Becky Sauerbrunn: “The people in authority and decision-making positions have repeatedly failed to protect us and they have failed to hold themselves and each other accountable.”(Maria Lysaker-USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
Since learning the results of a scathing independent investigation of emotional abuse and sexual misconduct in the National Women’s Soccer League and in female soccer in particular, the U.S. women’s national team has gone through a rollercoaster of emotions and a half.
Veteran center back Becky Sauerbrunn, a member of two Women’s World Cup championship teams who has captained the side on many occasions, probably said it best. She wanted everyone – owners, front office personnel and coaches – be gone from the league now.
“We are horrified and heartbroken and frustrated and exhausted and really, really angry,” she said on Tuesday afternoon. “We are angry that it took a third-party investigation. We are angry that it took an article in The Athletic and the Washington Post and numerous others, are angry that it took over 200 people sharing their trauma to get to this point right now.
“We are angry that it took Maya, and Sinead and Erin and Kaya and Alex and Kristen and Sam, to repeatedly ask people in authority to take their abuse and their concerns seriously. For so long, this has always fallen on the players to demand change. That is because the people in authority and decision-making positions have repeatedly failed to protect us and they have failed to hold themselves and each other accountable.”
USWNT defender Alana Cook agreed.
“It’s been on the players to handle these things and to speak out and I think to Becky’s point, it shouldn’t be on us any longer,” she said. “We deserve an environment where we get to go out and play and enjoy doing what we do. We deserve to be in an environment that’s safe and protects that joy. I think Becky and all the players of Portland, all players in this league deserve that.”
On Monday, a report and private investigation by Sally Yates and King & Spalding was revealed to the public, a report that found that abuse in the NWSL was systemic and that verbal and emotional abuse and sexual misconduct occurred at multiple teams, was taken by several coaches and affected many players.
“Who are you actually protecting and what values are you upholding?” Sauerbrunn asked during a media Zoom call. “You have failed in your stewardship. It’s my opinion that every owner and executive and U.S. Soccer officials who have repeatedly failed the players and failed to protect the players who have hidden behind legalities and have not participated fully in the … investigations should be gone. And at the bare minimum, the recommendations that are in the Sally Yates report should be immediately implemented by U.S. Soccer and by the league.”
Sauerbrunn, who plays for the Portland Thorns, indicated that team owner Merritt Paulson should be out. Paulsen hired and eventually fired Paul Riley, who had abusive behavior and sexual misconduct alleged by several players. The Western New York Flash hired Riley, a former Long Island resident, without asking about the reason why he left the team.
“It includes everyone that has continued to fail the players time and time again who didn’t take concern seriously on information correctly who have not participated in investigations,” Sauerbrunn said. “All of them.”
The report was released only days before the USWNT plays England in a much anticipated friendly between the reigning world champions and the recently crowned European champions at a packed Wembley Stadium on Friday. And then next week, the USA will travel play at Spain, although that team has issues with its head coach. Most of the squad refuses to play while it protests the training methods of Jorge Vilda and his staff have harmed their emotional state and health.
“It’s not easy,” Cook said. “We’re all actively trying to do the same thing. We’re all reckoning with the things that were said in the report … still working through that in all the ways that we individually do. I think we have such a momentous occasion on Friday playing at a sold-out stadium and it’s marred by this report. It’s more by the atrocities that have been condoned and tolerated and allowed to go on and then the result the last 10 years.
“We are going to play Spain who I think is facing similar issues and we’re seeing some other complaints and you know. We’re all working to reconcile that. It seems like there is a pattern there. We’re just hoping that moving forward and these things are remedied that the solutions are being listened to.”
Sauerbrunn admitted that she didn’t know if she had faith that the changes in the league will be implemented.
“I don’t know if the right people are in place to do what is needed,” she said. “My hope is that the joint investigation that is coming out will have recommendations for discipline. I hope that U.S. Soccer and whatever ability that they have, whether that’s enforcing sanctions or whatnot, if teams are complying to any recommendations, like the Sally Yates report has put forth, that there will be punishment. But I honestly I don’t know. I don’t know if I have the faith or not.”
Asked how she can regain her joy, Sauerbrunn responded: “Well, unfortunately, I would say that a lot of us have been navigating these sorts of things for a very long time. You find a way to deal with it and maybe not compartmentalized. You use practice and you use training as that time to just think about the training and the practice and being with your teammates and those small moments that do give you joy, and just hoping to replicate that the next day and the next.
“We as women soccer players have faced a lot not just the last year, two years, but for a very long time. And unfortunately, I would say that you have to get used to it and you have to ride the highs and the lows and you’d have to do your best and you have to enact as much change as you can while also demanding more from those that have the power to do so.”
The Yates report said the systemic abuse was not just in the NWSL but goes all the way down to youth soccer.
“My hope is that protocols and policies are put in place that parents and children feel comfortable reporting when situations are not right,” Sauerbrunn said, “and that coaches are receiving training about what is in bounds and out of bounds and that parents are also well aware of what those things are.
“My hope is that each and every one of those players can grow up in a situation where their coaches aren’t belittling them or sexually harassing or coercing them and that they get to enjoy the game and learn what great things that game can provide.”
Added Cook: “I love what I do. I love getting to go to work every day with strong women to make me better. I just hope that because of this and because of the work that’s going on, the emotional labor the players have put in before me, I hope that this is a safer environment.”