US Soccer opens investigation into NWSL governance


The abuse, misconduct and neglect that permeates the NWSL – recently highlighted by Athletic’s shocking story about the predatory nature of former NC Courage coach Paul Riley – has fallen like a bomb in the American football landscape. The NWSL canceled this weekend’s game list at the request of the players, who were understandably not in the mood to play.

Eventually the show will continue, but the repercussions are expected to linger like a nuclear winter. With the NWSL clearly not in a position to control itself, the organization charged with the unpleasant task of trying to repair the damage and clean up the mess is the American Football Federation. The Federation announced Friday afternoon that it was launching an investigation.

Cleaning will not be an easy task. The Federation, in its role of trying to develop football – women’s football in particular – in the United States, has partnered with the NWSL from its inception, investing significant resources in the development of the national league after the fall. of the WPS in 2012, which was preceded by the collapse of its predecessor WUSA in 2003. In addition to funding the salaries of NWSL players who were part of the USWNT, the USSF served as the league’s manager. , providing additional resources, including funding for the salaries of key executives.

The NWSL and USSF have long sought to break out of this relationship, finding it more complicated than desired. The Federation ceased serving as manager in December 2020 and, starting in the 2022 season, will no longer fund the salaries of NWSL players who are USWNT members. That’s not to say there won’t be financial support for the league. A source from the Federation confirmed that there will be ongoing financial investments, although details of this arrangement are still being finalized.

With that in mind, the timing of the separation of the parties is fortuitous from a Federation perspective, given the conflict of interest that exists with the USSF’s multi-million dollar investment in the league. The Federation’s mandate in addition to developing football in the United States is to govern it, and that includes investigations. And discipline.

The USSF statutes – to which the NWSL as a member of the organization is subject – give the Federation the ability to investigate its members to ensure they remain in good standing and comply with its rules. Such a systematic violation as the one that allegedly occurred in this case immediately caught the attention of the Federation, which issued a statement shortly after the story broke.

A simple declaration and suspension of a trainer’s license was of course not enough, and the investigation just announced promises to be a difficult time for all.

Both through the statutes of American football and (to a lesser extent) professional league standards, all professional leagues have an obligation to ensure the safety of their players. Regulation 212, Section 1 (7) requires all members to establish programs to protect their players in order to remain in good standing and maintain their membership in the Federation.


Section 1. As a condition for obtaining and maintaining membership in the Federation, each member organization must meet all of the following requirements:

(7) whether the member organization is responsible for recruiting, training, rostering or funding football players, establish a risk management program to promote safety and protect the well-being of participants.

In addition, the NWSL is obligated to provide a prompt and fair process for resolving complaints from its members, and to provide a fair hearing process to adjudicate such complaints. This includes allegations of physical and sexual abuse.

Section 3.

(6) The member organization shall provide prompt and fair procedures for the resolution of complaints from its members and procedures for fair notice and the possibility of a hearing regarding any complaint from any athlete, coach, coach, manager, administrator or official who is a member of the member organization, or a member organization thereof, regarding a proposed declaration that such a person is ineligible to participate in the programs or other activities of that member organization or of a member organization of this and these procedures must comply, where applicable, with the provisions of Part VII of these statutes.

(7) The member organization must adopt policies prohibit sexual and physical abuse.

Based on what has been revealed publicly, the NWSL and its teams have failed to meet these standards. So where does the Federation go from here?

With the report that FIFA has already opened an investigation, it was only a matter of time before the Federation opened its own parallel journal, and they probably won’t be the only ones. But by remaining with the Federation, as the governing body, the USSF has the power to review its members’ compliance with its statutes (212, Section 3 (b)).

(b) The Federation may audit or review a member organization to determine compliance with the provisions of Article 3. The review of the Federation will be carried out by a working group or committee appointed by the Board of Directors.

In view of the conflicts described above, the Federation will likely use an outside organization to conduct the review of the affairs of the NWSL. Given the scope of the claims, this will likely be costly, time consuming and painful.

The Federation has a number of tools, depending on the extent and extent of the violations. The Federation could impose any degree of sanction, from financial fairness to an effective “death penalty”: termination of the NWSL membership and removal of the league sanction. This is possible if the Federation finds that the conduct of the NWSL, on the whole, is contrary to the interests of the Federation, or of football in the United States.


Section 2. The Council may impose disciplinary action, require corrective action, suspend, impose a fine or terminate (or any combination thereof) the membership of any Member of the Organization if the Council determines, in its sole discretion. discretion, that (1) the conduct of the member organization is contrary to the best interests of soccer or the federation, or (2) the member organization has not complied with the requirements of its membership in the federation. The Council can only act after notifying the member organization and holding a hearing at which the member organization can present evidence in support of its position.

Certainly, the step of terminating the NWSL’s membership in the Federation would be extreme and unprecedented. At this point, at least, it also seems unlikely given that the Federation can order the league to take measures to clean up its act, such as imposing strict control requirements on the hires of coaches and executives, providing compliance deadlines and require current leadership. leaving the league as a condition of maintaining membership.

Already a few shoes have fallen, with NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird and General Counsel Lisa Levine ousted from their league posts. Ultimately, if the Federation finds that the league is unwilling or unable to follow the steps it deems necessary to remain in good standing, a different discussion could take place on the viability of the NWSL as a member. of the USSF.

In some ways, the Federation’s mission to develop football in the United States has come up against what would be a serious fault on the part of one of its key members charged with carrying out that mission. For the neutral observer, this makes the betrayal even worse. Nonetheless, the Federation will probably give the NWSL a chance to get it right, if it can. But the leash will be short and the patience of the fans slim.

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