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