Should we (I) have recognized monsters in women’s soccer?
Mira Sorvino was a recent guest on Marc Maron’s podcast. As any wide-ranging conversation about her life and her career must, the podcast covered the 20-year gap between major-studio movies that was inflicted on her when she shunned Harvey Weinstein’s advances. It’ll also mention that her Oscar win was in a film in which her director and co-star was Woody Allen.
Sorvino is angry. How could she not be? But she also expressed a bit of regret that she didn’t recognize the impact of the monsters in her business, neither the one who preyed on her nor the one who (allegedly) preyed on others.
I covered women’s soccer for a couple of decades. We now know that we in the WoSo community had monsters among us as well.
Let’s get to the disclaimer: Paul Riley and Rory Dames absolutely protest their innocence regarding claims of sexual misconduct. Accusations of a non-sexual nature against other coaches are difficult to evaluate. Some of the verbal abuse claims would elicit a shrug from anyone who ever saw much-heralded coaches such as Herb Brooks and Mike Krzyzewski, the latter of whom once unleashed a profane ambush on a lot of my colleagues at The Chronicle but seems to have been chastened by the experience. In terms of physical treatment, women’s soccer players who go to North Carolina know Anson Dorrance is going to put them through hell.
But there’s surely a point at which coaches are unhinged, and when racist and homophobic language comes out, they’ve passed it. SafeSport training stresses that athletes cannot be denied water. The alleged sexual misconduct is reprehensible. The accusations are credible. And even if (I cannot stress this “if” enough) Riley and Dames are innocent, there are plenty of coaches who are not. You can find their names at the SafeSport registry.
So how did we not know about any of this for so many years?
Some of the ignorance was institutional. Players were let down by organizations that were either ill-equipped to handle pleas for help or simply turned away. (Along those lines — the U.S. Center for SafeSport needs to exist, and its flaws need fixing. As we found with doping, an independent body is essential, and the funding should come from Congress so there are absolutely no strings attached to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee or its constituent federations who should be using their money for athlete programs. The SafeSport registry is vital because it collates all sexual abuse-related suspensions and some other categories at all levels of the sport, from the pros to volunteers at obscure local clubs.)
It’s also fair to say I’ve embarked on some self-reflection. What should I, as a journalist who was covering this sport when few other people were, have known?
Maybe not much, given that players tended to be guarded around me and probably most other reporters over the years. My book, Enduring Spirit, was intended to give readers a look at how players managed to survive on meager wages in a start-up league. It failed. Maybe I failed to ask the right questions, or maybe the players — who seemed perfectly comfortable with me at practice and were unfailingly pleasant — simply didn’t want to tell their stories to the 43-year-old dude on the bus. If they’re not going to tell me what they’re doing to make ends meet, they’re not going to tell me if something horrible is happening.
And that could be the problem. For many years, most reporters who covered women’s soccer for major outlets were Gen X men with a few Boomers scattered into the mix.
Perhaps players simply trust young women more than they trust older men. Perhaps there was nothing I could have done. But I’m not sure, and I sometimes find myself replaying conversations in my head to see if I either missed something or gave anyone a reason to think I wouldn’t be willing to listen.
Players certainly put on a brave face. I couldn’t possibly count the number of people who praised Riley, Dames and other coaches who were shoved out of the NWSL in the past 18 months. My memories were also shaped by the overwhelming support North Carolina alumni gave Dorrance when Debbie Keller and Melissa Jennings launched sexual harassment suits against him. (Among Dorrance’s more outspoken supporters: a senior named Cindy Parlow, now U.S. Soccer president.) Those cases were settled, and Dorrance remains one of the nation’s top college coaches, even if it’s more difficult for UNC to rack up undefeated seasons these days.
And the rules have changed, surely for the better. Organizations are now making it easier to report abuse, though we’re clearly not all the way there in terms of enforcement.
If you had told me Riley or Dames had what I’ll euphemistically call “relationships” with adult players, I might have shrugged it off, thinking of all the women’s soccer players of my generation who married their former coaches. A study of Canadian athletes in 2000 found that more than 20% of them had slept with their coaches or other “authority figures.” (See this 2001 SI story about such relationships — some disrupted their teams, but there seemed to be no problem with 1999er Daneille Fotopoulos starting her relationship with George Fotopoulos when he was coaching her U-19 team.)
And such relationships were never unique to the sports workplace. Remember the Friends episode in which Ross is trying to figure out whether dating one of his students is against the rules or merely “frowned upon”? The plotline resonated because Gen Xers all know of professors who dated/married students or workplace relationships that caused some staff reshuffling on the fly.
After horror stories emerged about grooming (yes, Florida politicians, grooming isn’t limited to gay people — I know there’s a lot of sand in your state, but pull your heads out of it), laws prohibiting coach-athlete relationships were imposed upon reluctant organizations such as USA Swimming. The SafeSport code says a power imbalance between a coach and athlete exists until the athlete is 20 years old and is no longer working with that coach.
So the lines on sexual misconduct are considerably less blurry than they once were, Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus’ atrocious performance notwithstanding. The lines on emotional misconduct and harassment in the SafeSport code offer a few specifics (the “hazing” section specifies that you cannot physically restrain or paddle someone) but leaves a few things open to judgment.
If you had told me a few years ago that Riley or Dames had acted inappropriately, I probably would’ve vaguely wondered if this was analogous to Coach K cussing out The Chronicle staff or Dorrance making comments he now recognizes as inappropriate. At worst, I might have wondered if their conduct rose to the level of Bobby Knight, the controversial coach who was controversially fired at Indiana after decades of temper tantrums that veered into physical incidents.
A wave of (mostly) well-reasoned rules and laws has swept through sports. Journalists need to be ahead of that wave, not behind it.
And the media have changed as well. The women’s soccer media now skew younger and are no longer male-dominated. Yes, there’s a danger of replacing one lack of diversity with another — some prominent outlets and voices are ageist and elitist, and the old-school ink-stained white dude who paid his dues covering high school sports and was held accountable by a local community is being replaced, in some cases, by people who had the means to cover the sport for free for a few years. We have gender diversity and a large contingent of LGBTQ reporters, but racial and socioeconomic diversity are a long way off.
In a weird way, it works — some people are going to be the preferred go-to outlets when players want to reveal something, while other people sit back at a distance and offer a different perspective. If readers take multiple perspectives into account, then we’ll have a well-informed fan base. All I can hope is that readers also avoid cloistering and understand that the people who have historical perspective and can dig into federation finances have something valuable to add.
And as long as we have some reporters with whom athletes are comfortable sharing difficult stories, we will have made progress.
But on a personal level, I’ll always need to reflect on whether my words and actions, not just my gender, make women uncomfortable sharing things that need to be shared. I don’t cover women’s soccer that much any more — it’s just not an arena in which I feel welcome, thanks in part to organizations that don’t like anyone who challenges the narrative — but I’m still covering issues such as sexual abuse in all sports. It’s important work, and not enough people are doing it. If anyone else wants to take a look, start by digging into the SafeSport registry.
I can only do this work by reflecting on what I knew, what I thought I knew, what I should have known, and what I can do to know better.
And I can hope that the work I do will make it easier to recognize the monsters in our midst.