By David Close and Steve Almasy, CNN
Becky Sauerbrunn, one of the stalwarts of the US women’s national soccer team, said Tuesday that players are angry and want immediate changes following an independent investigation that found systemic abuse and misconduct within women’s professional soccer in the United States.
On Monday, the US Soccer Federation released a lengthy, scathing report it commissioned from former acting Attorney General Sally Yates that revealed the National Women’s Soccer League along with the soccer federation failed to provide a safe environment for NWSL players.
Some of those players are members of the US national team, the defending World Cup champions. The national team is in London ahead of a match Friday against European champions England.
“The players are not doing well. We are horrified and heartbroken and frustrated and exhausted. And we are really, really angry. We are angry that it took a third-party investigation,” Sauerbrunn stated at the beginning of a scheduled media availability on Tuesday.
The two-time World Cup winner, sitting next to fellow national team defender Alana Cook, was stern in her critique of the lack of action since allegations were first revealed in the media over a year ago.
“For so long this has always fallen on the players to demand change and that is because people in authority and decision-making positions have repeatedly failed to protect us,” she said.
Sauerbrunn, a 10-year NWSL veteran who is in her third season with the Portland Thorns, continued, “Every owner and executive and US Soccer official who repeatedly failed the players and failed to protect the players, who have hidden behind legalities and have not participated fully in these investigations, should be gone.
“At the bare minimum, the recommendations that are in the Sally Yates report should be immediately implemented by US Soccer and by the league (NWSL).”
Cook, who plays in the national league for the OL Reign, added, “It shouldn’t be on us any longer. We deserve an environment where we can go out and play and enjoy doing what we do. We deserve to be in an environment that is safe and protects that joy.”
On Tuesday, NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman issued a statement after owners of the Portland Thorns and Chicago Red Stars each said they would step back from their respective clubs. The commissioner said the league supports the moves.
She also said the league is committed to “implementing reform and disciplinary action” based on the Yates report and the findings of the league and union’s ongoing investigation.
“While it will take time, we are fully prepared to take the necessary steps to protect the health and safety of our players, staff and other stakeholders in order to create the League that our players, fans, partners and staff deserve and expect,” she said.
More than 200 interviews revealed ‘systemic’ abuse, report says
The report included more than 200 player and personnel interviews with first-hand reports of abuse or misconducts at organizations in the 12-team league founded in 2012.
“Our investigation has revealed a league (NWSL) in which abuse and misconduct — verbal and emotional abuse and sexual misconduct — had become systemic, spanning multiple teams, coaches, and victims,” the report reads. “Abuse in the NWSL is rooted in a deeper culture in women’s soccer, beginning in youth leagues, that normalizes verbally abusive coaching and blurs boundaries between coaches and players.”
The report comes about a year after the league was thrown into chaos following a report by The Athletic detailing allegations of sexual coercion and misconduct against Paul Riley, who coached three NWSL franchises over eight seasons. He was fired by the North Carolina Courage after The Athletic cited players on the record alleging that for years, Riley used his influence and power to sexually harass players and in one incident, coerce a player into having sex with him.
Riley denied the accusations in the Athletic report. CNN has not been able to reach Riley for comment.
In the wake of the Athletic report, then-NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird resigned and the league called off all matches scheduled for that weekend. By the end of the year, half of the league’s teams had parted ways with their coaches after player complaints, the Yates report notes.
“In well over 200 interviews, we heard report after report of relentless, degrading tirades; manipulation that was about power, not improving performance; and retaliation against those who attempted to come forward,” the report states. “Even more disturbing were the stories of sexual misconduct. Players described a pattern of sexually charged comments, unwanted sexual advances and sexual touching, and coercive sexual intercourse.”
Report says abusive coaches just changed teams
In the Yates report, players describe abuses from head coaches as well as team management.
In one case, a head coach allegedly asked a player to review match footage 1-on-1 at his house only to show pornography instead. According to the report, the same manager “sexually coerced” that player and “grabbed and groped her in public, but out of view.”
There are multiple allegations or findings in the report of sexual harassment and misconduct by head coaches.
The report notes abusive coaches were able to move from team to team despite accusations levied against them because the league and the federation feared the organizations could be named in any potential defamation or employment lawsuits.
Yates recommends a public “list of individuals disciplined, suspended, or banned by USSF, a USSF Organization Member, or SafeSport.”
The US Center for SafeSport is an organization authorized by Congress and designed to address sexual, emotional and physical abuse in Olympic sports.
US Soccer president says discipline ‘will take some time’
“This is very emotional for me, and honestly I’m having trouble absorbing everything in the report,” US Soccer President Cindy Parlow Cone told reporters Monday during a video conference call. “I think it will take some time to really read through it and think about the actions and inactions of certain people and then will take us some time to think about what needs to be done in terms of discipline.”
Earlier, she said the US Soccer Federation, as the national governing body for soccer, “is fully committed to doing everything in its power to ensure that all players — at all levels — have a safe and respectful place to learn, grow and compete.”
On CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper,” former professional player Joanna Lohman was asked about the youth soccer culture in the US.
She gets upset, she said, when she sees coaches stalking the sidelines, screaming.
“It’s outrageous to me that these types of coaches get to lead our kids,” she said. “And they grow up in a situation where this is normalized. That you learn that leadership is through abuse, that leadership is through yelling.”
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CNN’s Jill Martin and Eric Levenson contributed to this report.