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Lisa Fallon: Report on abuse in US women’s soccer points to the need for root and branch reform

Society has a responsibility to ask why the victims of the abuse were isolated and by whom

“The players are not doing well. We are horrified and heartbroken and frustrated 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.”

These are the words of USA captain Becky Sauerbrunn in response to the publication of the Yates report at a press conference ahead of the friendly against England at a sold-out Wembley Stadium.

Progress is painfully slow and amazingly quick, at the same time.

The Yates report resulted from an independent investigation conducted and compiled by former US deputy attorney general Sally Q Yates and the King and Spalding law firm over the last year. The report found that emotional abuse and sexual misconduct were systemic in the National Women’s Soccer League with multiple teams, coaches and players impacted.


The report found that “abuse in the NWSL is rooted in a deeper culture in women’s soccer, beginning in youth leagues, that normalises verbally abusive coaching and blurs boundaries between coaches and players”.

It’s a tough, upsetting read with the personal stories of Mana Shim, Sinead Farrelly and Erin Simon nothing short of horrifying.

Those players, and hundreds more like them, were not only failed by their abusers but also by the people in charge of running the American clubs they played for. These organisations failed to protect them, even going so far as to cover up the abuse and protect the abusers.

At least Sauerbrunn cannot be silenced (even if she should be focusing on playing in front of 90,000).

“I think for too long this has fallen on the players to demand change,” she said this week. “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.

“Who are you actually protecting and what values are you upholding? You have failed in your stewardship. It’s my opinion that every owner and executive and US Soccer official who has repeatedly failed the players and failed to protect the players, who have hidden behind legalities and have not participated in these investigations, should be gone.”

Shim, Farrelly and Simon, in a joint statement, reiterated this demand: “It is time for action, accountability, and change. Owners who have driven a culture of disrespect, who are complicit in abusing their own players, have no place in this league and should be removed from governance immediately.”

Fifpro, the global union for professional players, believes that the “negligence” of NWSL governance is actually an “endemic crisis” in the industry that now requires “both proactive and reactive” responses.

An endemic crisis amidst a Wembley sell-out is a troubling oxymoron that shows how some change can mask areas where real change needs to happen. Everyone seems to agree that new boundaries must be established to guarantee a “safe and healthy environment” for girls and women in football.

“Predatory and abusive behaviour,” the Fifpro continued, “will manifest unchecked when there is a lack of understanding, education, accountability and there exists approaches that silo and isolate individuals.”

This predatory and abusive behaviour is not historic, it is happening now. Not in the 1990s, nor the 2010s, but as recently – according to the Yates report – as 2021.

There will be many elephants in many rooms as a result of this important document, and not just in the US and not just in our sport. I hope there are a lot of mirrors in those rooms for the people who failed the victims of abuse, isolating them to the point that they feared the consequences of telling their stories as, all the while, the predators continued to coach.

Society has a responsibility to ask why the victims of abuse in US soccer were isolated and by whom? Ideally, these questions will beget answers that lead to safer environments.

Let’s start with an obvious one. Has there been enough females at executive and board level to ensure that important issues were discussed with the right balance of views represented and not siloed or subdued into enduring silence by people who could not, or would not, allow another point of view to breathe?

Do elite sporting environments challenge the females (or other minorities) within them to survive, or do they challenge them to thrive?

There is a very big difference between surviving and thriving.

The Yates report highlights why there must be real diversity at senior executive and board level in every organisation. Only then, will there be lasting cultural change.

The culture of any organisation is reflected by the lived values of the people who exist at the top of the pyramid. What these people do every day as opposed to what they say they are going to do is what separates the cultures.

The values printed in the mission statements and strategic plans mean nothing if the people at the top of the organisation don’t live them, all day, every day. Nobody is seeking a flawless human being, but no-one should feel unsafe in football either.

There is a myth that sport needs to drive a tough, oppressive culture in order for teams and athletes to be successful. This is a deeply flawed argument. Toxic and abusive environments can and do yield gold medals, but the success is usually short term while the human cost is forever.

There is another way. Environments built upon a people-centred culture, with empowerment, trust, safe vulnerability that facilitates performance growth and accountability tend to generate sustained success.

It’s time to hold up the mirror and deal with the elephant in the room. The culture must change and it’s everyone’s responsibility. The media has a vital role to play.