NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman says the ongoing investigation into systemic abuse in the NWSL, conducted jointly by the league and the NWSL Players Association, is even more important now that the findings of the Yates report have been made public.
The Yates report, released on Oct. 3, revealed the depth of systemic sexual and emotional abuse perpetrated by some of the league's former managers. The report also detailed how league and U.S. Soccer Federation executives ignored reports from players of that abuse and in some cases allowed the alleged perpetrators to keep coaching.
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Berman, in an exclusive interview with ESPN ahead of Sunday's NWSL playoff semifinal matches, said those findings haven't diminished the importance of the joint investigation, which is expected to be complete by the end of the year. Berman noted that the investigation is still needed to expose further incidents of abusive behavior, as well as take further corrective action and institute additional reforms.
"In order for this league and the players to heal, and to rebuild the foundation, credibility and trust in the league, we have to make sure that the player association in particular is comfortable and confident in the process," Berman said. "And for that reason, the joint investigation is absolutely paramount to our ability to move forward because they have a seat at the table in the sort of oversight, from a process perspective, in how the joint investigation has been carried out since last November."
Earlier this month, in an interview with CNN, U.S. Soccer Federation president Cindy Parlow Cone said three additional reports of abuse had been brought to the USSF's attention and had been forwarded on to the U.S. Center for SafeSport. Berman added that the reporting of additional cases isn't something the league should shy away from.
"We can't be afraid of allowing that to happen," Berman said about reporting new cases. "That's what needs to happen. That means that the process and the system is working as intended because we'd be fooling ourselves to think that misconduct in all work environments doesn't happen. Of course it happens. The key to a healthy environment is, of course, trying to limit those situations through education and training, which we absolutely are focused on. And also creating the kind of culture where people feel free of retaliation, free of reprisal, and have faith that if they raise their hand and bring a complaint forward, that it will be taken seriously and investigated to conclusion."
Berman also hopes that this weekend more of the focus will be on the games themselves than on what was detailed in the Yates report. The Portland Thorns will host the San Diego Wave in the day's first semifinal, with OL Reign taking on the Kansas City Current in Seattle. The first round was witness to record crowds in San Diego and Houston.
"My hope for the players, frankly more than anyone, but for the league as well, is that the fans, our sponsors and the media can take a moment to celebrate how incredible our athletes are, how incredible the attendance records have been thus far in the playoffs, that this is a product that's phenomenal and experiencing incredible momentum," she said. "We should take a moment to be able to acknowledge and celebrate that and support the players, because that's what they want."
There has been a backlash in some cities to the findings in the Yates report, with fans calling for the ouster of Thorns owner Merritt Paulson as well as Chicago Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler. Paulson announced that he is stepping down as CEO of the Thorns and the MLS Portland Timbers. Whisler has also been removed from the Red Stars' board of directors, although both men maintain their respective ownership stakes.
"I think in the last two and a half weeks, what I've seen is what feels, at least to me, a little bit like a shift to accountability, wanting to ensure that our stakeholders -- whether it's fans, sponsors, media, players -- are going to hold us accountable to getting this right," she said. "And they should hold us accountable, and we will get it right. I embrace that sort of constructiveness. They should demand excellence. They absolutely should demand a safe and healthy and positive environment for our players to be able to train and play, and we will work tirelessly to deliver that for them."
When it comes to reforms the league has made, Berman pointed to the CBA negotiated with the NWSLPA and its implementation of minimum standards for the league. She also pointed to background checks for coaches and enforcing licensing standards. Berman added that there have also been enhancements to the league's anti-harassment policy as well as to reporting mechanisms. She said the league is by no means finished addressing these areas.
"No one's taking a victory lap," she said. "We're not done. We have a lot of work to do, but I think, foundationally, the circumstances are very different than they were 12 months ago."