USWNT captain Becky Sauerbrunn wants execs ‘gone’ after ‘abhorrent’ failures amid abuse

A shaken Becky Sauerbrunn, the U.S. women’s national team’s often-stoic captain, said she and her teammates are “horrified, and heartbroken, and frustrated, and exhausted, and really really angry” one day after a U.S. Soccer-commissioned report detailed widespread and systemic abuse in women’s soccer.

The report, released Monday after a yearlong investigation led by former federal prosecutor Sally Yates, detailed new allegations of verbal, emotional and sexual misconduct at the highest levels of the sport, and found that coaches, executives, National Women’s Soccer League team owners and U.S. Soccer officials “failed” countless players.

Sauerbrunn said Tuesday that she wants those enablers “gone.”

She and her U.S. teammates are in London this week ahead of a game against England at sold-out Wembley Stadium that had been billed as an emblem of progress. It was supposed to be a “momentous occasion,” defender Alana Cook said. Three days before the game, “it’s marred by this report,” Cook said, “and it’s marred by the atrocities that have been condoned and tolerated and allowed to go on in the NWSL for the last 10 years.”

And the players, Sauerbrunn said, are “not doing well.” Head coach Vlatko Andonovski said he’s given them time and space “to think and process and do basically whatever they need in order to get over this difficult time” — even if that means missing a meeting, or a training session, or Friday’s match.

“We are angry that it took a third-party investigation,” an emotional Sauerbrunn said via Zoom. “We are angry that it took an article in The Athletic and The Washington Post and numerous others. We’re angry that it took over 200 people sharing their trauma to get to this point right now. And we’re angry that it took Mana [Shim] and Sinead [Farrelly] and Erin [Simon] and Kaiya [McCullough] and Alex [Morgan] and Christen [Press] and Sam [Johnson] to repeatedly ask people in authority to take their abuse and their concerns seriously.

“And I think for so long, this has always fallen on the players to demand change,” Sauerbrunn continued in an opening statement. “And 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. What, and who, are you actually protecting? And what values are you upholding?

“You have failed in your stewardship. And it’s my opinion that every owner and executive and U.S. Soccer official who has repeatedly failed the players and failed to protect the players, who have hidden behind legalities, and have not participated fully in these investigations, should be gone.”

Sauerbrunn calls for ouster of execs, owners

Sauerbrunn plays for the Portland Thorns, whose owner, Merritt Paulson, and then-general manager, Gavin Wilkinson, played key roles in concealing 2015 allegations of sexual harassment against then-head coach Paul Riley, allowing Riley to continue coaching in the league for six more years. Shortly before Sauerbrunn spoke, Paulson announced that he would remove himself, Wilkinson and president of business operations Mike Golub from all Thorns-related decision making until a separate investigation commissioned by the NWSL and its players association is complete. He did not say that he would sell the team.

Sauerbrunn did not call for Paulson’s ouster by name, but reiterated when asked specifically about Paulson and Portland executives that her statement applied to “everyone that has continued to fail the players time and time again, who didn’t take concerns seriously, who didn’t pass on information correctly, who have not participated in investigations. All of them.”

The actions of Paulson and Wilkinson fit that description. They both learned of the 2015 sexual harassment allegations directly from Riley’s accuser, Mana Shim, via email. They subsequently fired Riley, but publicly and privately characterized his departure as a non-renewal of his contract. Wilkinson later told another NWSL club, the Western New York Flash, that he’d hire Riley again, and said that Riley had been “put in a bad position by the player.” When the Flash hired Riley, Paulson wrote to the team’s president to congratulate him, and said he had “a lot of affection for [Riley].”

The Thorns, according to Yates’ investigative team, also “interfered with our access to relevant witnesses and raised specious legal arguments in an attempt to impede our use of relevant documents.”

The investigation also found that now-former U.S. Soccer leaders, including then-president Sunil Gulati and then-CEO Dan Flynn, knew about the 2015 allegations, but did not take meaningful action. It also found that Chicago Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler knew about head coach Rory Dames’ alleged abuse for years, but continued to employ Dames. In a Tuesday statement, Whisler apologized “for what our players experienced during their time spent in Chicago” and gave up operational control of the team and his role on the NWSL’s board of governors. But he, like Paulson, did not say he would sell the team.

Neither U.S. Soccer nor Yates’ investigative team has the immediate power to remove an NWSL team owner. League commissioner Jessica Berman and the other franchise owners could, especially if the investigation jointly commissioned by the league and the NWSLPA recommends they do so.

Sauerbrunn, when asked if she has faith in the league’s powerbrokers to heed her calls, said: “I don’t know. I don’t know if the right people are in place to do what is needed. My hope is that the joint investigation that is coming out will have recommendations for discipline.”

‘The passion for the game has been taken away’

Sauerbrunn was asked repeatedly how she processes and reconciles continuing to play in a league, and for a club, and for a federation that enabled such abuse. In response, she spoke about joy.

“I think for so long, the passion for the game has been taken away from players because of the abuse that they’ve faced in this league,” she said. “And I think that for me, I’m done allowing that to happen. I love the game of soccer. I wanna be passionate and I wanna play.”

Cook added: “For so long, it’s been on the players to handle these things, and to speak out. It shouldn’t be on us any longer. We deserve an environment where we get to go out and play and enjoy doing what we do. And we deserve to be in an environment that’s safe and protects that joy.”

And as for how they’ll muster the mental and emotional fortitude to go out and play the European champions in three days?

“Some players, some staff members need someone [] to talk to,” Andonovski said. “Some people need time, some people need space, some people need to process all of it, and some need distraction.”

U.S Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone said Monday that she sent players an email informing them of available resources. She and Cook said that the NWSL had done similarly. Health is the priority. The message from USWNT leadership, Cook confirmed, has been: “Do what you need to be OK.”

But also: “As women, personally as a minority, this isn’t new,” said Cook, who is Black. “These hostile conditions are now being unearthed and publicly revealed, but it’s things we’ve been dealing with for the entirety of our careers. We have gotten to this point because we have learned how to deal with the difficulties surrounding what we do, and the difficulties in our lives, and being able to still perform.”

Sauerbrunn agreed. “We have, as women soccer players, faced a lot, not just these last year or two years, but for a very long time,” she said. “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 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.”

Sauerbrunn was also asked whether she feels safe in the Thorns’ environment with Paulson still at the helm of the club.

She paused seven seconds for thought, and then began, “I mean — how do you answer that?”

“All I know is that the team that I play with, and the technical staff, and the medical staff, those people are good people,” she continued. “But the things that have happened above them in the front office, as owners, are abhorrent. And it cannot continue. And the fact that people were abused because things weren’t done well and right is inexcusable.

“And so, it doesn’t matter if I feel safe. I don’t think anyone’s 100% safe, and that’s not good enough. Everyone should be 100% safe and free of abuse.”


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