How a sprawling US Soccer investigation affects USA Curling

Some time ago, in the in-fighting between USA Curling and the GNCC, GNCC officials asked for USA Curling CEO Jeff Plush to be set aside from the proceedings while everyone awaited results of investigations into sexual misconduct allegations involving National Women’s Soccer League coaches during his tenure as that league’s commissioner.

At the time, that suggestion was a bit premature. There was little reason to think Plush did anything other than fail to investigate claims any more than he could at the time, given the lack of resources at an underfunded NWSL office. The US Center for SafeSport was officially launched, by complete coincidence, the month he left the NWSL (March 2017).

Now that a two-year investigation has yielded a 319-page report, is there anything in Plush’s tenure that should cause USA Curling any concern? Or maybe the hiring of CFO Eric Gleason, who is also mentioned a couple of times in this report?

Here are the 39 mentions of Plush in the report, with my annotations in italics …

p. 10: “Certain witnesses—including the former Commissioner of the NWSL, Jeff Plush—never responded to our outreach.”

I had figured Plush might not be willing to speak on advice on counsel. But I think this report would have said whether he had given them such a response. Instead, it says “never responded.”

The first case of note here

PAUL RILEY

p. 15: “The following year, in 2015, Meleana Shim emailed the Portland Thorns’ front office and Jeff Plush, NWSL Commissioner, reporting Riley’s persistent and unwanted advances and his retaliation against her when she asked him to stop. Plush shared Shim’s email with USSF leadership.”

Meleana Shim is also known as Mana Shim, and her accusations in a story in The Athletic were a bombshell that led to former Thorns coach Paul Riley — until then, one of the most respected coaches in youth and pro women’s soccer — being fired as coach of the North Carolina Courage.

These revelations led me to write a piece about whether those of us in the media at the time — primarily cis hetero men — should have known. The tl;dr — I wish players would have felt comfortable telling people like me rather than waiting a few years and speaking, but I fully understand if they were more comfortable speaking with people who weren’t middle-aged cis hetero men.

The Thorns let Riley go but said nothing about the charges at the time. His record with the team was mildly disappointing, so letting him go didn’t raise any eyebrows.

p. 15: “Within a few months of being terminated from the Thorns, in early 2016, Riley was coaching again in the NWSL, this time at the Western New York Flash (“WNY Flash” or “the Flash”). In an email to Gulati, Flynn, and Levine, Plush conveyed his understanding that Gavin Wilkinson (Thorns General Manager) told the Flash that Riley was “put in a bad position by the player,” and that Wilkinson would “hire [Riley] in a heartbeat.” Although Plush, Gulati, Flynn, and Levine all had received Shim’s detailed complaint—and Plush and Levine received the 2015 Thorns Report—none appeared to provide the Flash with additional information.”

The Flash would later move to North Carolina to become the Courage.

This seems to reflect more poorly on Wilkinson than it does on Plush, but it does raise a question of the role of a commissioner in making sure teams are apprised of such things.

p. 30: “Jeff Plush, former Commissioner of the League, and B.J. Snow, former Head Coach of the U-23 National Team and Director of Talent Identification for the National Team, did not respond to our repeated outreach.”

In case you missed it before.

p. 43: “In 2016, NWSL Commissioner Jeff Plush and Levine took initial steps to devise a set of workplace policies, including an anti-harassment policy, and engaged an external firm to provide initial drafts.”

The report goes on to state there’s no evidence this was ever distributed beyond the front office of the NWSL and NWSL Media in 2017. Reminder: Plush left in 2017. Lisa Levine, the longtime NWSL general counsel, left under pressure in 2021.

p. 71-72 (detailing the Shim complaint in September 2015): “Shim forwarded her email complaint to NWSL Commissioner Jeff Plush a few hours after sending. Within minutes of receiving the email, Plush forwarded it to Levine, commenting: “See below. Not good.” An hour later, Plush forwarded the complaint to Gulati and Flynn; the following day, he forwarded it to USSF CFO Eric Gleason. All agreed it was important to monitor the situation. Plush spoke with the Thorns (with Paulson) the evening he received the complaint, and the following morning (with Wilkinson). Plush emailed Paulson: ‘“Let’s stay in close communication going forward.'”

Gulati is longtime USSF president Sunil Gulati. Flynn is longtime USSF CEO Dan Flynn. They’re no longer in those positions. Flynn retired. Gulati left soon after the US men’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup led to a plethora of candidates for the presidential election a few months later. Paulson is Merritt Paulson, owner of the Portland Timbers (MLS) and Thorns (NWSL). His father is former Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson.

p. 76: “On September 22, 2015, the day before Riley was terminated from Portland, Sky Blue expressed interest in hiring him. When Paulson informed Wilkinson that Sky Blue had reached out to Mike Golub to ask to interview Riley, Paulson responded: “Good and thanks.” That same day, Plush (NWSL) emailed Dan Flynn (USSF), Sunil Gulati (USSF), and Lisa Levine (USSF) regarding “Coaching Updates,” and noted that the Sky Blue General Manager, Tony Novo, had asked about approaching Riley. Plush noted, “[o]bviously [Riley’s] situation is [] complicated.” Gulati responded, “Let’s make sure we are up to speed on how the Portland situation is being handled/investigated.”

Sky Blue is now NJ/NY Gotham FC. I don’t make these names.

p. 77: “After Riley was terminated, Plush and Levine discussed the need to inform Sky Blue about the reasons for Riley’s termination. Levine’s notes from the call reflect that a player had “alleged sexual harassment against Riley,” as well as the investigation’s conclusion that Riley had “engaged in inappropriate conduct” and “violated [a] directive to maintain professional distance from players.” That day, Levine called Novo, and shared this “confidential” information. According to Levine’s notes, Novo stated that he “think[s] this changes direction for us,” and would not share this information beyond his club’s ownership.”

It’ll be interesting to see how this differs from Western New York’s hiring process.

p. 78: “On February 16, 2016, Plush emailed Gulati (USSF), Flynn (USSF) and Levine (USSF), stating, “Western New York will announce Paul Riley as head coach on Friday. Not good news.” Plush explained that he gave the Thorns President’s phone number to the WNY Flash General Manager (Rich Randall) and that his “guess is that Gavin [Wilkinson] helped Paul with Aaron [sic] Lines.” Gulati responded, “we need to discuss.”

Side note: Aaran (the correct spelling) Lines is the former Flash coach who moved into an executive job. While with the Flash, he coached his wife, Alex Sahlen, who is the daughter of then-Flash owner Joe Sahlen. It was an unusual situation but not THAT unusual — plenty of women’s soccer players married coaches. In this case, I know of no complaints from Flash players about the situation.

p. 78-79 (cont.): “On February 19, 2016, the WNY Flash publicly announced Riley as the newest Head Coach. That same day, Plush followed up with the group of USSF executives to report on his discussion with WNY Flash Vice President Lines. Plush explained that Lines had “spoken in depth” with Thorns General Manager Wilkinson who “specifically brought up the ‘human resource issue.’ Gavin [Wilkinson] told [Lines] that he felt Paul ‘was put in a bad position by the player’ and he ‘would hire him in a heartbeat.’” Plush further wrote that “Aaran [Lines] spoke directly with Paul about the situation and Paul said ‘I shouldn’t have put myself in that situation.’ Aaran specifically told him he can not [sic] allow that the of [sic] situation to happen again. They are very comfortable with the situation at this point.”

Wilkinson was suspended from his duties in the wake of the Riley allegations going public but was reinstated when an investigation by DLA Piper turned up no wrongdoing. We’ll see if he keeps his job now.

p. 79 (cont.) “Besides this conversation between Plush and Lines, it does not appear that anyone from the League or the Federation communicated directly with WNY Flash regarding their hire of Riley. Levine noted that she did not recall any requests to provide the 2015 Thorns Report to the WNY Flash, or any consideration that this might be important. (Indeed, she could not recall if it came up or crossed her mind to share the 2015 Thorns Report outside of USSF or NWSL at any point.) Levine did not believe NWSL Commissioner Plush shared the 2015 Thorns Report externally, which she stated was not the responsibility of the League or USSF. Gulati and Flynn both do not recall speaking with anyone at the WNY Flash regarding Riley.”

I’d like to see a definition of “externally.”

p. 79-80: “No further action was taken regarding Riley’s hire. As Levine recalled, the League’s and USSF’s collective view at that time was that their role in coach hiring was limited. (“Club staff was club staff.”) Dan Flynn (USSF CEO), however, responded to the chain: “didn’t we discuss the need for a league policy and training?” Plush confirmed there was a prior conversation, and later that month Levine began compiling anti-fraternization and anti-nepotism policies from other professional sports leagues for use in the NWSL.”

Here’s where your opinion of Plush’s actions or inactions may vary. Should he have taken a bolder stance at this point? Or, given his general counsel’s laissez-faire attitude and no further action from US Soccer, did he feel he had little power to act?

I’ll say, from my experience covering the league, that I don’t think the commissioner had a ton of power. The league was still under the USSF thumb at this point, and it wasn’t exactly swimming in sponsorship money that would help it build a more robust front office. (It has more money now, and still, the public relations staffs throughout the league aren’t really dynamos.)

p. 82: “Johnson also spoke to NWSL Commissioner Plush early in the process. According to Johnson, Plush (like Flynn) focused on an ongoing issue Riley had with referees that might lead to a “likely” suspension.”

Johnson is North Carolina Courage president Curt Johnson, a veteran soccer executive.

Plush focusing on referees is … certainly bad optics. Maybe he could have addressed that if he had spoken with the investigators.

p. 82: Passing mention of Plush passing along a phone number that shouldn’t be some sort of secret. Both of the people are NWSL team executives.

p. 83: “Malik stated he followed up with Plush to request a copy of the report that allegedly “cleared” Riley. Malik’s best recollection was that Plush either demurred that he would look into it or declined to share the 2015 Thorns Report in light of confidentiality issues.”

p. 83: “Duffy, too, recalled discussions in 2017 with Paulson, Flynn, Gulati, and
Plush about whether to share the 2015 Thorns Report with Malik.”

Duffy is Amanda Duffy, then the NWSL Managing Director of Operations and de facto boss after Plush left. She’s a highly respected veteran of several leagues and clubs.

p. 93: “In her interview with this investigation, Levine stated that she did not understand why these players were reaching out again about events from 2015. Specifically, Levine said that Shim and Farrelly had been given the opportunity then to speak with the Commissioner (then Plush).”

Again, Levine was forced out years later.

Second case …

RORY DAMES

Another coach who, until allegations were made public, was considered one of the best in the business. Players raved about him, as they did about Riley. In November 2021, a sports psychologist said Dames had “created a culture of fear and engaged in emotional and verbal abuse which is psychologically and emotionally harmful to players and staff.”

Some concerns had been raised years before.

p. 117: “A few months later, on February 25, 2015, Bailey forwarded internally at NWSL (to Jeff Plush, Commissioner) her October 2, 2014 email to Whisler.”

Not much context to add here.

p. 118: “On November 13, 2015, Jeff Plush (NWSL Commissioner) emailed Jay Berhalter (USSF CCO), Jill Ellis (National Team Head Coach), and Dan Flynn (USSF CEO) the 2015 NWSL Player Survey results. Plush stated, “The comments section provides the most specific information . . . some is quite disturbing . . . .””

And that’s about it. The other mentions are in a footnote.

So Plush knew about the accusations about Riley and Dames. He made sure other people knew. Should he have done more?

It’d be nice if he would address the question.

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Beau Dure

The guy who wrote a bunch of soccer books and now runs a Gen X-themed podcast while substitute teaching and continuing to write freelance stuff.

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