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U.S. Soccer report finds systemic abuse in multiple women's professional teams

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

A damning new report out today finds this country's most prominent women's pro soccer league has been plagued by systemic abuse, both emotional and sexual. It also found abusive coach behavior was often ignored and unpunished. NPR's Tom Goldman has more on a yearlong independent investigation into allegations into the National Women's Soccer League. Hi there, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: Tell us a little bit more about what kicked off this investigation.

GOLDMAN: Well, pretty much a major story in The Athletic from a year ago focused on abuse allegations against Paul Riley, a very successful former coach in the NWSL - National Women's Soccer League. And this prompted the U.S. Soccer Federation to commission the independent investigation led by former acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates. She found systemic abuse of players, spanning multiple teams, coaches and victims. She said she and other investigators repeatedly heard about, quote, "relentless, degrading tirades by coaches; manipulation that was about power, not improving performance; and retaliation against those who tried to come forward." Stories of sexual misconduct ranged from coaches making sexually charged comments to coercive sexual intercourse.

SUMMERS: And this behavior was allegedly allowed to go on just unchecked?

GOLDMAN: Yeah, the report says it was. From the time the NWSL was founded in 2012, NWSL teams, the league and the U.S. Soccer Federation failed to put in place basic measures for player safety. Those entities also failed to adequately address reports and evidence of misconduct. And, Juana, something we've heard before in these sports abuse scandals - abusive coaches moved from team to team and even to the U.S. Federation. And the report says these moves were, quote, "laundered by press releases, thanking them for their service, and positive references from teams that minimized or even concealed misconduct." Those at the NWSL and U.S. Soccer Federation, in position to correct the record, stayed silent, and no one at the teams, the league or the Federation demanded better of coaches.

SUMMERS: And some of these problems, Tom - they're not just confined to the NWSL, right?

GOLDMAN: Right. And, you know, that's an important part of this. Many of the women who were abused are some of the country's best athletes, including members of the U.S. Women's National Team. But the report says abuse in women's professional leagues appears rooted in youth soccer. Speaking to reporters today, Yates said there should be an expedited focus on what's happening in the youth game.

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SALLY YATES: To take a look at what the protections are that are in place and to take steps to enhance those protections and then also deal with the accountability side of those who have perpetrated misconduct.

SUMMERS: And Tom, did Yates talk about other recommendations for dealing with these problems?

GOLDMAN: She did, and so did Cindy Parlow Cone, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation. She also spoke to reporters today, calling the findings heartbreaking and infuriating. She also thanked the players - the many players who, in her words, bravely spoke about their abuse, which has set in motion the process to drive change. Now, Parlow Cone says some of the immediate steps U.S. Soccer is taking include establishing a new office of player safety, publishing records to publicly identify individuals who've been disciplined, suspended or banned, and mandating a uniform level for background checks. She also talked about other steps as well to take a look at soccer's ecosystem in this country.

SUMMERS: NPR's sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Thank you.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome, Juana.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.