NWSL's abuse scandal reveals normalization of toxic culture in sports

Abuse allegations made by National Women's Soccer League players against authority figures are symptomatic of a sports culture that prioritizes winning over anything else and thus limits player power, says one expert.

Punishment in name of performance leads to mistreatment of athletes, expert says

Fans hold signs in support of the players during an NWSL soccer match between the North Carolina Courage and Racing Louisville FC on Wednesday. (Gerry Broome/The Associated Press)

In recent months, the prevalence of player abuse in the National Women's Soccer League became frightfully apparent.

Though players returned to the field on Wednesday after taking the weekend off in the wake of sexual-misconduct allegations against since-fired North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley, the reckoning remains far from over — as evidenced by player protests in all three games.

Over the past few months, one coach was fired for verbal abuse, another was dismissed after making inappropriate comments and a general manager was also fired following an investigation connected to the league's anti-harassment policy.

And that's not including Riley.

Dr. Gretchen Kerr, a professor at the University of Toronto with research interests in athlete maltreatment and coaching practices, said the NWSL revelations may just be the tip of the iceberg.

"Abuse in sport is never just about the perpetrator — it's about the system. It's about a system that prioritizes performance or winning over other things," Kerr said.

Erin McLeod, a Canadian national team goalkeeper who also plays for the NWSL's Orlando Pride, said the league's priorities must be altered.

"More than anything, our players' mental and emotional well-being has to come first. And until we have that, what is the point of playing sport?" McLeod asked in an interview with CBC Sports' Anastasia Bucsis.

WATCH | Olympic champion Erin McLeod on the 'systemic failure' of the NWSL:

Orlando Pride Goalkeeper Erin McLeod on the ‘systemic failure’ of the NWSL to protect its players

1 year ago
Duration 8:04
CBC’s Anastasia Bucsis sits down with Olympian Erin McLeod in the wake of the Paul Riley sexual coercion allegations to discuss how the league failed its players, the systemic issues that allowed the abuse to take place, and what’s next for the league.

Sport — both at the professional and amateur level — can be a results-oriented business, without much regard for the process, said Kerr. It's within that process that athletes often experience psychological, sexual, verbal and physical abuse.

"The coach has the say and the athletes are to be compliant and obedient, and if they're not, the athletes will experience consequences," Kerr said.

'It's so normalized'

That vicious cycle doesn't just start in professional leagues. Instead, it's normalized from a young age, when a coach may just be substituted by the proverbial fanatical parent, Kerr said.

Kerr noted that while punishment and negative reinforcement have long been replaced as teaching tools by educators, in sports, things like benching, screaming and running drills remain the preferred method.

"That runs counter to everything we know about how people learn and what motivates them. But it's so normalized in sport that I'm sure those same parents, if their kids' teachers behave that way, they'd be in with the principal in no time," Kerr said.

WATCH | Players stop games in moment of solidarity:

NWSL's Washington Spirit, Gotham FC pause play to hold moment of solidarity

1 year ago
Duration 1:48
Players from Gotham FC and the Washington Spirit paused play at the sixth minute, in response to a league-wide scandal that saw Spirit coach Richie Burke fired over allegations of verbal harassment and North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley fired over allegations of sexual misconduct.

McLeod said she's seen it first-hand.

"We have to be selective and drive high performance, but also [emphasize] the basic treatment of a human," she said.

Kerr said that behaviour becomes cyclical, wherein people in junior positions learn that it's OK to use and abuse authority.

"It leads to damaged self-esteem that leads to damaged relationships," she said. "Athletes don't feel good about their coaches or even about the sport when they're punished."

Disincentivized reporting

Players who have often dedicated their whole lives to sports can be unwilling to come forward with their stories of abuse in fear of risking their dream.

In the NWSL, where player salaries ranged from $22,000 to $52,500 US for the 2021 season, there's also a lack of financial empowerment.

"Players in this league are being underpaid, undervalued, which makes them feel desperate and like they're replaceable. And so when they're told to lock it up, not say anything, knowing they could be replaced by someone else in the next week, they aren't given much choice," McLeod said.

McLeod recalled one example of a player stuck in a bad situation because her contract rights limited her to a single team.

"And because she's paid so little, she couldn't afford anymore to see a psychiatrist. So she's stuck, like a lot of players in this situation are stuck."

Even if a player did feel comfortable enough to speak out, the NWSL lacked proper avenues to file complaints until a WorkSafe policy was implemented this season.

Previously, instead of taking an issue to a neutral arbitrator, players were forced to report within the system that created the abuse in the first place.

Not limited to NWSL

Riley was fired by the Portland Thorns in 2015 after the sexual-misconduct allegations were first brought forward by the players, but he quickly signed on with another team.

"This issue of behaviours being normalized means that sport will not necessarily be able to identify harmful behaviours," Kerr said.

Portland Thorns and Houston Dash players, along with referees, gather at midfield, in a demonstration of solidarity on Wednesday. (Steve Dipaola/The Associated Press)

It's that internal reporting system that was partially at fault for enabling U.S. gymnastics coach Larry Nassar to sexually abuse hundreds of girls in 18 years with the team.

In Canada, 24 women's rugby sevens players filed a bullying and harassment claim against since-resigned coach John Tait in January and said they were let down by the organization's policy. In France, hundreds of coaches were identified as suspects of abuse or bystanders in April.

"What's frustrating from a player standpoint is the people who are in power are aware of these situations," McLeod said. "And the courage that it must take for a player to come forward with this information and for them to be told that nothing will be done about it is heart-breaking."

Kerr said her studies have shown there are significant mental-health challenges for athlete victims of abuse well beyond their playing careers.

"While they're in the sport, they normalize these things, then they get out of sport and wonder why they're having difficulty."

Systemic change necessary

The commissioner and general counsel of the NWSL both recently resigned, while the Thorns' general manager was placed on administrative leave on Thursday.

But to move forward, systemic change is necessary. Kerr said one step toward that would be limiting bystanders and encouraging or incentivizing those who know about or suspect abuse to come forward.

WATCH | Bring It In panel on how NWSL scandal came to be:

Breaking down the NWSL - Paul Riley Scandal | Bring It In

1 year ago
Duration 11:34
Morgan Campbell, Shireen Ahmed and Meghan McPeak discuss the NWSL's scandal alledging Paul Riley's involvement in abusive behaviour and sexual conduct while head coach of the North Carolina Courage and Portland Thorns.

Even more important, she said, was to give athletes a voice and a safe space to report concerns.

McLeod knows on-field protests and select firings are just the beginning.

"I think there's been a huge range of emotion, to be honest, from anger and rage and heartbreak to frustration. I think what I feel very fortunate [for] is that a lot of us are able to be together right now.

"I think it's been challenging and I think there's many more challenges ahead."

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