The NWSL’s Ugly History of Abuse is Revealed



Last week, news broke the members of the National Women’s Soccer League had been secretly tolerating abuse for years. Fearful that their accounts of abuse would ruin the only U.S. League, the athletes remained quiet. However, the time to remain in silence was up.


Women’s pro soccer players took a stance to not accept the current state of their sport. In an investigation published last week by the Atlantic, both current and former players accused North Carolina Courage manager, Paul Riley, of emotionally abusing the athletes and forcing them to have sex.[1]


In response, the N.W.S.L. announced that they had hired a law firm to review policies at all levels, and to make recommendations of reforms. In addition, the firm will reopen the 2015 investigation into Riley. On Sunday, the U.S. Soccer Federation announced the hiring of Sally Q. Yates to also lead an independent investigation of abuse in women’s professional soccer. [2]


The league’s players rose in unison last weekend by canceling all previously scheduled games and demanded real change from a league that has truly failed to protect them. Last Friday, N.W.S.L. Commissioner Lisa Baird, resigned after truth came to light that she had done little to protect the women on the field, and was complicit in protecting the men who run the N.W.S.L. As is true in the world of sports, men are in the seat of power and control. However, the N.W.S.L’s athletes have bravely shown that they are unafraid to take a stance and demand the respect they deserve.


On Wednesday night, Gotham FC, Washington Spirit, NC Courage, and Racing Louisville FC players collectively stopped playing six minutes into the match, and linked arms at midfield. The N.W.S.L. later released a statement stating “#NoMoreSilence. Tonight, we reclaim our place on the field, because we will not let joy be taken from us…But this is not business as usual.”[3] Following Wednesday’s games, the Players Association stated “The reckoning has already begun. We will not be silent. We will be relentless in our pursuit of a league that deserves the players in it.”[4]


Triggered by Sports’ latest #MeToo movement domestically, professional female soccer players in both Australia and Venezuela have also come forward with allegations of sexual abuse and harassment.


Atlètico Madrid forward Denya Castellanos, one of Latin America’s best known soccer stars, and twenty-four of Venezuela’s top soccer players came forward alleging “years of abuse and harassment, physical, phycological and sexual”[5] abuse by their former coach Kenneth Zsermeta. The letter Castellanos posted on social media stated that her teammates had been sexually abused from 2013 to 2017, and some players since the age of 14 by their coach. Castellanos, who played college soccer at Florida State University, wrote that she had stayed silent out of fears of retribution, she continued: “The injustices that our teammates are experiencing in the United States are issues that all professional players (regardless of gender or league) should be paying attention to and taking seriously.”[6]


In Australia, Lisa de Vanna, reported to Australia’s Daily Telegraph newspaper that she had also experienced abuse and harassment when she joined Australia’s national team at 17 years old. Lisa De Vanna wrote “Have I been sexually harassed? Yes. Have I been bullied? Yes. Ostracized? Yes. Have I seen things that make me uncomfortable? Yes.”[7]


Current and former female soccer players across the globe are all currently calling for a reform to a system and a league that has greatly failed to protect its members.


Hannah is a 2L at Elon University School of Law and host of Podcast “Bars to the Bar” from Hoboken, New Jersey. Hannah graduated from Providence College where she was a four-year manager for the Men’s Basketball Team. She can be found on Twitter @hannahjane503.

[1] https://theathletic.com/2857633/2021/09/30/this-guy-has-a-pattern-amid-institutional-failure-former-nwsl-players-accuse-prominent-coach-of-sexual-coercion/ [2] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/03/sports/soccer/women-soccer-league-abuse.html [3] https://www.si.com/soccer/2021/10/06/nwsl-gotham-spirit-players-pause-game-after-six-minutes-link-arms [4] Id. [5] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/10/06/women-soccer-abuse-castellanos-nwsl/ [6] Id. [7]https://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/subscribe/news/1/?sourceCode=DTWEB_WRE170_a&dest=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.dailytelegraph.com.au%2Fsport%2Ffootball%2Fmatildas-star-lisa-de-vanna-details-horrific-abuse-and-bullying-in-footballs-toxic-culture%2Fnews-story%2Fb2e11f790faa63f24a47d1ad90b1709c&memtype=anonymous&mode=premium&v21=dynamic-cold-test-noscore&V21spcbehaviour=append