The NWSL, USA Curling and the dangers of inadequate investigations

The accusations of abuse in the NWSL deserved a professional, thorough investigation.

They got that. It’s the Yates Report.

A second report, commissioned by the NWSL and the NWSL Players Association, has some utility. It is, however, flawed in multiple places. 

In some cases, dangerously flawed.

As usual, the media reporting on the situation doesn’t help. Everyone from accused sexual predators to coaches who apparently yelled at players are lumped together under the heading “abuse.” 

The nuances are important here, and to the investigators’ credit, they ask the powers that be to consider what’s acceptable and what’s unacceptable moving forward. The NWSL doesn’t want any Bobby Knights, nor should it. Players and staff will have to decide if they would abide by a Mike Krzyzewski or even an Anson Dorrance. (“Lost control of her bowels” is a disturbing phrase to describe a fitness test, and “mess with us mentally to pick out who were the weaklings” is a phrase that might have raised a yellow or red flag for the investigators.) 

That discussion is all well and good. It’s clear from the report that players have different levels of what they consider “abuse,” and it’s something they should be able to talk through. Absolutely.

Unfortunately, in other areas, the bad guys are predetermined, and the conclusions aren’t always justified.

Consider this bewildering passage concerning Rory Dames. To be sure, there’s no defending his behavior as described here and in the Yates Report unless everyone else involved is lying. But then we get to things like this: “Dames told the investigator that he revoked the media credentials of a player’s boyfriend because he concluded that the boyfriend’s presence was “not positive” based on a conversation with a USWNT coach.” 

This point is raised because the NWSL/NWSLPA investigators want to take a US Soccer investigator down a notch for failing to follow up on this “explanation as to the treatment of this player.”

The NWSL/NWSLPA investigators do not, however, take issue with the fact that a player’s boyfriend has a media credential.

Note to journalists: If you start dating a player on a sports team, stop covering that team.

The “guilty until proven innocent — and even then, still guilty” approach isn’t surprising in a sport that holds strict adherence to The Narrative. Players are always right. The lawyers they hired are always right, which is why they get millions of dollars after losing in court. Coaches who cross them — whether they’re perceived as abusive or whether they pull a Tom Sermanni and start tinkering with the lineup — are always wrong. Referees are always wrong. Everyone who has ever worked for the league is wrong. Everyone who was interested in women’s soccer before everyone else got interested in women’s soccer from 2011 onward is wrong.

What’s more disturbing is that the investigators have some fundamental misunderstandings of how to fight abuse. We’ll get to that.

But first, let’s see how someone’s career has been shredded over flimsy, out-of-context conclusions and months waiting in limbo.

James Clarkson

Here are some of the complaints against former Houston Dash coach James Clarkson, who was temporarily suspended for what turned out to be an entire season and will not have his contract renewed.

  • “(A)nother said she felt under the microscope based on the position she played and feared she would be cut from the team.” Well, yeah. It’s professional sports. Ask NFL players about their job security.
  • The coach thought some players had been drinking the night before a preseason game and that they were hung over. Players deny it. They didn’t deny being out at dinner with a player from the other team until midnight when they had a 6 a.m. wake-up call, or that one of those players became ill.
  • A player told a member of the coaching staff but not Clarkson that an injury was bothering her, but she decided to dress because she figured she wouldn’t play. Clarkson, figuring she was fit, put her in the game. She went in and then asked to come out. Clarkson got mad about this, and reports differ on whether he dropped an f-bomb. This is all somehow Clarkson’s fault. (A player who witnessed the incident also said Clarkson later admitted he could’ve handled the situation differently.)

Another note about the last one. On page 71, the report says, “Accounts differ about what happened next.” A player says she doesn’t recall the specific words. On page 104, things are suddenly more certain: “Clarkson denied making this comment, but witnesses corroborated that Clarkson was visibly upset and frustrated at the player, and that the player was upset.”

There’s another passage that paints Clarkson as being a tad racist even though the evidence within that paragraph offers an alternate explanation. Dash player Sarah Gorden, who is Black, said her boyfriend was followed closely by stadium security and told he’d be arrested if he got too close to the team, while white players had freedom to talk with their families. (That’s pretty bad, and we have to hope the team addressed it.) Clarkson asked players to write apologies to stadium security. But upon further investigation, it turns out Clarkson sought those apologies not because Gorden criticized security but because the team had violated COVID-19 protocols. 

“But some players and club staff described that Clarkson seemed to defend stadium security, and players and club staff expressed disappointment at Clarkson’s and the club’s failure to attempt to understand the Black players’ perspective. On the other hand, some thought Clarkson handled the situation well and reported that he later expressed his support and apologized if he had appeared insensitive.” 

So are the players who reported Clarkson’s support … lying? And the others aren’t? Or, as seems most likely and supported by the evidence, players and staff were disappointed at first but talked through it to clear up any misunderstanding and got assurance of his support?

This incident is lumped together under “Offensive and Insensitive Behavior Related to Race and Ethnicity,” along with accusations that former Washington Spirit coach Richie Burke used the N-word, asked if he should sing the “Black version” or “white version” of Happy Birthday, and compared the team’s poor play to the Holocaust, for which his defense was that he didn’t know there were Jewish players on the team.

Overall, the Joint Investigative Team found that Clarkson committed emotional misconduct.

That’s despite this line: “A majority of players expressed the view that Clarkson’s treatment of players did not rise to the level of abuse or misconduct.”

That’s despite, as the report notes, Clarkson asking for a mental health program to support his players.

That’s despite, as the report notes, Clarkson agreeing that the head coach and general manager should not be the same person.

If you want to fire Clarkson, fire him. Coaches sometimes aren’t that right fit. That’s fine.

But now Clarkson’s name sits alongside that of accused sexual predators and people who don’t seem to care that they use actual racial epithets. His chances of getting another job at this level are surely diminished.

Little wonder he’s fighting back.

It would’ve been far fairer to Clarkson to have fired him months ago. Instead, he was left to twist in the wind for months, only to have his name smeared by trumped-up claims of abuse.

SafeSport and reporting

At the end of a long report detailing how the NWSL and US Soccer failed to investigate NWSL abuse issues, the investigators come up with several recommendations that the NWSL and US Soccer should continue to investigate NWSL abuse issues. 

The investigators urge the league to follow through on its 2022 Anti-Harassment Policy to make sure each club has two people, one of which is neither the Board of Governors representative nor the head coach, whose job is to receive reports of potential violations. 

Those people are then responsible for reporting these issues to the NWSL. 

Ever work in an office in which someone’s sole job is to sit in a swivel chair and relay things from a lower rung of the org chart to a higher rung? 

That part is kind of funny. The next part isn’t. 

The investigators charge the NWSL with sufficiently staffing its HR and Legal departments to investigate “all complaints of misconduct.”

This is, at best, a bad idea. At worst, it’s illegal.

The US Center for SafeSport, established by federal law (what, you haven’t memorized the Ted Stevens Act yet?), has a SafeSport Code that lists the allegations for which the Center has exclusive jurisdiction (all sexual misconduct, criminal charges of child abuse, various failures to report, etc.) or discretionary jurisdiction (non-sexual child abuse, emotional and physical misconduct, criminal charges not involving sexual misconduct or child abuse, other failures to abide by the Code). 

From that Code: “When the relevant organization has reason to believe that the allegations presented fall within the Center’s exclusive jurisdiction, the organization—while able to impose measures—may not investigate or resolve those allegations.”

Continuing: “When the allegations presented fall within the Center’s discretionary jurisdiction, the organization may investigate and resolve the matter, unless and until such time as the Center expressly exercises jurisdiction over the particular allegations.”

Back to the NWSL/NWSLPA report: There’s a claim that “SafeSport only has jurisdiction over reports concerning NWSL coaches or staff who hold U.S. Soccer coaching licenses.” I wonder if that would hold up under scrutiny. 

And in that same paragraph: “Many players who spoke with the Joint Investigative Team were not aware that they could report concerns about misconduct to SafeSport. Some within the NWSL held the misconception that SafeSport deals with misconduct against youth athletes and does not investigate misconduct against professional athletes.”

That sounds like a misconception that should be changed. And it may be difficult to do so when we have a report commissioned by the NWSL and NWSLPA that urges the NWSL and its clubs to take the lead.

The Center has had a wobbly start. But it’s just that — a start. The Center is supposed to be like the US Anti-Doping Agency, taking leagues and NGBs out of the business of policing themselves when it comes to drugs. Between the NWSL cases and the horrors of USA Gymnastics, we’ve surely seen enough to know that we need something similar in the realm of abuse as well.

And at the very least, any allegations like the ones against Paul Riley should go to SafeSport. Not someone on the small staff of a professional women’s soccer club.

Finally, let’s consider a recent test case in which the Joint Investigative Team of this NWSL/NWSLPA report investigated something new:  

From the report: “In October 2022, the Joint Investigative Team received a report that then-Thorns Head Coach Rhian Wilkinson had disclosed to the Thorns’s HR director potentially inappropriate interactions with a player with whom she had formed a friendship. The Joint Investigative Team promptly conducted a thorough investigation and, based on the evidence, found that Wilkinson did not engage in wrongdoing or violate the Anti-Harassment Policy. On November 4, 2022, these findings were conveyed to the NWSL, NWSLPA, Thorns, Wilkinson, and the player involved. Out of respect for player privacy, this Report does not provide a detailed account of the evidence or findings in this and other instances where the Joint Investigative Team determined no misconduct occurred.” 

A few pages later: “The NWSL’s Non-Fraternization Policy, adopted in 2018, states: “No person in management or a supervisory position with a Team or the League shall have a romantic or dating relationship with a League or team employee whom he or she directly supervises or whose terms or conditions of employment he or she may influence.” The Joint Investigative Team found multiple instances of romantic relationships between players and staff members in violation of this policy.” 

In her resignation letter, Wilkinson said she and the player had expressed their feelings to each other but stopped it there and went to HR. But other players on the team took issue with the Joint Investigative Team’s work and expressed some misgivings about the whole chain of command:

That letter isn’t mentioned in the report, even though it’s dated November 20, and the report references at least one event from as recently as December 1. Maybe the league didn’t hand it over to the Team?

All of the people involved here are human. NWSL players are human. Lawyers are human. Investigators are human. Coaches are human. We all make mistakes. 

What we need is a system that minimizes those mistakes and operates with a clear-headed passion to find the truth while treating everyone — accusers, accused, and those around them — as humans.

Jeff Plush

For my fellow curlers, here’s a quick summary of our former CEO’s appearances in various investigations:

The Yates Report, with which Plush did not cooperate, shows that Plush did a bit to hinder Paul Riley’s future employment within the NWSL after allegations of sexual misconduct were reported. See previous post.

The NWSL/NWSLPA report shows that Plush did a bit more than was reported in the Yates Report, and it says the league failed to act despite Plush’s warnings. However, the NWSL/NWSLPA report relies mostly on one source — Plush, who did cooperate with this one.

Still, the report raises one red flag, and it seems well-substantiated: “Plush told the Joint Investigative Team that the Flash had been considering Riley since October 2015, and Plush warned Lines in October 2015 that the Flash should not hire Riley but should follow up with the Thorns as to why Riley was “no longer coaching there.” Plush wrote that he was “very careful in describing the situation” with Riley because he had been informed by counsel to U.S. Soccer that he could not share the Thorns’s investigative report or its details. However, this position appears inconsistent with the email from the Thorns’s counsel transmitting the Riley report to the League, which Plush received and which did not place any restrictions on the League.”

But the main verdict on Plush is rendered on page 111, and it’s complicated. Plush says he was limited in what he could say about Riley on advice of counsel. The investigators say that’s inconsistent with email from the Thorns counsel and the fact that Plush shared some information with Sky Blue, the New Jersey team that backed away from pursuing Riley. Was it “inconsistent,” or did the advice from counsel come into play after the Thorns email and the Sky Blue conversation?

The bottom line may be how you interpret this final line in his entry on page 111: “By allowing Riley to continue coaching in the NWSL, the League conveyed its continuing implicit approval of him, despite the information Plush received and the concerns that he expressed to others.” 

Some people with whom I’ve talked are interpreting “the League” as “Plush.” I don’t think that’s the case, in part because of the “despite” clause and in part because so many other people wielded at least as much power as Plush did. And Riley continued to coach long after Plush was gone. 

On the whole, Plush comes across as someone who is too happy to take bad legal advice. That comes up again in the two investigations USA Curling released today. Feel free to ignore the first one, which is only two pages and is essentially a record of the investigator’s inability to get a word with anyone from US Soccer or the NWSL except for one anonymous comment: “Jeff did absolutely nothing wrong in how it was handled.”

The second investigation isn’t much better. It has four interviews — Plush, USA Curling CFO and former USSF/NWSL CFO Eric Gleason, an NWSL team owner, and someone who was a US Soccer official in 2015. 

Plush confirms that he didn’t cooperate with the Yates Report on the advice of counsel, and he now recognizes that maybe he should’ve done it anyway. That raises the question of why the Yates Report doesn’t mention him at least saying he had been advised not to cooperate, and it raises the question of why he went along with the NWSL/NWSLPA investigation.

The rest of the USAC investigation casts Plush as a mostly powerless figure, beholden to lawyers and USSF officials, who did what little he could to stop Riley from being hired at an NWSL team. I covered women’s soccer during that time (and many years before and after), and I know there’s a lot of truth in this depiction. But at best, Plush is following various lawyers over a cliff. A good leader should know better.

Other than that, the investigation is flimsy. The only interviews are with Plush and people sympathetic to him. 

To recap what’s happened since then: Plush resigned, as did the board chair and two other board members.

And the new management isn’t pleased with these investigations:

“It was important to engage a third-party to do this work, but the quality of these reports does not rise to the level that the Board and the curling community deserved,” noted USA Curling Board Chair Bret Jackson. “As a result, we will conduct an audit of our internal process, and learn how we can be better in the future.”

So what does this mean for USA Curling moving forward? 

In social media, a few people want to see the rest of the board resign as well. I’ll disagree for two reasons: 

First, the decision to keep Plush (before he resigned) doesn’t appear to be unanimous. Three days after the board announced he was sticking around, the Athletes Advisory Council issued a carefully worded statement that left the door open for further consideration. Plush resigned 12 days later, closely followed by the board chair and independent directors. It’s fair to say they didn’t just find a burning bush that told them to change their ways. Someone gave them a push behind the scenes.

Second, it’s easy to see how board members could have been misled into thinking Plush did nothing wrong. When an investigator hands over interviews with top soccer people defending him, it’s all too tempting to take that as face value. Failing to see beyond the investigator’s report is a mistake, not an act of malice. And in a sense, the investigator and the interviewees were right. He did “nothing wrong.” It’s just that, after a certain point in the timeline, he did nothing at all. It takes a bit more digging to realize his inaction was based on an unwillingness to stand up to people giving him bad advice. 

So the top officials at USA Curling are gone. The new board chair and interim CEO have thrown open the discussion to see how USAC could do things better.

A National Governing Body (NGB) is vital to the success of any Olympic sport. In my next post, I’ll explain why that’s the case and why I’ll continue to be a USAC member even though I’m hardly national championship material.

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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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