U.S. Soccer has grand plans to curtail player abuse. The difficulty will be implementing them
The U.S. Soccer Federation is planning to amend a key set of licensing standards to restrict the use of non-disclosure agreements and strengthen other safeguards against the abuse of pro players.
The federation announced the proposed amendments Monday, four months after the Yates report revealed that such abuse is rife and systemic at all levels of the women’s game.
The report, which stemmed from a yearlong investigation commissioned by U.S. Soccer itself, included 12 core recommendations — steps the USSF could take to protect players. In response, U.S. Soccer convened a board-level committee and a “participant safety task force.” On Monday, one day before a self-imposed deadline, it publicly shared plans those two groups have devised to heed the Yates recommendations and clean up the sport.
It announced its vision for a Safe Soccer program, which Yahoo Sports detailed earlier this month.
It also said the board committee — which is led by former U.S. national team player Danielle Slaton and U.S. Club Soccer CEO Mike Cullina — has proposed amendments to U.S. Soccer’s Pro League Standards, a set of requirements that the NWSL, MLS and others must meet to maintain certification at the top of the sport’s pyramid.
Pending a vote by the board of directors at U.S. Soccer’s annual general meeting in mid-March, those standards will be updated for the first time in nine years to include:
A requirement that each league and each of its member clubs appoint a “player safety officer.”
A prohibition on “the use of non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements used to shield information about abuse allegations” — which had become semi-common practice, and allowed abusive coaches to hop from one organization to another unfettered.
A requirement that all leagues must “report any allegations of misconduct or issues of abuse” to U.S. Soccer within two days of learning of the allegations.
A provision that would allow U.S. Soccer “to place leagues and teams on probation and levy fines for non-compliance with participant safety standards.”
They also include a requirement for annual player experience surveys, and mandatory annual trainings “on verbal and emotional abuse, sexual misconduct, harassment and retaliation.” U.S. Soccer worked with the NWSL to develop the league’s training program for 2023.
They are, in some cases, vague guidelines that could lack teeth. The leagues will be responsible for specific policies.
“Our job is to set the high-level policy,” Slaton acknowledged to a small group of reporters via Zoom on Monday. “The implementation and the weeds of it will be the responsibility of each respective pro league, with us, as U.S. Soccer, really overseeing that.”
And more importantly, the federation knows that the Pro League Standards can only go so far. Sally Yates, the former U.S. Deputy Attorney General who led the yearlong investigation, laid this bare in her report.
"Abuse in the NWSL is rooted in a deeper culture in women's soccer, beginning in youth leagues, that normalizes verbally abusive coaching and blurs boundaries between coaches and players,” she wrote.
U.S. Soccer’s efforts in the youth space will hinge on the effectiveness of the Safe Soccer program — which, as described by task force members and in news releases so far, sounds aspirational and difficult to implement.
Monday’s announcement touted it as a program for all adults that “will redefine the processes and criteria used to determine eligibility to participate in soccer in the United States.” It “will include safety training, annual verification of background and contact information and background checks.” It will “ensure that coaches and team personnel are properly vetted.” It “will strengthen U.S. Soccer’s licensing program, enabling the federation to hold coaches accountable for any wrongdoing and keep bad actors out of the sport altogether.”
The program will extend from the pros all the way down to recreational soccer.
“That's the vision,” Slaton said Monday. “And the challenge that we have is how that gets done, and how that gets operationalized. … It's not just gonna be a flip-the-switch kind of thing.”
It will take 3-5 years to implement, according to a presentation given to U.S. Soccer’s board earlier this month, and will be a massive institutional and financial and technological undertaking. There will be a “tiered rollout,” according to Emily Cosler, the U.S. Soccer staffer tasked with coordinating the effort, which will begin with U.S. Soccer staff in 2023 and pro coaches in 2024, Then, it will extend to youth coaches in 2025 and all other participants, from assistants to bus drivers, in 2026 and beyond.
Or, at least, that’s the goal. Onboarding over 100 member organizations and thousands of people will be the challenge.
Cullina on Monday described what it might look like in practice. For an adult interested in coaching, he said, “it's gonna involve a couple of things. One, there's the [U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee] standard background screening, for all of our adult participants across all of our membership. It's also going to include education and additional resources on an annual basis that the participants will have to go through — similar to what SafeSport has, but we're looking at our own modules and addressing gaps where education can be helpful.
“It's not too dissimilar to what is happening now on each of the different state [soccer] associations or member organizations, but it will raise the standard for screening, it will raise the standard of education before you can be certified.”
It will create additional hoops that every coach, whether paid or volunteer, must jump through to be around the game. And administrators across the landscape are wary of that.
“I don't want to call it resistance,” Cullina said, “but there's a cause and effect to increase standards. The cost, and the barriers to entry, rise with everything that we do. With every 30-minute, every 45-minute, every hour-and-a-half seminar you have to sit on, every cost associated with screening, all of those are real factors that we are working through.
“But it's not gonna stop the work,” he promised. “Nobody's raising their hand and saying, ‘Stop it, this is nonsense.’” It is, rather, what U.S. Soccer feels is necessary to keep players safe.