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Again and again. Women's pro soccer players are just the latest to deal with abuse

Oct 23, 2021
Originally published on October 23, 2021 7:58 am

Updated October 23, 2021 at 9:58 AM ET

One more U.S. soccer match to go for Carli Lloyd.

The popular, 39-year-old veteran of the women's national team will play her final game in a U.S. uniform next Tuesday in Minnesota, in a so-called friendly against South Korea. The two teams played to a scoreless draw Thursday in Kansas City – a crowd of more than 18,000 cheered Lloyd as she came on as second-half substitute.

The celebration, though, comes at a tumultuous time.

The country's top women's pro soccer league, the NWSL, is still reeling from a scandal involving multiple coaches and alleged abusive behavior toward players.

And it has re-focused attention on an all-too-familiar problem: female athletes throughout sports experiencing abuse and harassment.

Joy tempered by pain

On a recent October night in Portland, Ore., the joy of a women's professional soccer match between the hometown Portland Thorns and visiting Houston Dash, was tempered by pain.

"This has been a really dark and heavy week," Thorns defender Meghan Klingenberg said afterwards, "for everyone in the league."

Klingenberg and all the other NWSL players who spoke to reporters that night, after their games, refused to talk about what happened on the field. Instead, the conversations were about what had recently upended their league – coaches who were fired for alleged verbal abuse, sexual coercion and misconduct; team and league officials accused of minimizing the allegations.

For observers like Michelle Bartlett, a sports psychology professor at West Texas A&M University, the scandal was not a surprise.

"It has different details and different spins," Bartlett said, "but in a lot of ways it's just more of the same."

Bartlett has researched abuse and trauma in sports for about seven years, and there's been a lot to study.

Over and over and why?

(L-R) U.S. Olympic gymnasts Simone Biles, McKayla Maroney, gymnast Maggie Nichols, and U.S. Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman, testify during a Senate hearing about the Inspector General's report on the FBI handling of the Larry Nassar investigation of sexual abuse of Olympic gymnasts, on Capitol Hill, September 15, 2021, in Washington, DC.
Saul Loeb / POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Abuse scandals in gymnastics, swimming, taekwondo, speed skating – over and over and....why?

Former pro soccer player and now coach, Rachel Wood, thinks the problems start young. Especially at the elite youth levels, where those involved – coaches, athletes, parents, administrators – have practically accepted cycles of physical, mental and verbal abuse.

"So we normalize a grown man yelling at a child and singling her out or humiliating her as an attempt to motivate," Wood said, "And we think, well, you know, this is kind of the way it's always been, and this is how you're going to actualize your potential. And so what ends up happening is we normalize that. We don't even call that abuse. We call that coaching."

The power imbalance is established at that early age, Wood says.

The coach becomes the supreme authority, a gatekeeper to sporting success. The athlete follows and never questions. Particularly, Wood says, young girls who traditionally are socialized to "people please" and be submissive.

Even when the abuse goes beyond yelling, as it did for Wood.

Trying to survive

Starting in her mid-teens, Wood had a coach who flipped the script – he was kind and supportive.

"He told me that he saw something special in me," Wood said, "and that he wanted to train me. And after going years and years of hearing, 'you're a piece of [expletive], you're never going to be anything,' you're like, 'wow!' It's intoxicating. I can be coached by someone who's not creepy."

But the coach still used his power position, to groom her.

We need to start building that trust and at this point, it's just not there yet. - Soccer star Alex Morgan

"They build trust," Wood said, "they make you feel special. They make you believe that you can't get there without them. And then that's when it progresses from, you know, a hug when you arrive at training, to a kiss on the lips when you arrive at training."

Wood said there was never sex. There was kissing and inappropriate touching. She never spoke up because at the time, she interpreted the "stretching and manipulating of my body" as a kind of fine-tuning for what she was trying to accomplish as an athlete. She also didn't complain at the time because if she admitted there was something inappropriate happening and exposed him, she wouldn't be able to get the training she needed to play at an elite level.

So Wood said she went into survival mode.

"It's like, how can I survive this with the long term goal in mind," she said. "And I was kind of constantly looking into the future and just trying to survive the present."

Coaching the way she wanted to be coached

Wood's future would include two NCAA women's soccer titles at the University of North Carolina, and several years playing in the NWSL for the Boston Breakers. And in 2019, she started the Summit Soccer Academy outside of Boston.

"Hey Summit Squad and happy mindful Monday! So we're going to talk about this idea of control today."

Wood works with players on the field and off – she posts "mindful Monday" videos for her athletes, who range from grade schoolers to professionals.

She and her staff coach, as she writes on the Academy website, the way she wanted to be coached – "with encouragement, information and belief."

Initially, she wanted the Academy to be "by women, for women." But Wood, now 31, says the older she's gotten, the more that view has changed. She now has three men on staff along with three women.

"I train both boys and girls," Wood said, "but especially these girls, what I want them to see is that they can be coached by a man and this man will not yell at you. He will not take advantage of you. He won't cross personal lines. He won't follow you on social media. We have a very strict social media and texting policy because of how easily accessible these kids are now."

Possible fixes

Wood acknowledges a lot has to happen before the ideal environment she tries to create, becomes a reality throughout sport.

She and other reformers agree there needs to be better regulation in the highly unregulated coaching profession. There needs to be a system for reporting abuse that is more effective, robust, comprehensive and responsive than what currently exists. And more good people need to be in positions of power. Women and men who will hold individuals, teams and organizations accountable.

Professor Bartlett says the power imbalance between athletes and coaches needs to change, as well. Especially at that youth level where many of the problems start.

Parents, Bartlett says, can play a huge role by giving less power to coaches, who many parents believe hold the key to their child's success.

"We even see parents allowing coaches to be abusive to their children, verbally abusive," Bartlett said. "Clear as day on the sports fields, where parents will double down and their kid comes off the field and [the parents] are saying 'why didn't you listen to coach? Coach told you to do this. Why did you make coach mad?' Instead of saying, 'hey, that was really inappropriate that coach spoke with you that way.' Where we have parents sort of perpetuating [the problem] and giving coaches even more power to keep doing what they're doing."

As possible fixes get bandied about, a real time experiment in change is underway.

Energized by possible change, but still wary

NWSL teams are charging toward next month's playoffs – at the same time, the work to fix the league's problems continues.

The player's union, the NWSLPA, says it and the league are making progress on resolving a list of demands the players made after the abuse scandal broke. The demands include thorough and expanded investigations into the allegations of coach abuse and the league's handling of those allegations.

The last of the eight demands was for players to have a say in the selection of a new full-time NWSL Commissioner, to replace Lisa Baird, who resigned in the midst of the scandal.

In an email to NPR, NWSLPA Executive Director Meghann Burke, said the NWSL "has agreed to fully comply with our 8th demand, which means that players will have the opportunity to meet with Commissioner candidates and have a meaningful opportunity to be heard."

Players are talking about have a voice, having power, having the financial resources to protect themselves – meaning better salaries.

Many are energized, but still wary of a league that they say minimized and even ignored years of player abuse.

"I know that there's a lot of things that need to change," said Alex Morgan, a U.S. National team star and member of the NWSL's Orlando Pride, "but we need to start building that trust and at this point, it's just not there yet."

Still, Rachel Wood says the movement the NWSL players are creating is giving people the courage to come forward and shine a spotlight on abuse.

There's a long way to go, she says, but the culture is changing. And moving, she hopes, toward a time when those who've suffered in silence won't have to.

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