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New allegations of sexual misconduct have surfaced regarding former members of the Utah soccer organization that runs Real Salt Lake and once included the Utah Royals FC.
An investigation into the National Women’s Soccer League, commissioned by the U.S. Soccer Federation and released Monday, revealed “systemic” abuse and misconduct involving multiple NWSL teams. Included in the findings were new accounts involving former RSL owner Dell Loy Hansen and former Royals coach Craig Harrington.
More than 200 people were interviewed for the report, including current and former players, coaches and front office staff from 11 current and former NWSL teams.
The report states that during the course of the investigation conducted by former acting attorney general Sally B. Yates, more than one person called Hansen “touchy” and said he was prone to “stroking their cheeks and holding their hands.”
One woman within the Royals organization, the report states, “felt so uncomfortable that she contacted League personnel about Hansen’s conduct in 2019.” That same woman was asked by Hansen about her sexual orientation and whether she was dating a player. The woman, per the report, said other owners thought Hansen’s behavior was a liability and an “open secret.” She believed that “maybe it’s more tolerated because he’s putting money into women’s soccer.”
Hansen came under fire in 2020 for making racist remarks and creating a toxic workplace environment. In the aftermath, he chose to sell both RSL and the Royals. The Royals were moved to Kansas City that December. David Blitzer and Ryan Smith bought Real Salt Lake at the beginning of this year.
In addition to new accusations regarding Hansen’s conduct, the report shines new light on the dismissal of Harrington as the Royals coach in 2020, nine months after he was hired.
Harrington contributed to the “toxic” environment at the club by making “inappropriate, sexualized jokes and comments to staff,” according to the report. He reportedly had similar interactions with players, including making a “joke” about a player having sex in a minivan she had recently purchased. Harrington told investigators he had apologized for that comment. He said that comment as well as one in which he called raising children “a woman’s job” were made flippantly and were meant to be taken lightly, the report stated.
However, former Utah Royals player Lo’eau LaBonta said Harrington “maybe made a toxic environment for us” during a June 2021 podcast in which she spoke extensively about issues within the club.
“It’s funny now,” she said, noting players would gather to hold film sessions on their own, “but it’s not funny being there.”
The Royals placed Harrington on administrative leave prior to the team’s 2020-21 season opener and ultimately fired him. The organization never gave an explanation for either action except to say they were not related to investigations into Hansen’s alleged misconduct. Assistant Amy LePeilbet replaced Harrington as interim coach.
Harrington declined to comment further when reached Monday.
The Royals were not alone in their problems.
“Our investigation has revealed a league in which abuse and misconduct — verbal and emotional abuse and sexual misconduct — had become systemic, spanning multiple teams, coaches, and victims,” according to the 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. The verbal and emotional abuse players describe in the NWSL is not merely ‘tough’ coaching. And the players affected are not shrinking violets. They are among the best athletes in the world.”
In fact, one player came to the Royals as a result of misconduct by the coach of another team, according to the report.
Defender Samantha Johnson was traded from the Chicago Red Stars to the Royals in 2018. The trade, according to U.S. Soccer’s report, came six days after she wrote to the NWSL to complain about Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler ignoring reports she had made to him about coach Rory Dames having inappropriate relationships with players.
Johnson had asked to be traded and, according to the report, was “relieved” it went through. Given the timing, though, the report said Johnson “believes the timing was ‘100%’ connected to her report.”
NWSL players revolted last year after media organizations reported on widespread abuse within the league. The league canceled all of its games the weekend after the accusations came out and commissioner Lisa Baird resigned. In addition, five of the league’s 10 coaches were fired or resigned. That movement led to U.S. Soccer turning to Yates to investigate the league.
The NWSL and the players’ union also retained a law firm, Covington and Burling, to investigate the accusations. According to the Washington Post, that ongoing probe has already led to temporary suspensions for Houston coach James Clarkson, Orlando coach Amanda Cromwell and Orlando assistant coach Sam Greene.
In a statement released Monday, the players union said “as difficult as this report is to read, it has been even more painful for [p]layers, whether known or unknown, to live it.” The statement said the players’ stories “have inspired us to engage in collective action to bring about change.”
Yates’ report noted some changes that have since been put in place as barriers to further harassment, such as an anti-harassment policy and an anonymous tip line, both instituted last year. Most teams, the report noted, did not have a human resources department.
The report also gave some suggestions for future action, while acknowledging that U.S. Soccer has little domain over the NWSL. U.S. Soccer could, however, enact restrictions in its licensing process to “weed out problematic coaches.” It also advised the federation to require the NWSL to investigate reports of misconduct and require league and team employees to participate.
Meanwhile, the report recommended NWSL teams be more open about why coaches are being dismissed.
U.S. Soccer has already established a committee focused on implementing those changes, led by former United States Women’s National Team player Danielle Slaton. It is expected to produce an action plan by January.