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Column: Abuse, Cowardice and Systemic Failure

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Rory Dames is responsible for the pain he inflicted on players of all ages over the last decade, but the failures stretch far beyond the now departed Red Stars coach.

Chicago Red Stars v North Carolina Courage Photo by Andy Mead/ISI Photos/Getty Images

It’s been an emotional week in the spaces that surround the Chicago Red Stars, beginning with confusion and bewilderment. At midnight central daylight time, as Sunday turned to Monday, an email was sent to the Red Stars media listserv announcing that Rory Dames had resigned after 11 years as the team’s head coach, the only person to hold that position in the NWSL era.

There was a short statement from Dames, thanking the club and saying he was “refocusing my attention to my family and future endeavors.”

Adding to the strangeness was a statement, not from longtime owner Arnim Whisler or any other club official, but from “the Chicago Red Stars” that did not thank Dames nor say much of anything.

Speculation abounded, until the pieces all rapidly fell into place on Monday afternoon. At 3:14 PM, the Washington Post published a piece by sports investigative journalist Molly Hensley-Clancy (whose reporting also played a vital role in the exposure of accusations of abuses against former Washington Spirit head coach Richie Burke) detailing how over the course of the last decade Dames had established a pattern of verbal and emotional abuse of players that ranged from inappropriate, to vengeful, to overly personal, to downright cruel.

Dames became the latest man in power in the NWSL to be revealed as someone who took advantage of that power in relationships with players.

This is a story that begins with Dames, but it certainly does not end with him and poses no shortage of questions for what comes next.

Rory Dames

“I think Rory emotionally abuses players…I’d been told to be quiet…I was terrified of what Rory would do and say if he found out {about reports to US Soccer}” Christen Press (Red Stars 2014-2017, US Women’s National Team, Angel City FC)

“He uses his power and status as the coach to manipulate players and get close to him,” Becca Roux (Executive Director, USWNT Players Association)

“Something happens to him when he comes to work…he’s a completely different person…it’s extremely demoralizing and definitely verbally abusive,” Sam Johnson (Red Stars 2014-2018, ASJ Soyaux)

“It was really sexist,” – anonymous

“I realized this man would use information he has about me in a way that will harm me,” – anonymous

That’s just a selection of the quotes from the Washington Post piece. Several other former players have since chimed in on social media backing up the reporting in the piece including Abby Erceg, Carmelina Moscato, Melissa Tancredi, Taylor Vancil and Rosie White.

The fact that Dames is ‘a yeller’ is not news to anyone who has followed the Red Stars. But the details provided by players make it clear that this went far beyond simply being frustrated or making sure he got his message across.

Player safety is of the utmost importance. Period. Players deserve clubs and a league where they can feel safe, not fear retribution, and feel some basic sense of having freedom over their lives.

And this has been a long process for many Red Stars players, given that Dames coached many of them as children.

He is the president of Eclipse Select Soccer Club, which is based in west-suburban Oak Brook and has five alumni currently on the Red Stars roster. The girls’ side of the club is as close to an academy as any NWSL club not directly associated with a MLS team, and it is allegedly well understood that if you want to make it to pro soccer as a girl in metro-Chicago, the only path to the top is playing for Dames.

This kind of manipulation and abuse is effective because of the way it makes the behavior involved feel not only normal, but necessary. There were a lot of details in the Washington Post that angered me, that made me seethe, but the dagger might have been this detail plucked from a March piece in The Equalizer, with the new context the WaPo story provided:

“It’s not like he does anything without a reason,” said Red Stars midfielder Danielle Colaprico. “That’s the thing I have taken away is that if I’m getting yelled at, there’s always going to be a reason…it’s just a matter of finding that reason.”

That’s heartbreaking to read, especially after all I’ve read this week. The idea that if a coach is berating you, or treating you in any way negatively, it must be your fault, that the definition of who the best ‘team players’ are is who can withstand the most.

I hope the players are able to take the time they need to process all of this, that they are surrounded by people who care about them to help them through it, that those who didn’t feel comfortable speaking before and want to are able, and that none of the women who have played for the club think any less of themselves because of the behavior of one man who tried to exert his power over their existence.

U.S. Soccer

In reporting by Meg Linehan of The Athletic on former North Carolina Courage and Portland Thorns head coach Paul Riley that led to his departure from Portland as a result of the abuse that was uncovered, it was revealed that the NWSL (then operated by U.S. Soccer) had reviewed complaints by players and done nothing.

Likewise, U.S. Soccer did not take seriously concerns about Dames brought to them by Christen Press. According to the Washington Post, Press voiced her concerns to then U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati and other officials as early as 2014. In 2017, she submitted a formal complaint to U.S. Soccer after asking Dames to trade her due to the way he had treated her. In both cases, U.S. Soccer did nothing.

There’s already plenty to say about the way Sunil Gulati and his successor Carlos Cordeiro treated USWNT players over the years, but the willful ignorance with regard to the concerns of Press — a star player on the best women’s national team in the world — display that not only did these men and other officials not view the players as deserving of equal compensation to men, they did not deserve the same respect or have the same human dignity.

They weren’t there every day psychologically manipulating players, but they were more than happy to watch Dames do so.

Ownership

Rory Dames lost one of his jobs. He may well lose his other job, given the harm such behavior can particularly inflict on children.

But his actions could have been curtailed, or at the very least addressed, much sooner if not for the inaction of many others.

While U.S. Soccer was formally involved, the first line of authority is Red Stars ownership, and mainly Arnim Whisler who has been an owner of the club for its entire existence and owned it outright from 2011 until earlier this year when 32 new owners were brought on board.

According to The Post, Whisler was aware of the investigation that resulted from Press’ 2017 complaint and was informed of player allegations.

In a league where there has been so much turnover and turmoil among owners and coaches, Whisler and Dames had outlasted everyone and had the longest such relationship in the league by a mile.

Thus, it would have been appropriate and expected for him to make a statement this week. Instead, he has hidden. Behind the initial anonymous quote, behind multiple anonymous statements issued since, behind his 32 new co-owners, and behind now-locked social media accounts.

It is sham and cowardice, at best, and complete disinterest in the pain players were caused on his watch at worst.

If he doesn’t want to deal with a serious situation that now sits on his doorstep, then perhaps those other owners should take it off his plate and remove him from the equation.

It’s hard to imagine the club suddenly becoming a safe place for players if the power structures don’t change.

Now What?

Support the players, first and foremost. Quotes like the one from Colaprico and an answer former Red Star Katie Naughton gave just a few weeks ago about her past experiences now read differently. When something sounds off, follow up. Ask. Give players room to talk.

When a player leaves the club in a trade that makes no soccer sense, or a player doesn’t play for weeks or months without explanation, or a player in a position of need is loaned or released to play overseas, question it. Keep asking until there’s an answer.

So much of the coverage of women’s soccer comes from being a fan of the sport and wanting it to grow. The passion everyone around the sport has for the game and its players is a strength. However, that type of coverage must be supplemented by journalism that holds those in power to account. That can’t be done when media are, for example, publishing huge exposés one week and doing promotional material on a club’s Twitter account the next (coincidentally, a club who fired their general manager for misconduct and then had no reporting at all done on why…but I digress).

I’ve heard it put a few different ways that it’s more enjoyable as a soccer fan to support players rather than clubs, and when you become involved in media I think that happens somewhat naturally in any sport.

But when it comes to the NWSL, it’s essential at this point. The league, the governing body, the clubs, nobody in power has shown themselves worthy of trust. Which leaves the players.

Support them, root for them. If this league (or any future version of it) is to thrive, it will be because of them and because of the people who love the game and those who play it.

I can’t say I know Rory Dames, and maybe none of us who have covered the team really do. I’ve spoken with him on only a handful of occasions in media settings, and yet even I find myself reevaluating those interactions and wondering if I missed some signs or could have done something different. I’m sure this process has been a lot harder for those who have been around the team much longer than I have.

Already reflecting on statements posted by Red Stars players after last Saturday’s loss to the Spirit in the NWSL Championship, there is emotion between the lines. If that was always there, I’m sorry I didn’t see it and that I didn’t ask the questions that clearly should have been asked. Maybe it was impossible to know better, but I (and I think many others) know better now.

Dames is gone. Whisler should follow. The NWSL must be cleansed of the people who built the structures that have protected abusers and allowed them to hold power for so long.

There has been so much pain. Let’s work to make sure the players who have felt it can find peace.