BFV Perspectives, Sports Fans Guide 2 HR, | Oct 28, 2022

Report Finds Systemic Sexual Misconduct in U.S. Woman’s Soccer

A report by an independent investigation commissioned by the U.S. Soccer Federation found that emotional abuse and sexual misconduct were systemic in women’s professional soccer.  The report also revealed that the sport’s governing bodies and team executives repeatedly failed to take corrective action after being notified of complaints.

Summary of Findings
The 300-page report summarized the key findings as follows:

  • Verbal and emotional abuse and sexual misconduct had become systemic, spanning multiple teams, coaches, and victims.
  • 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 verbal and emotional abuse players describe in the NWSL is not merely “tough” coaching. And the players affected are not shrinking violets. They are among the best athletes in the world. They include members of the U.S. Women’s National Team (“National Team”), veterans of multiple World Cup and Olympic tournaments, and graduates of legendary NCAA Division I soccer programs.
  • In well over 200 interviews, there were numerous reports of relentless, degrading tirades; manipulation that was about power, not improving performance; and retaliation against those who attempted to come forward. 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.
  • Teams, the League, and the Federation not only repeatedly failed to respond appropriately when confronted with player reports and evidence of abuse, they also failed to institute basic measures to prevent and address it, even as some leaders privately acknowledged the need for workplace protections.
  • Abusive coaches moved from team to team, 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 USSF in a position to correct the record stayed silent. And no one at the teams, the League, or the Federation demanded better of coaches.

Barriers to Reporting Abuse
The report notes numerous systemic issues that created barriers to reporting abuse, namely, the league did not have an anti-harassment policy until last year.  Furthermore, most teams lacked a human resources department. There wasn’t an independent, anonymous reporting line until last fall and the league and U.S. Soccer didn’t have someone on staff responsible for player safety.

Significance to Employers
This scandal serves as a valuable reminder that sexual harassment and abuse continue to be serious problems. While this situation involves women’s soccer, the problem has existed and continues to exist in other areas of professional sports and workplaces across all industries.  For example, recent headlines have highlighted sexual harassment and discrimination claims involving the Washington Commanders, The Phoenix Suns, Goldman Sachs, Bojangles, and a Teamsters Local Union to name a few.   Although it is impossible to prevent harassment from occurring, employers are empowered to take certain steps to curtail harassment and stop it from continuing.  Moreover, they have a legal obligation to do so.

Here are 5 essential steps every employer should undertake to help maintain a safe and healthy work environment:

1. Implement a sound anti-harassment policy with multiple avenues to lodge a complaint.

2. Educate management and employees about the policy.

3. Take complaints seriously – properly investigate allegations.

4. Take corrective action if violations occur.

5. Protect employees from retaliation.

These steps might seem simplistic, but they go a long way to protect employees and an organization’s reputation.  The end of the year is great time to review and update employment policies and implement harassment training.

As always, please let me know if I can help.

BFV Perspectives, Sports Fans Guide 2 HR, | Oct 28, 2022
Kenneth N. Winkler
Kenneth N. Winkler

Kenneth Winklera shareholder at Berman Fink Van Horn, helps employers navigate the employment laws and regulations that govern the workplace.