PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — During a press conference held by U.S. women’s soccer in England on Oct. 4, Portland Thorns star player Becky Sauerbrunn spoke out against the systemic failures within the National Women’s Soccer League that reportedly allowed players to suffer through years of abuse and inappropriate sexual advances committed by the league’s coaches, owners and executives.
These failures were highlighted in a scathing report published on Oct. 3, which investigated allegations of abusive behavior and sexual misconduct in women’s professional soccer. The report, commissioned by the National Women’s Soccer League and conducted by former U.S. Attorney General Sally Q. Yates, was prompted by a 2021 Athletic article about the alleged predatory behavior of former Thorns head coach Paul Riley — one of the league’s most prominent and winningest coaches.
“The players are not doing well,” Sauerbrunn said during the press conference. “We are horrified and heartbroken and frustrated and exhausted and really, really angry. We are angry that it took a third-party investigation. We are angry that it took an article in the Athletic and the Washington Post and numerous others. We’re angry that it took over 200 people sharing their trauma to get to this point right now.”
Accompanied by her U.S. women’s soccer teammate Alana Cook, the newly re-signed Portland Thorns defender called out the dismissive and suppressive culture allegedly fostered by U.S. soccer owners and executives.
“I think that for so long, it has always fallen on the player to demand change and that is because the people in authority and decision-making positions have repeatedly failed to protect us and they have failed to hold themselves and each other accountable,” Sauerbrunn said. “Who are you actually protecting and what values are you upholding? You have failed in your stewardship.”
The report states that the team became aware of Riley’s behavior after former Portland Thorns players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim came forward with allegations of sexual harassment and coercion. After conducting an internal investigation, the team chose not to re-sign the coach for the 2016 season. However, the team’s owner Merritt Paulson reportedly failed to publicize the report, or alert other teams to Riley’s alleged behavior.
The coach was rehired within the league five months later by the New York Flash, where he remained head coach after the team was sold, moved to North Carolina and rebranded as the Courage in 2017. While coaching with the Courage, Riley reportedly found a new player to victimize, and the abusive behavior continued until he was ultimately fired following the publication of the Athletic article in 2021.
After Riley’s firing, Paulson published a letter in Oct. of 2021, promising to be “transparent” with investigators and “disavow the culture of silence that may have allowed for additional victimization by a predatory coach.” However, the Yates report states that Paulson acted uncooperative and that he ultimately delayed the investigation by impeding access to “key witnesses” and initially refusing to share requested documents.
“The Thorns refused to produce relevant documents for months, making specious arguments that the materials were protected by the attorney-client and attorney work product privileges, causing months of delay and impeding interviews of key witnesses,” the Yates report states. “Ultimately, after wasting time and resources, the Thorns withdrew their privilege assertions.”
In response to the assertions presented in the Yates report, Sauerbrunn has asked for the removal of all NWSL administrators who failed to protect players from the reported abuse and sexual misconduct. Per the details of the report, this would include Paulson, who reportedly removed himself from the team’s decision-making processes on Oct. 4, pending a joint investigation being conducted by the NWSL and its Players Association. However, Paulson did not say the move was permanent and has not announced any plans to sell the team.
“Every owner, executive and U.S. soccer official who has repeatedly failed to protect the players, who have hidden behind legalities and not participated fully in these investigations, should be gone,” Sauerbrunn said. “At the bare minimum, the recommendations that are in the Sally Yates report should be immediately implemented by U.S. soccer and by the league.”