NWSL report sheds light on separation agreement between Racing Louisville, Christy Holly
Racing Louisville FC paid head coach Christy Holly $14,000 and prohibited its employees from speaking about his misconduct — even to police — while firing him for allegedly sexually assaulting a player, according to a new investigation into abuse and misconduct throughout the National Women's Soccer League.
On Wednesday, independent investigators hired by the league and its players association published a report detailing alleged verbal, emotional and sexual abuse that took place at eight of the league's 12 teams, including two that previously employed Holly.
The report builds on a prior investigation released by U.S. Soccer in October, which revealed the Louisville club fired Holly in August 2021 following allegations of sexual assault and harassment made by defender Erin Simon. And it disclosed for the first time the terms of a severance deal Racing signed with its former coach.
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In addition to the payment and a non-disparagement provision, investigators wrote there's "no evidence" Racing sought Simon's input on the separation agreement. And the club disregarded a request from the NWSL to "pause" its firing of Holly to allow league officials to investigate.
The 125-page report, compiled by Covington & Burling LLP and Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP, does not recommend any disciplinary actions regarding Racing's handling of allegations. But it did offer a harsh assessment of the steps Racing took to keep the allegations under wraps, noting the separation agreement "was far more limiting on the club than was necessary to protect (Simon's) confidentiality."
On Thursday, Racing released a statement saying the club is "sorry for what happened during Christy Holly's tenure. We take responsibility for what happened, and we pledge to ensure a better team culture moving forward."
The club said it entered the separation agreement with Holly "on advice of the club's former counsel ... to protect our players from being named publicly." It now says that decision was wrong, adding current Soccer Holdings president James O'Connor was not involved in crafting the non-disparagement provision.
"We strongly support the league severely restricting their use," the statement says of NDAs.
Racing Louisville severance agreement with Christy Holly questioned
Holly, Racing's first head coach, is accused of inappropriately touching Simon during a one-on-one film session at Lynn Family Stadium in April 2021.
According to both the U.S. Soccer and NWSL reports, Simon told investigators Holly started the session by saying he would touch her "for every pass (she) f----- up." Simon said Holly then repeatedly pushed his hands under her pants and under her bra.
Racing executives eventually learned of the allegations in August 2021. Soccer Holdings, the team's ownership group, announced it had fired Holly "for cause" the following day but did not elaborate on why he was let go.
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Racing Louisville entered into a severance agreement upon Holly’s departure that provided the former coach $14,000; required him to vacate his apartment in the same building where Simon and other players lived; and prevented both the club and Holly from making "disparaging" statements about the other party, according to the new NWSL investigation.
The agreement included a caveat that allowed Holly to provide an "honest assessment" of Racing players, but it did not allow the club to "voluntarily disclose Holly’s misconduct to law enforcement."
Louisville police have not charged Holly with a crime.
If either party broke the agreement, they would have to pay the other $5,000.
More:Did Racing Louisville's NDA with Christy Holly protect players or enable abuse?
Brad Estes, then president of Soccer Holdings, said the agreement was intended to protect Simon’s "safety and confidentiality."
Investigators, however, condemned the agreement, writing the non-disparagement provision "prevented the club from being able to confirm Simon’s account if she chose to share her experience publicly." It also put other players at risk, investigators said, "by preventing the club from disclosing Holly’s conduct to any clubs and organizations considering hiring Holly."
In its statement, Racing Louisville said it never intended to "hinder any investigation or stop any player from speaking out. We applaud every player who has told her story publicly."
Report details accusations of retaliation
Elsewhere in the NWSL report, unnamed Racing players said they took concerns about Holly to now-president O'Connor in June 2021 and experienced retaliation after the coach learned of the complaints.
The players said they did not like how staff were handling their medical issues and expressed concerns about how Holly treated players, asking O'Connor to keep their comments confidential, the report states.
The players were later invited to a meeting with Holly and the club's human resources personnel, violating their request for confidentiality.
According to investigators, O'Connor said "there was no need for confidentiality in reporting unless there were issues that were 'illegal or immoral.'"
Following the meeting, one player said Holly demoted her to training with reserve players.
On Thursday, Racing Louisville officials said they take responsibility for "failing to fully understand how Holly's treatment of the players was negatively affecting the team," and they recognize they should have handled the meeting differently.
"If individual players were retaliated against by Holly, we apologize," the club's statement said. "We have made clear to the new coaching staff that retaliation will not be tolerated."
What’s next for Racing Louisville FC after NWSL investigation?
In a statement Wednesday, league Commissioner Jessica Berman apologized for the "failures and missteps" highlighted in the new report.
"(Players) deserve, at a minimum, a safe and secure environment to participate at the highest level in a sport they love," Berman said, "and they have my unwavering commitment that delivering that change will remain a priority each and every day."
Wednesday’s report does not direct any disciplinary actions toward Racing or other clubs where alleged abusive behavior was uncovered. Instead, investigators offered 39 systemic recommendations across six different areas, including strengthening anti-harassment policies and enhancing reporting and investigation procedures.
Berman said the NWSL will provide "a detailed plan on further steps that will be taken" ahead of the 2023 season, which kicks off March 25.
At Racing, fans have called for O'Connor to be fired. But O'Connor has not stepped down or been let go from his position.
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In response to the October investigation, Racing posted an opening for a general manager who will report to O'Connor and will be responsible for player recruitment and performance oversight, as well as "implementing best practices across professional soccer."
In a letter sent to ticketholders, Racing also addressed several changes it has made since Holly's contract was terminated in 2021, including providing access to an anonymous reporting platform for athletic teams and creating a more thorough vetting process for coaching hires, which gives players an opportunity to speak with candidates.
The club also said it has committed to adding a new assistant coach to work with players, updating companywide anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies and scheduling town hall events where season ticketholders can offer input.
On Thursday, it added it will work with the NWSL to implement league-wide changes.
"We are excited about what the future holds for our team, both on the field and as a matter of providing a work environment of which our athletes, staff and community stakeholders can be proud," the club said in a statement.
At the city level, two Louisville Metro Council members have sponsored an ordinance that would prevent organizations receiving taxpayer dollars from using non-disclosure agreements in cases involving sexual assault and harassment. The ordinance has yet to receive a committee vote, with January the earliest it could be heard at a meeting.
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This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: NWSL report details Racing Louisville agreement with Christy Holly