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NWSL players are keeping a spotlight on the abuse and harassment female athletes face


Tonight the U.S. women's national soccer team plays the first of two matches this month against South Korea. Much of the focus is on retiring star Carli Lloyd. The popular 39-year-old veteran is playing her final national team games, but the celebration 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's refocused attention on an all-too-familiar problem female athletes throughout sports experiencing abuse and harassment, as NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: On a recent October night in Portland, Ore., the joy of women's sport once again was tempered by pain.

MEGHAN KLINGENBERG: This has been a really dark and heavy week for everyone in the league.

GOLDMAN: Meghan Klingenberg of the Portland Thorns 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.

MICHELLE BARTLETT: It has different details and different spins, but in a lot of ways it's just more of the same.

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


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: More than 150 women and girls, including numerous athletes and Olympic gymnasts, accused the former U.S. women's gymnastics team doctor of abuse.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: This report is claiming USA Swimming executives and board members did little or, in some cases, nothing about predatory swim coaches.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Jean Lopez, the Olympic taekwondo coach from Sugar Land, has been banned from any further activity connected to the sport after reports of sexual misconduct.

GOLDMAN: 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 physical, mental and verbal abuse.

RACHEL WOOD: So we normalized a grown man yelling at a child and singling her out or humiliating her as an attempt to motivate. And we don't even call that abuse. We call that coaching.

GOLDMAN: The power imbalance is established at that early age, Wood says - the coach as supreme authority, a gatekeeper to sporting success; the athlete following and not questioning, particularly young girls, she says, who are socialized traditionally to people-please and to be more submissive. Even when the abuse goes beyond yelling, as it did for Wood starting in her mid-teens, she had a coach who flipped the script. He was kind and supportive.

WOOD: After going years and years of hearing, you're a piece of [expletive]; you're never going to be anything, you're like, oh, wow.

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

WOOD: They build trust. 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.

GOLDMAN: There was never sex, she says. There was kissing and inappropriate touching. She never spoke up because she thought if she exposed him, she wouldn't be able to get the training she needed to play at an elite level. Wood says she went into survival mode.

WOOD: And it's like, how can I survive this with the long-term goal in mind? And I was kind of constantly looking into the future and just trying to survive the present.

GOLDMAN: Her future included two NCAA soccer titles at University of North Carolina, several years playing in the NWSL for the Boston Breakers and in 2019 starting the Summit Soccer Academy outside of Boston.


WOOD: Hey, Summit squad, and happy mindful Monday. So we're going to talk about this idea of control today. And...

GOLDMAN: Wood works with players on the field and off posting 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.

WOOD: I train both boys and girls. 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.

GOLDMAN: 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, an effective and comprehensive system of reporting abuse, more good people in positions of power, women and men who hold individuals, teams, organizations accountable. Professor Bartlett, the abuse researcher, says the power imbalance between athletes and coaches needs to change as well, especially at the 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.

BARTLETT: We even see parents allowing coaches to be abusive to their children. Their kid comes off the field, and they're 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.

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


UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: But Chicago is trying to change that here with a lovely run in behind. Can she finish? Oh, it takes a deflection. It hits the side netting.

GOLDMAN: With NWSL teams charging toward next month's playoffs, the work to fix the league's problems continues. The players association says by Monday, there will be resolution on a list of player demands made after the abuse scandal broke. The demands include thorough investigations, with an emphasis on those in positions of power and players having a say in the selection of a new league commissioner. The former head, Lisa Baird, just resigned. Players are talking about having 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. National team star Alex Morgan plays for the NWSL Orlando Pride.

ALEX MORGAN: I know that there's a lot of things that need to change, but we need to start building that trust. And at this point, it's just not there yet.

GOLDMAN: 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.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ALBUM LEAF'S "THE LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.