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A damning report on sexual abuse in women's soccer is much bigger than the game

Sexual abuse of women athletes has been a problem for as long as women’s sports has existed. The time to eradicate it is now.

A disturbing report released last week detailed an extensive and widespread culture of sexual and emotional abuse within the American women’s soccer system. The investigation, headed by Sally Yates, a former U.S. deputy attorney general, found that abuse and sexual misconduct were “systemic in the sport, at all levels of participation, from the pros to the youth level.”

At one point in time, women were discouraged from participating in physical sports over a false concern that the exertion might damage their uteruses.

Sexual abuse toward women athletes has been a problem for as long as women’s sports has existed, a reality that most recently came to light after a massive sex abuse scandal was uncovered in women’s gymnastics. Last year, The Athletic reported on sex abuse in the National Women’s Soccer League.

It’s difficult to untangle misogyny from the history of sports. At one point in time, women were discouraged from participating in physical sports over a false concern that the exertion might damage their uteruses. While we’ve certainly seen progress since those days, the culture of putting women’s sexual and reproductive value over their personhood has never completely gone away.

We see it in our politics, where the highest court in the U.S. recently stripped women of the constitutional right to abortion and the power to control their own bodies. We see it in the language used by conservative politicians when they ban gender-affirming care for minors. Conservative culture warriors have painted anti-abuse movements like #MeToo as overly woke and heavy-handed. It’s no wonder that the toxic mix of power and culture has produced such rampant abuse even in a reputedly progressive sport like women’s soccer.

The Yates report falls into the morass of this larger cultural struggle for the rights of women. After other systemic reviews found similar abuse in gymnastics and other sports, the report’s conclusions are unsurprising. And while it offers surface-level solutions to help mitigate the damage done by abusers in the sport, ultimately the problem can’t be solved by the U.S. Soccer organization alone.

It will take a larger social change.

According to The Athletic, whose reporting prompted the Yates report, then-Portland Thorns coach Paul Riley allegedly coerced player Sinead Farrelly into having sex with him on multiple occasions and pressured Farrelly and midfielder Meleana “Mana” Shim to kiss each other in Riley’s apartment after a night of drinking in 2015. (Riley has denied the allegations.) Despite the players emailing the team’s Human Resources Department and team owner Merritt Paulson with the allegations in 2015, according to The Athletic report, the Portland Thorns organization did not take adequate action on the allegations at the time when the complaints were being made, leading many people to conclude that Paulson, who also owns the men’s pro team the Portland Timbers, should sell both the Thorns and the Timbers.

The Yates report was commissioned by U.S. Soccer to determine whether the incidents reported by The Athletic were isolated or part of a much wider problem in women’s soccer. It unfortunately concluded that sexual abuse was systemic throughout U.S. women’s soccer.

The report has triggered a number of official responses from U.S. Soccer, the organization in charge of administering the sport in the U.S., including the formation of a new Participant Safety Taskforce charged with ensuring athlete protection against sexual abuse.

What could substantially help is for women athletes to receive more respect and attention from the general public.

But what could substantially help is for women athletes to receive more respect and attention from the general public. TV ratings for women’s sports have been on the rise in recent years, but women’s sports still play second fiddle to men's.

That is part of what allows people with power in the sport — coaches, owners, managers — to take advantage of their players and get away with it. A 2021 study into the coach-athlete relationship found that a “typical characteristic of perpetrators is that they have power and influence over their victims.” Another study found that the coach’s power comes from the “closeness of the relationship, the legitimate authority of the coach, the coach’s expertise and previous successes, and the coach’s ability to control access to the athletes.”

When coaches have power over something you love, in this case, playing time and your off-the-field time, they can potentially leverage that power into sexual favors and other abuse.

Some measures to prevent abuse, including no-touch policies, have been attempted in many places. But these have largely only contributed to moral panic and fear of unjustified suspicion among coaches, rather than meaningful change. Further, coaching often does involve touching, especially in a sport like gymnastics, which requires a spotter for safety reasons, which can often only complicate things.

There are no easy answers to this problem. As long as men look at women as targets for sex and sexual abuse, men with power will abuse it for sex and male coaches will always have a form of power over women athletes, regardless of the sport. So the question becomes, how can sports administrators minimize the harmful effects of the power differential between coaches and athletes in order to prevent abuse?

Some studies have suggested that a new code of conduct is necessary to help coaches and athletes understand boundaries. But such policies necessarily depend on enforcement, and as the Portland Thorns and other soccer organizations demonstrated, enforcement is often spotty at best. In a statement on the Timbers' official website, Paulson states, “I cannot apologize enough for our role in a gross systemic failure to protect player safety and the missteps we made in 2015,” indicating that he is cooperating fully with a National Women's Soccer League and National Women's Team Players Association joint investigation into how misconduct was handled, and will excuse himself from organization decision making until the investigation is complete.

But the fans and players calling on team owner Paulson to sell the team have it right. If owners know they can’t get away with ignoring abuse accusations and if they have a financial stake in preventing abuse, chances are they will be more likely to enforce anti-abuse policies.

But financial motivations will only prove effective at the highest levels of professional sports. Youth sports, for example, are largely outside the scope of professional team ownership. To help younger and lower-level young adult athletes, we can’t get around the fact that larger societal change is needed.

My worry is that at a time when #MeToo has faced an overwhelming cultural backlash and women’s rights are disappearing by the day, our society is heading in the wrong direction.