at all,” the Yates report explains. “The threat of team or league failure was acute and persistent. The NWSL was the third attempt to field a women’s professional league and was established with low capital requirements to ensure the league had eight teams. Many teams seemed to be one bad season away from shuttering. Players reported being told by Federation leadership and certain team owners that the League was not commercially successful enough to warrant further financial investment, and that the only way to ensure the League’s survival was for players to support the League.”

“I think everyone was afraid to ultimately cause the league’s demise,” USWNT and Washington Spirit goalie Aubrey Kingsbury told E60. “We knew it was fragile.”

Conditions in the NWSL have improved in the last year, thanks especially to the NWSL’s first ever collective bargaining agreement. But the Yates report recommends U.S. Soccer “strengthen player safety requirements in professional leagues” and consider whether “all owners are financially committed to the NWSL and are providing a professional environment that is safe and respectful of players” — two takeaways key for women’s leagues across the board.

“I think these hostile conditions that are kind of now being unearthed and publicly revealed, but it’s things that we’ve been dealing with for the entirety of our careers,” said USWNT and OL Reign defender Alana Cook. “We have gotten to this point because we have learned how to deal with the difficulties surrounding what we do.”

“We, as women soccer players, have faced a lot, not just in these last two years, but for a very long time,” echoed Sauerbrunn. “You have to enact as much change as you can, while also demanding more from those that have the power to do so.”

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

Kaillie Humphries elevates another fresh U.S. face to podium status in two-woman bobsled World Cup

Kaillie Humphries of USA, Kaysha Love of USA in action at the 2 women's bobsleigh during Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
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PARK CITY, UTAH – Kaillie Humphries extended her podium streak on Saturday at the IBSF World Cup, where she and U.S. push athlete Jasmine Jones finished third in the two-woman bobsled.

The third-place finish in Park City marked the sixth podium for Humphries at the Park City track, which hosted the 2002 Olympics, and was Jones’ career-first World Cup podium in just her second World Cup start.

“This is our first race together, so really excited about that,” said the 37-year-old Humphries, considered the greatest female driver in history with three Olympic gold medals (2010, 2014 and 2022) and five world championships titles. She earned her 29th career World Cup win on Friday in Park City in the women’s monobob.

“Definitely a work in progress. … The runs weren’t perfect, but I’m really happy with our starts, happy with our drives minus a few little mistakes. It’s a good starting point, and we’ll look to grow from here.”

Humphries and Jones finished with a combined, two-run time of 1:37.69, 0.32 behind winners Kim Kalicki and brakewoman Leonie Fiebig of Germany at 1:37.37. Fellow Germans Laura Nolte and Lena Neunecker were second at 0.23 back.

Kalicki and Fiebig broke a 16-year-old track record with their first run, laying down a time of 48.60 seconds and besting the time set by Americans Shauna Rohbock and Valerie Fleming – the 2006 Olympic silver medalists – in December 2006 (48.73). It also marked the second straight victory for Kalicki, who’s won five career World Cup titles including last week’s two-woman bobsled race in Whistler, Canada.

“I was hoping Kaillie would get [the record],” said Rohbock, who is now a U.S. team coach and was on hand to see her record fall. “That first run there, she had that little skid in the bottom, so that didn’t help, but Kailee’s always putting up a great performance. And Jasmine, another great brakewoman, so we’re really lucky that we have that depth.”

For Team USA, it marked the second straight week that a fresh face earned her first podium finish while competing with Humphries. Last week in Whistler, push athlete Emily Renna and Humphries placed third in Renna’s first-ever World Cup appearance.

MORE IBSF WORLD CUP COVERAGE: Kelly Curtis notches career-best finish with top five at Park City skeleton World Cup

“Being able to race with her was really special,” said the 29-year-old Renna, who was a college track athlete at University of Rhode Island. “It’s really nice to be around seasoned veterans. It definitely makes you feel better in the back sled with you when you’ve got a good pilot who knows the track.”

Renna finished in eighth place in Park City with 12-year U.S. team veteran and pilot Nicole Vogt (1:39.04). Vogt partnered with Jones in her first World Cup last week where they finished seventh in Whistler, 1.33 seconds behind winners Kalicki and German teammate Anabel Galander.

“To have an opportunity to be with Kaillie in my World Cup debut – it’s exciting,” said the 26-year-old Jones, who was a collegiate track and field athlete at Eastern Michigan. “I just feel like I have so much more in the tank to give, and I’m just hungry for it.”

Jones is particularly gratified with her performance after returning full-time to bobsled less than 18 months ago following the birth of her daughter, Jade Quinn Jones, in February 2021. The Greensburg, Pa., native returned to training just five months postpartum, having sat out the 2020-21 season. She competed on the North American Cup last year, finishing the season with a win (the third NA Cup title of her career) and a third place in Lake Placid.

“I’m thankful,” said Jones. “Opportunity is the main thing, and I just feel blessed to have my first World Cup podium. I’m screaming on the inside. I may not show it, but I am jumping for joy because I’m just that excited and happy to have this accomplishment.”

She admits, however, it’s not always easy to compete balance a full-time competitive career with being a mom.

“Sometimes it’s a struggle being away from my daughter,” said Jones, whose mom takes care of Jade while she travels. “I try to get my facetimes in every night and just know that when I’m pushing, I’m doing it for her. Hopefully sometime in the future I’ll have her around on the sidelines cheering me on, and that’s my main motivation – that this is for her.”

The BMW IBSF World Cup continues its North American swing Dec. 16-18 in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Kaillie Humphries faces IVF journey head on — and collects monobob World Cup win along the way

Gold medallist Kaillie Humphries of Team United States celebrates during the Women's Monobob.
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PARK CITY, UTAH — Kaillie Humphries knew the quest to start a family would impact her 2022-23 season, but it’s certainly not slowing down Team USA’s reigning monobob Olympic gold medalist, who captured her first World Cup title in the discipline on Friday.

The 37-year-old Humphries, considered the greatest female driver in history with three Olympic golds (2010, 2014 and 2022) and five world championships, earned her 29th career World Cup win and her third victory on the Park City track, where she won the two-woman bobsled competitions in 2012 and 2016. Competing in Utah – as well as North American World Cup stops in Whistler last week and in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Dec. 17-18 – is one of the reasons that Humphries pushed pause on her journey to motherhood.

“I’m excited,” Humphries said following the win, marking her second straight podium in monobob following a third-place finish last week in Whistler. “I was excited for this year before it started. It’s part and parcel of why my husband and I delayed the IVF process and starting a family this season. To be able to be back in North America and have the first half of the season here – it’s been a long time since we’ve had that, so I wanted to be able to compete and it feels awesome.”

That’s not to say the leadup to this season has been without its share of hiccups. In fact, Humphries admits that following the Beijing Olympics, she had hoped to get pregnant immediately, but she and husband Travis Armbruster had to pivot when a diagnosis of stage 4 endometriosis made it clear that in vitro fertilization would be the best path for pregnancy.

“Right after the Olympics, I was like, ‘We’re going to get pregnant; it’s gonna be all good,’” she said. “I thought, my body has always performed, and it wasn’t going to be an issue. Fast forward to I find out we have to do IVF. We do the first egg retrieval, and it doesn’t go as well as I had hoped — which anybody that’s done this process knows, you can’t control any aspect of it. And so having to do a second round of egg retrieval, …it pushed everything back.”

What’s more, it brought Humphries’ training to a standstill at times, when she would have to limit all physical activity during the three-week period surrounding the egg-retrieval process.

“It impacted my training coming into this year a lot,” she says, “but I also think it definitely reset my hormones, which turns out I needed. I don’t think was a bad thing. I knew coming into this year, I wasn’t going to be in the same shape as I have been in the past, and I had to make peace with that. I know that each and every race I’m racing myself into shape, and each race is a preparation for January’s World Championships.”

Humphries also chose to share her IVF journey publicly, and she’s documented every step of the way, believing that her story makes it less scary not just for her but also for other women and female athletes who might be facing the same thing.

MORE IBSF WORLD CUP: Kelly Curtis notches career-best finish with top five at Park City skeleton World Cup

“My husband and I weren’t sure that we wanted to share it at first,” she admits. “But I felt it was important just to showcase this. I have nothing to hide. And as much as there are parts of me certain days when I think, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ At the end of the day, I know I’m not alone in this.

“It’s important, I do have a voice, and I want other people to know, as an Olympic gold medalist, if it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody. Infertility exists in the female body, and it’s important that I talk about it in my journey and hopefully that’s inspired other people.”

She says she’s received an outpouring of support, which has been particularly gratifying as she continues to put a painful breakup with Team Canada in the rearview mirror. Humphries, who was born in Calgary, competed for Canada for 16 years, winning three Olympic medals including a bronze in Pyeongchang in 2018. But the relationship came to an abrupt end later just five months after the 2018 Games, after Humphries alleged emotional and mental harassment by a former coach.

Winning a gold medal in Beijing just two months after her U.S. citizenship was finalized proved to be turning point for Humphries, who commemorated the milestone with two new tattoos. She first added the date of her win – Feb. 14, 2022 – to the back of her left hand and a larger rose and skull illustration to the back of her right knee and calf, all of which commemorate her triumph over that darker period.

“The skull represents a rebirth and a growth, overcoming challenges and/or obstacles and turning something negative into something positive,” explains Humphries, who says she chose the rose because it’s the national flower of the U.S. as well as a symbol of love won or lost. She notes that she has “an actual Olympic one” planned for August 2024, which is when her favorite tattoo artist is next available.

Humphries has also found the silver lining in her IVF journey, as the competition season has been a welcome break from some of the self-imposed pressure.

“By pushing pause for four or five months and competing, it allowed me mentally to know that we can go into all of next summer and all winter focusing on just doing the actual embryo transfers and having a good pregnancy,” she says. “I don’t feel stressed to try and get pregnant right away. I felt like I was becoming competitive with myself, wondering why isn’t this working? Why can’t I do this? I tried to control too many things, and I started to get really frustrated. Mentally, it was hard. So, by pushing pause, going back to what I know — which is the sport, which is what I love – it’s allowed me to control a little bit of my future.”

Humphries’ season continues Saturday as the IBSF World Cup from Park City concludes with the two-woman bobsleigh.