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
Getty Images

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

2023 LPGA Drive On Championship: How to watch, who’s playing in season’s first full-field event

Jin-young Ko of South Korea and Nelly Korda on the 17th tee during the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship.
Getty Images

The LPGA Tour makes its return to the Arizona desert this week at the 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship at Superstition Mountain Golf and Country Club. The season’s first full-field event features eight of the world’s top 10 players plus a slew of fresh faces as this year’s rookie class gets its first taste of competition as tour members.

This week’s event features 144 players (plus two Monday qualifiers) competing for the $1.75 million prize purse in a 72-hole tournament that will implement the LPGA’s new cutline policy for the first time. Beginning this week, the 36-hole cut will change from the top 70 players and ties to the top 65 and ties advancing to weekend action. The LPGA says it hopes to “establish a faster pace of play” with the change.”

Arizona last hosted the LPGA for the 2019 Bank of Hope Founders Cup at Wildfire Golf Club, where Jin Young Ko earned her first of four LPGA titles that season. The tour last played at Superstition Mountain in the Safeway International from 2004 to 2008, where Hall of Famers Annika Sorenstam (2004, 2005) and Lorena Ochoa (2007, 2008) each won twice, and Juli Inkster won in 2006.

The tournament marks the first of four events over the next five weeks (taking off the week of the Masters, April 7-10) and kicks off the crescendo that’s building to the LPGA’s first major of the season, The Chevron Championship, April 20-23 in its new location at The Woodlands, Texas. The 72-hole LPGA Drive On Championship features 144 players, in addition to two Monday qualifiers, who will compete for a $1.75 million purse.

How to watch the 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship

You can watch the 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship on Golf Channel, Peacock, NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app. Check out the complete TV and streaming schedule:

  • Thursday, March 23: 9-11 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Friday, March 24: 9-11 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Saturday, March 25: 6-10 p.m. ET, live stream; 7-9 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Sunday, March 26: 6-10 p.m. ET, live stream; 7-9 p.m. ET, Golf Channel

Who’s playing in the 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship

Sitting out this week are world No. 1 Lydia Ko and No. 5 Minjee Lee, but No. 2 Nelly Korda and No. 3 Jin Young Ko are back in action following Ko’s return to the winner’s circle two weeks ago in Singapore, where she held off Korda by two strokes. Also in the field this week are:

  • No. 4 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 6 Lexi Thompson
  • No. 7 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 8 In Gee Chun
  • No. 9 Hyo-Joo Kim
  • No. 10 Nasa Hataoka
  • 2022 major winners Ashleigh Buhai, Jennifer Kupcho, Chun, Henderson

Rookies and Epson Tour graduates making their first starts as LPGA members include 20-year-old Lucy Li, a two-time Epson Tour winner who might be best known for playing the 2014 U.S.  Women’s Open as an 11-year-old; South Korea’s Hae Ran Ryu, who took medalist honors at LPGA Q-Series; and 18-year-old Alexa Pano, who finished tied for 21st at Q School to earn her card but might be best known from her role in the 2013 Netflix documentary, “The Short Game.”

Past winners, history of the Drive On Championship

The Drive On Championship was initially created as a series of LPGA events that marked the tour’s back-to-competition efforts following the pandemic. Each tournament used the “Drive On” slogan in support of the tour’s resilience, beginning with the first series event in July 2020 at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, where Danielle Kang won by one stroke over Celine Boutier. The second event, held in October 2020, replaced the three stops originally scheduled in Asia, and was held at Reynolds Lake Oconee Great Waters Course in Greensboro, Georgia. Ally McDonald captured her career first LPGA title by one stroke over Kang.

The last two “Drive On” events were staged in Florida, at Golden Ocala Golf Club (Ocala) in March 2021 and at Crown Colony Golf Club (Fort Myers) in February 2022. Austin Ernst cruised to her third career title at the 2021 edition, beating Jennifer Kupcho by five shots. The 2022 tournament marked a fresh start for the event (no longer including results or records from the 2020 and 2021 events), where Leona Maguire became the first Irish winner on tour with her victory in 2022.

Last year at the Drive On Championship

Ireland’s Leona Maguire gifted her mom and early birthday present with her first career win at the 2022 LPGA Drive On Championship. A 27-year-old Maguire, a standout at Duke and former No. 1 amateur, carded a final-round 67 to finish at 18-under 198 and won the 54-hole event by three strokes over Lexi Thompson. She became the first woman from Ireland to win on tour, and her 198 tied her career-best 54-hole score.

More about Superstition Mountain

Superstition Mountain’s Prospector Golf Course opened in 1998 and was a combined design effort by Jack Nicklaus and his son Gary. The course plays as a par-72 and stretches to 7,225 yards in length, with the women playing it at 6,526 yards. The course was home of the LPGA Safeway International from 2004-08, and was recently selected by Golfweek as one of the “Top 100 Residential Courses.”

Of note, Superstition Mountain is a female-owned facility, originally purchased in 2009 by Susan Hladky and her husband James, who died in 2011. Hladky has made a point of opening her courses to women and college players, twice hosting U.S. Women’s Open qualifying and the site of a 2025 NCAA women’s regional tournament. She’s also given membership to eight LPGA players, who play out of the club: Carlota Ciganda, Mina Harigae, Dana Finkelstein, Jaclyn Lee, Charlotte Thomas, Caroline Inglis, Jennifer Kupcho and Brianna Do.

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: 2023 March Madness — Utah Utes engineer dramatic turnaround for third-ever Sweet 16 appearance

2023 March Madness: Utah Utes engineer dramatic turnaround for third-ever Sweet 16 appearance

Members of the Utah Utes celebrate their win over the Princeton Tigers in the second round of the NCAA Womens Basketball Tournament.
Getty Images

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The No. 2-seeded Utah (27-4) women’s basketball team held off a pesky 10th-seeded Princeton squad on Sunday, winning 63-56 to advance to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championships for the first time since 2005-06 and just the third time in the program’s history.

“I’m proud of our team,” said eighth-year head coach Lynne Roberts after the second-round win at Utah’s Hunstman Center. “We set out to do this a year ago. We lost in this game at University of Texas and the goal was to be able to host (this year) so that we could have that home-court advantage and it made a difference.”

Utah’s fourth-year junior Alissa Pili backed up her recent second-team All-American honor with another 20-plus-point performance, scoring 28 on 8-for 13 shooting with 10 rebounds and going 11-for 13 on free throws. Sophomore forward Jenna Johnson added 15 points and six rebounds.

There’s been a lot of talk this weekend about how the Utes’ previous few seasons have ended – beginning with a rough 14-17 season that was cut short in 2020 due to the pandemic, followed by an abysmal 5-16 record in 2020-21. But the tide turned last year, as Utah rebounded with a 21-12 season that ended with a 78-56 loss to Texas in Austin in the second round of the NCAA tournament one year ago.

So, what changed?

“Last year, everyone was new to the NCAA tournament, so I think everyone was just experiencing it for the first time,” mused Johnson. “Losing in the second round last year, we’re definitely a lot hungrier this year, and then obviously hosting in Salt Lake, it’s fun just being in your own environment, to be around your own fans. I think it gives us an elevated level of confidence, both knowing what it’s like to play in this tournament and also getting to be at home.”

“Yeah, freshman year was kind of rough,” added third-year sophomore Kennady McQueen, who chipped in nine points Sunday. “We did experience losing a lot. … Coach Roberts, she said we are not going to have another season like that. We all stood behind her — the people that stayed — and brought in great people like starting last year with Jenna and Gi (Gianna Kneepkens) and people like that who have had a huge impact in helping us to where we are today. …

“When you get together a group of people that have the same goal in mind and will do make anything to make it happen, I think that’s where we have seen our success rate going up. This past offseason, we just kept getting better, and of course, the addition of the Alissa Pili really helped. When you bring a group of girls that have the same dream and same goal at the end of the year and doesn’t care about personal stats more than winning, I think we get the season that we have today, and it prepares us for deep run in March.”

In particular, McQueen believe it was Utah’s improvement in their defense that was crucial to the turnaround. “Everyone knows how good we are on offense, but if we can’t get stops, it doesn’t matter how good you are on offense,” she said. “So that’s just been a key the whole past off-season and all of this season — just getting better on defense.”

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: Alissa Pili revives her love of basketball with record season at Utah

Roberts credits their defensive improvement with a “philosophical mindset change,” explaining, “We worked on [defense] a lot differently, a lot more intentionally. Strategically we made some changes of how we are going to defend, and I won’t bore you with that. But there was a lot, just different things because you have to play to your strengths. You can’t be a run-and-jump pressing team if you don’t have the depth and athletes to do it. You can’t be a zone team if you are not super big. You have to figure out what fits your personnel, and so that’s what we did.”

There’s also the undeniable impact of Pili, a transfer from USC who has found her stride as a Ute, where she recently was named the Pac-12 Player of the Year.

“She kind of is the straw that stirs the drink for us right now,” Roberts said regarding the 21-year-old Alaska native. “She’s a nightmare to defend because she can shoot the three, and she’s also really athletic and mobile, so it doesn’t matter who we are playing. I think you have to gameplan for her. But then with her three-point shooting, you know, you have to pick your poison.”

But Roberts also gave plenty of kudos to Johnson, whom she describes as “phenomenal.”

“She’s 19 going on 40,” Roberts said of Johnson. “She’s the most mature, even-keeled consistent player we have. What I love about her is she is who she is. She’s confident in who she is. She knows who she is. She also is incredibly busy off the court.

“We were talking as we were getting ready to watch film, just shooting the breeze a bunch of us, we were talking about movies. And she was like, Oh, I don’t watch movies. Why not? I don’t have time. I get bored. What do you mean you don’t have time? Do you watch shows? No, I don’t ever watch TV. It is because she is doing all of these other extracurricular activities.”

As for guiding the Utes to becoming a championship program, Roberts still sees it as an uphill battle – but one that she and her players are ready for.

“I always use the analogy of pushing the boulder up the hill,” she said. “And doing things for the first time, you have to have that mindset. You have to keep pushing. It’s been incredibly fun to see the support, and I think the swell is a perfect word for it. Most importantly, our players feel it.

“This is why you play, right? And it means so much. I know I say it over and over, but this is not going to be a flash-in-the-pan [season]. This isn’t going to be a ‘Oh, remember that year they had such an incredible year?’ We are going to keep doing it.”

RELATED: 2023 March Madness 2023 — Updated bracket, scores and schedule for NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship