For nearly a decade, the Chicago Red Stars and the National Women’s Soccer League have been selling a lie to fans and players.
Women’s soccer teams in general have long based their advertising on the idea of inspiring young girls to dream bigger. The sentiment can feel cheesy at best, patronizing at worst. It is also a complete fabrication.
The reality of professional women’s soccer in the US is a nightmare, as evidenced by the release last week of the Yates Report – an independent investigation led by former acting US Attorney General Sally Q. Yates and the law firm commissioned after a series King & Spaulding of scandals over the past year.
The 319-page document, titled “Report of the Independent Investigation to the US Soccer Association into Allegations of Abusive Conduct and Sexual Misconduct in Women’s Professional Soccer,” describes a simple, brutal truth: The NWSL is a safe haven for bullies and sex offenders.
Coaches used their influence to bully, harass and attack their players, the report said. Executives and owners knew this for years and did nothing. All parties continued to sell this lie about woman empowerment and pretended to uplift female athletes while terrorizing and gasing the same players behind closed doors.
And no other team Yates studied matched the institutional failures of the Chicago Red Stars, whose former coach Rory Dames and current owner Arnim Whisler have allegedly spent the past eight years facilitating the systematic abuse of youth and professional players.
The Yates report describes the “culture of fear” dames built up in Chicago — they hurl insults and epithets, call black players “thugs”, restrict access to friends and families, make sexual comments and passes. Players have described dames as “condescending,” “manipulative,” “aggressive,” “offensive,” and “intimidating.”
The report claims Dames’ behavior has spread to the girls he coached at Eclipse Select Soccer Club, an elite club governed by the Elite Club National League and which the Dames have always supported despite his departure from the Red Stars still owns. Dames, according to interviews with players and parents, regularly made comments about oral sex and the age of consent of its players, according to interviews with players and parents, and shouted insults during games that opponents recalled verbatim years later.
“Rory was good at getting to know you as a person. … He would take that knowledge to completely destroy your world and use it as leverage,” one player explained in the report. “He would tear you down to your core that way, in such a blunt, terrifying way . … that goes into the soul.”
As the owner, Whisler couldn’t bother to defend his players. When he hired Dames as a coach in 2011, he didn’t even do a background check — if he did, he might have uncovered a 1998 police investigation that accused Dames of sexually molesting two high school girls and gutting a boy having beaten in a previous coaching job.
Instead, Whisler signed Dames to an informal agreement, although he reportedly never paid the coach a salary as he pledged to give Dames an unqualified defense over the ensuing ten years of their partnership.
For years, players like Christen Press begged the Red Stars, the NWSL and the US Soccer Federation to intervene. For years her pain was dismissed and not believed.
At every turn, Dames and Whisler pinned all blame on the players, telling investigators and members of the US Football Association that all reports of abuse stemmed from the US national team’s desire to destroy the league. During an investigation in 2015, Whisler “scored the repeated abuse and harassment of players by dames to the point of ‘Rory is Rory’.” ”
Even now, in the face of a barrage of testimony, Dames denies any wrongdoing. And the Red Stars followed suit, significantly delaying the presentation of key evidence for the investigation and instead struggling to narrow its scope, according to Yates and her team.
No one in any position of authority has acted rationally or morally at any step of this process. But none of that self-preservation matters anymore. Whisler knew. Dames knew. Countless other members of the Red Stars, the NWSL, and the US Soccer Association knew. Regardless of how they stutter and backtrack, the lesson is over – no one believes the lies anymore.
The universal experience players described in the Yates report were a sense of unprecedented vulnerability created by toxicity within the NWSL.
Approximately 75% of NWSL players make less than $31,000 per year and depend on their teams to reside in high-priced markets like Chicago. One of the players who reported harassment by dames made just $14,000 as a freshman. These players relied utterly on teams like the Red Stars – for their livelihoods, their futures, their positions in the sport.
And Dames’ propensity to target youth players only deepens this crisis of vulnerability as more and more enter the league as underage players.
When Olivia Moultrie became the league’s first underage inductee at age 15 last summer, her story was hailed as another sign of that inspiring future for girls the league is so proud to tout. But Moultrie joined the Portland Thorns, a team owned by Merrit Paulson and run by general manager Gavin Wilkinson, who brazenly covered up the sexual harassment that led to the sacking of former coach Paul Riley.
These players are professionals, but they’re still kids. How can we promise their protection? How can we protect their youth when the league has been fighting tooth and nail to ensure the longevity of their coaches rather than the safety of their players?
Those questions should drive the league and its fans forward, according to the Yates report. This is the beginning, not the end. And in Chicago, there are several simple, obvious steps to begin that process.
Whisler must announce his sale of the Red Stars. That means a complete retirement from the sport: as an owner, as an investor, and even as a fan on Twitter. Retiring from the team operation is not enough.
In the same vein, it’s time for the Chicago youth football community to banish dames once and for all. At the height of his power, Dames is described in the Yates report as a “god” wielding absolute influence to abuse, terrorize, and attack players. He doesn’t belong in this sport – or in any space populated by young, vulnerable women.
And it’s time for the Red Stars to own up to their complicity. This means following every investigation promptly and transparently. This means removing any person — employee, owner, or officer — who helped and supported Dames and Whisler in their cover-up. And it means being fully committed to prioritizing their players and not other stakeholders.
None of these measures can take away the pain that Dames, Whisler and the Red Stars have caused. None of this will return the freedom, confidence and joy they stole from these players. Nothing can fix the past.
But the release of the Yates report may be a pivotal moment for the league to move forward in good faith and finally – finally – protect its players.
Red stars, you go first.