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Documentary

Will ‘Truth be Told’ (2022) set the NWSL free?

Truth be Told: The fight for Women’s Professional Soccer  is an ESPN E60 production. The film covers the more visual aspects of the “This guy has a pattern” story that was reported by Meg Linehan and Katie Strang. On Sep-30-2021, the reporters broke open their investigation on abuses by celebrated NWSL coach Paul Riley and the organizational coverups.

The sensational story led to a flood of more players coming forward, more abuse stories revealed, and a rash of firings and resignations within NWSL clubs and the league office. Two formal investigations were immediately commissioned, which, after one year, became the Oct-3-2022 Yates report by USSoccer, and the Dec-14-2022 Covington & Burling Report commissioned by the NWSL and NWSLPA. The Athletic reporters Meg Linehan and Steph Yang have put together a Timeline of NWSL abuse, whose perpetrators go back to 1998.

The value of the ESPN documentary

The written reports are textual, and sometimes text become, as Rory Smith described, “more than 300 pages of tragedy”. For some, the ESPN documentary is more visceral to hear the victims’ stories on video. You see them and feel that they are ok, that they are recovering, especially in the case of player Mana Shim. Which helps me to absorb the story and not turn away in disgust.

But on the flip side, a video can be more easily biased. One minute, I am grateful that a star like Alex Morgan helped intervene on behalf of her Portland Thorns teammates, and the next I am convinced that disgraced NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird is a fumbling idiot unable to explain herself.

Another aspect that the film makes clear is why players are so susceptible to abuse when they are underpaid, desperate to play professionally, and unable to report bad behavior for fear of retribution. Over it all, there is not just an imbalance of power, but also an imbalance of mission. The USSoccer and NWSL theme is for every woman to sacrifice to “grow the game” and keep the league going. That mission allows abuse no different from the migrant workers who built Qatar’s world cup.

Sunil Gulati is positioned as sort of an uncaring villain, justifying why things were done a certain way to make sure the NWSL survived after 2 earlier womens league failures.

ESPN focuses on mainly 2 abusive coaches, Paul Riley and Richie Burke. Club ownership helped protect them and enabled them to stay in the coaching system. But USSoccer and NWSL were also part of the problem, as they apparently did not have an HR process in place for players to report problems without retribution. All organizational parties seemed to be more interested in protecting the Brand over the players, which, once exposed, led to fan protests.

Get all the facts

From the reports, the wide range of incidents included:

  • sexual misconduct
  • inappropriate relationships with players
  • the blurring of professional boundaries
  • racially insensitive remarks
  • inappropriate statements about players’ weight and body types
  • retaliation for reporting misconduct
  • unwanted sexual advances toward players
  • objectifying remarks
  • homophobic remarks
  • offensive behavior related to sexual orientation
  • volatile conduct
  • other forms of emotional misconduct and misconduct

Both reports focus on 3 NWSL coaches, with smaller mentions of other perpetrators, who serve as examples of a systemic level of abuse in NWSL. All of these people were terminated.

  • Coach Paul Riley at WPS Philadelphia Independence (2010-2011), Portland Thorns FC (2014-2015), Western NY Flash (2016), and NC Courage (2017-2021)
  • Coach Rory Dames at Chicago Red Stars (2011-2021)
    • did not have the requisite coaching license
  • Coach Christy Holly (he/him) at Sky Blue FC (2016-2017) and Racing Louisville FC (2020-2021)
    • never had a USSoccer coaching license
    • he was engaged to Christie Pearce Rampone while coaching her at Sky Blue FC
  • smaller mentions
    • Coach Richie Burke at Washington Spirit (2019-2021) – Yates pg 45
    • Coach Craig Harrington at Utah Royals (2020) – Yates pg 46
    • Coach Farid Benstiti at OL Reign (2020-2021) – Yates pg 46
    • Gotham FC GM Alyse LaHue (2019-2021) – Yates pg 47

The Covington & Burling Report mentions mishandling by general counsel Lisa Levine who was at USSoccer (2015-2017) and then at  NWSL (2017-2021). Levine disclosed confidential reports that enabled retaliation against players. Successor USSoccer General Counsel Lydia Wahlke (2017-2020) withheld reports on Rory Dames and made the controversial report that USWNT players did not deserve to be paid equally to the USMNT because females are less athletic.

Other Outcomes

  • Danielle Slaton is chairing a committee to create, by Jan-31-2023, an action plan to implement recommendations of the Yates report.
  • Merritt Paulson announced his intention to sell the Portland Thorns
  • Owner Arnim Whisler was removed from the Chicago Red Stars board
  • The NWSLPA signed a new CBA on Jan-31-2022

ESPN

Unfortunately, to watch this film, you must subscribe to the ESPN+ service. I found this film while scrolling through ESPN+ to look for “original” soccer documentaries before I terminated my subscription (there were only 3 soccer films). I remembered that I had forgotten to watch this film about the NWSL because it was delayed from Jul-2022 to Oct-2022, to wait for the release of the Yates report. From society’s perspective, that was a mistake, as the episode lost a lot of impact, especially as it was released as WC 2022 coverage ramped up.

So make up for ESPN’s mistake in timing. Watch the film on their service, listen to the podcast version, read The Athletic’s coverage, or read the original reports. The truth will set more female players free.

BTW, ESPN FC’s Sebastian Salazar and Hercules Gomez had an excellent Oct-7-2022 10-min video interview of Director Jennifer Karson-Strauss. Those guys ask some hard-hitting questions about what we don’t see in the making of the film, such as how the interviews went with Sunil Gulati and Lisa Baird, and how the Portland Thorns club did not cooperate.

8  Soccer Movie Mom Rating = 8

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