Vicky Losada (Barcelona) of Spain,Tobin Heath and Emily Sonnett (Portland Thorns FC) of USA during the friendly match between Spain and USA at Rico Perez Stadium in Alicante, Spain on January 22 2019

Jose Breton- Pics Action/Shutterstock (Licensed)

‘Protect your players’: How the digital public square contributed to NWSL’s great reckoning

It took reporters' exposes, players and fans taking to Twitter, and a pair of sobering investigations to try to fix women's soccer. Has it been enough?


Meg Swanick


Posted on Dec 16, 2022   Updated on May 19, 2023, 6:27 am CDT

The internet has served as a ready court of public opinion over the years, including some high-profile reckonings over harassment allegations in sports. Acting as an agent of public awareness, conversation, and sometimes controversy, the internet allows for individual voices to put forward their unadulterated experience to the public, instigating the debate and investigation that typically follows. 

This has certainly been the case in women’s sports. And it’s most recently played a role in the revelations that have come to light surrounding allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). 

When a series of reports surfaced via reporting in The Athletic and Washington Post in August and September 2021, the explosive arrival of their contents (and ensuing outrage of the soccer-watching public) was in part aided by the nature and presence of the internet, and via Twitter in particular — should that de facto digital public square remain with us into the future. 

“The internet does provide the opportunity to build a different kind of community than just bringing people together in person,” noted Gabby Rosas of Portland’s 107IST, the umbrella organization for the Timbers Army and Rose City Riveters supporters’ groups. Those groups are among the most vocal in America — not only in supporting the players repping Portland but also in calling various powers that be to accountability. 

“Since the mid-2000s, the Portland soccer supporter culture has included a certain amount of online presence, be it in online forums, blogging, or social media,” she remarked, noting that a literally international group of followers have been able to connect with those on the ground in the Rose City. 

But it’s also been an important way to amplify calls to supporters to take action.

“With regard to the changes that are needed, we have been able to keep our community and the public in the know about where we stand as an organization through our blog, online meetings, and social media,” she noted. “There have also been certain calls to action, such as a letter writing campaign to sponsors, able to gain a significant amount of traction through social media.” 

Those fans have been heated at the center of the conversation surrounding the culture of abuse in women’s sports — and the questions that a pair of recently-released reports are attempting to shed light on. 

What did that abuse mean, exactly? How specifically had it manifested? And how had it been allowed to continue for so long, unchecked?

Beyond those questions — and the rapid dissemination of the allegations that prompted them, making their way at a stunningly rapid pace across the internet — online communication provided an ultimately useful weapon, allowing for public demands for accountability. 

Players, politicians, and spectators alike were given open space to voice concerns, make a statement, or continue their lobbying for change. Certainly, the voice of fans and official supporter groups were given a key voice in demanding accountability via social media platforms — an accountability that they’re still demanding.  

U.S. Soccer responded by hiring former United States Attorney General Sally Yates — famed for her standoff with President Donald J. Trump in 2017 over the Muslim-majority travel ban — to conduct an investigation, launched in the fall of 2021, into the allegations and the underlying issues that fostered them. 

Yates released a scathing 173-page report on the year-long investigation this past Oct. 3, implicating multiple clubs and individuals in a culture of abuse she termed “systemic.” 

NWSL itself launched a separate investigation, conducted in partnership with the National Women’s Soccer League Players’ Association (NWSLPA), and released its report on Wednesday just as a men’s World Cup semifinal match between France and Morocco was kicking off. 

As NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman told media in Washington DC, the evening prior to the 2022 Championship, the NWSL investigation has a three-part focus: “First, seeking the truth. Second, corrective action, and third, systemic reform.” Berman characterizes the just-released report “the first stage of that three-part process.”

Thorns goalkeeper Bella Bixby, who has taken to Twitter to share various concerns, including how light shows at away matches in Houston and Louisville adversely affect players and fans “that are epileptic, are on the autism spectrum (like myself) or have sensory integration disorders,” reacted to the Yates Report with an open letter to fans understanding their ambivalence over attending an upcoming playoff match, but also asking them, “For this one match, do you love and support players more than you hate a front office?” 

For players like Bixby, having light shed on NWSL’s handling of the whole situation has been complex and challenging to process, starting with a crucial piece of reporting last year that set the investigative activity into motion. 

Reporting that caught fire on Twitter

The most explosive report broke the morning of Sept. 30, 2021, via Meg Linehan’s detailed forensic work in The Athletic. Linehan’s report struck Twitter in the early morning hours that autumnal Thursday and proceeded to swallow large swaths of the American soccer conversation. 

The report detailed allegations of sexual coercion, as well as multiple instances of violated boundaries between player and coach, experienced by Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim while playing for the Portland Thorns while Paul Riley coached the squad. The allegations include everything from coercive sex to players being instructed to kiss one another in front of him in order to avoid a harsh practice, as well as showing up for a film session only to find Riley dressed in just his underwear. 

Their experiences are appalling, though more appalling and hanging over all of this is that this behavior continued despite reports made against Riley for years. Indeed, as the Yates Report would later relay to the public, some type of formal report was made against Riley every year from 2015 to 2021, but nothing was done until Linehan’s article exposed his behavior. 

A month earlier, a report of related importance but different nature was published in the Washington Post by Molly Hensley-Clancy. Whereas Linehan’s reporting exposed instances of sexual coercion, Hensley-Clancy’s report focused on verbal abuse. More specifically, it exposed a trend of verbal and emotional abuse perpetrated by head coach Richie Burke at Washington Spirit. (Burke has since been relieved of his duties there.) 

In the conversation that followed Hensley-Clancy’s expose, players and former players alike took to social media to reveal similar ill treatment under Burke or other managers. One prominent national team player, Lindsey Horan, has spoken publicly for years on this issue, and again in the wake of the conversation surrounding verbal and emotional abuse in women’s soccer, about fat-shaming experienced playing in France, wherein she was made to feel so uncomfortable she contemplated leaving the sport altogether. 

The pair of reports became the framework for the investigations to follow, investigations delving into “abuse” and its multifarious meaning in women’s sport. That includes sexual coercion — as perhaps the most critical and egregious manifestation of abuse — as well as verbal abuse, whose impact was felt more pervasively in the league, though hadn’t always been flagged as “abusive.” 

One of the more interesting findings in the Yates Report was that a sports psychologist brought in to Chicago Red Stars identified that 70% of the team had experienced verbal abuse, but not all of them had realized it. More specifically, in relation to Burke, I later interviewed Spirit forward Ashley Hatch about her experiences with Burke. 

Hatch told me she hadn’t always realized how horrific the treatment had been, because in part they’d been conditioned to it. But once she and her teammates began to talk with one another about their experiences, it became clear and obvious it was unacceptable. 

The Yates Report

The Yates report dropped in early October — on the cusp of a playoff season engaging a record number of fans. It focused on a few clubs in particular and asserted that abuse was systemic in NWSL and women’s soccer, implicating a broader culture of misconduct that includes the nature of abuse detailed in both Linehan’s as well as Hensley-Clancey’s report. 

The Yates Report also affirmed a trend made apparent by that reporting: complaints were continually made about specific individuals, but their behavior continued due to negligence, apathy, protectionism, and a belief that controversy might kill the league. 

NWSL is the third iteration of women’s professional soccer in the United States, and the reminder of failed leagues gone by looms (or threatens) players plying their trade in a growing sport. If the implosion of a women’s soccer league happened then, it could happen again, and any misstep could be the stumble toward nonexistence. 

Apart from the health of the league as a broader unit, there also loomed the threat of precarious careers in a low-paying league, where the average player earns subpar wages. Making a sustainable career in NWSL, aside from a select group of stars, is challenging in and of itself. Fearing their opportunities might dwindle, players on the receiving end of unwanted behavior stayed silent. 

Either implicitly inferred, or explicitly conveyed, much has been swept under the rug in NWSL due to a fear that controversy would tear about the league, diminish a career, or stymie the sport from growing. 

A league too big to fail?

NWSL will enter its 11th season this coming March, and it spent most of 2022 breaking multiple attendance records. They’re expanding teams to incredible success, and as NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman told the media, NWSL is big business. Investment is increasing not out of charity, but because investing in women’s soccer in the United States will make you money. 

That lends weight to the moment for players speaking out in droves now, no longer feeling it suitable to stay quiet for the sake of a growing league that might falter. (Though I feel they’d still be speaking up now even if it did.) 

Of course, the NWSL provides a home to a great number of U.S. Women’s National Team players, who have incredible star power lending weight to the cause. 

It’s not an accident that Alex Morgan played a key role in supporting her NWSL colleagues in surfacing and holding accountable their experiences with Paul Riley. And it’s no accident — or small act of insignificance — that the likes of Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, and Becky Sauerbrunn, were vocal from the start, on social media, in interviews, in press conference clips gone viral.  

Morgan, the morning that Linehan’s report came out, took to Twitter to show support for the players whose trials were detailed in the story, imploring NWSL to “do the right thing” and protect players. 

Whereas less established professional athletes in an uncertain league may have at one point been susceptible to manipulation or genuine fear, Alex Morgan is at a place in a league where she appears to be emboldened to say something if she sees something. And so that’s what she’s done and continues to do. 

It’s not just Morgan, and it’s key to where American women playing soccer have gotten to today — including winning a landmark equal pay settlement from U.S. Soccer in February. 

When I asked Becky Sauerbrunn before the NWSL Championship this October what she wanted history to remember about all that’s happened, she told me she wanted the message to be that the players did this, together. 

A community that demands action

From the beginning, accountability has been the name of the game, and the internet played a key part in demanding it. 

Rachael Kriger, a longtime supporter of women’s soccer and reporter for The Equalizer, observed, “I believe the internet is having more of a role in demanding accountability, for sure. I truly believe that every side has a story, but nowadays, videos, audio and photographs can be made public of encounters and such through social media and the internet.”

She added, “I think there is such great good coming out of the connected-ness of the internet, especially with the recent Yates Report. It’s not just a community that demands action, but that truly gives each other a shoulder to lean on. But I think, truly, the Internet has propelled these cases, giving them the momentum to come forth and make grievous errors known.”

Both the Yates Report and NWSL’s report were released with recommendations for next steps and accountability. The Yates Report was also notable in specifying that much of what had transpired is rooted at the youth level, though the investigation did not itself delve into what has been transpiring there. Future reports on youth soccer may indeed be necessary and come forward from this. 

U.S. Soccer responded to the Yates Report recommendations by launching an Office of Participant Safety, publishing records from SafeSport to better identify any individuals with a discipline history, and mandating a standard for background checks. They also convened a committee from the Board of Directors to create an action plan to enact the Yates recommendations and launched a Participant Safety Taskforce to oversee all levels of the sports, including the youth level. 

Thirty percent of the Taskforce will include athlete representatives, and it will be chaired by Mana Shim. And the SafeSport disciplinary records were made public just weeks after the release of the report, in October. 

Players like Sauerbrunn and Megan Rapinoe have been advocates for accountability, calling for specific individuals to step down from their roles, including Portland Thorns owner Merritt Paulson and Chicago Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler.

Whisler has since been removed from the board in Chicago; as The Equalizer’s Jeff Kassouf reported, Red Stars defender Arin Wright described the post-Whisler era as liberating. 

More recently, Merritt Paulson took to Twitter to announce he’d be selling the Portland Thorns, though he still also plans to retain ownership of the Timbers — meaning that announcement has been met with tepid approval at best, as many fans don’t want Paulson involved with either club. Thorns manager Rhian Wilkinson also recently announced her departure from the club shortly after winning the 2022 NWSL Championship. Wilkinson’s decision followed an investigation into a “player relationship” since cleared by investigation. 

For Rosas, the NWSL report only reinforces what she feels about Paulson — that he should divest himself from both Portland teams. She noted that it “only reinforces our position about the club’s ownership and increases the urgency in which changes need to be made within the club.” 

“While a majority of the hard hitting and traumatic information regarding Portland came out in the Yates Report,” she observed, the subsequent NWSL revelations are “providing more of a timeline and finer details regarding how complicit certain individuals have been.”

She added, “That the club and specifically Merritt Paulson have been asking for the community to wait to pass judgement until the reports are out is telling with regard to their perception of what was going to be in the report or how their decisions would be reflected. Nothing I’ve read or processed so far indicates that Merritt Paulson is vindicated in his actions, or more importantly inactions, surrounding the issues covered.” 

One NWSL club took action following the latest report based on what was detailed there — announcing it would not renew former Houston Dash coach James Clarkson’s contract, set to expire at the end of 2022. Clarkson had been suspended from coaching since April pending results of the league investigation regarding his conduct with players, including alleged verbal abuse. 

Still, despite a laundry list of recommended actions the league is pledging to enact, it remains to be seen what they’ll actually institute, who will remain connected to NWSL in 2023 from those mentioned in the reports … and, of course, what fans will say online about the ensuing developments. 

Meg Swanick is a nomadic soccer reporter who has traveled and written about World Cups spanning 3 continents, including both the women’s and men’s FIFA World Cups in Qatar, Russia, France, and South Africa. Megan’s specialty for Last Word on Soccer is the Philadelphia Union, her hometown MLS team, as well as interesting stories from across the MLS, the U.S. National Teams, and Concacaf.

This story is part of the Pixel Pitch series, exploring the spaces where soccer, the internet and identity intersect. Pixel Pitch is a joint project partnering The Daily Dot with The Striker, a soccer-centric online publication “where every day is a soccer news day.”

See more stories from Presser – examining the intersection of race and sports online.

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*First Published: Dec 16, 2022, 5:20 pm CST