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The horrifying abuse in the NWSL is no surprise to anyone in the game

The Guardian
The Guardian
 2022-10-04
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Fans hold up signs reading ‘No More Silence!’ and ‘Protect NWSL Players’ before a game between Racing Louisville FC and North Carolina Courage at Sahlen's Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, North Carolina.

I was asked to speak with the Yates investigation into abuse in US soccer after the Guardian published its own report into the University of Toledo that included my reports of being a survivor of sexual assault and abuse. The reality as a survivor is that you struggle to trust others and any sign of doubt about what you share triggers physical and emotional responses that make reliving those experiences yet again difficult.

Talking to the Yates investigators, I felt the disbelief was not that they doubted my story but a lack of understanding of how deep systemic abuse runs through every level of women’s soccer in the US.

Over two hours with the investigators, I shared experiences from my youth playing career, collegiate playing career, coaching career and my role as a US Soccer grassroots coaching instructor.

I told the investigators that none of the stories from the NWSL – which include reports of coaches sexually assaulting their players – were shocking for me or my peers, including those who left soccer behind decades ago. We knew the names that were mentioned. We saw these people abuse others in public and were always left imagining what might happen behind closed doors, where no one would step up to stop the perpetrators.

To understand what happened (and is happening) in the NWSL you have to look at the full landscape of the game: youth to adult, players to coaches to referees, boards to owners, clubs to governing bodies.

It all comes down to an unwavering desire by those with power to protect their own and the institutions. The truth is uncomfortable for those in power to digest. This leads to no accountability and a trail of discarded players, coaches, referees and fans who leave soccer because of the failures of leadership to protect them. The potential for success on the field is placed at a higher value than the well being of victims and survivors of abuse by the institutions who employ and enable the abusers.

I want to scream at the top of my lungs “YOU KNEW” to the leaders, institutions and organizations that run our sport. When we are finally able to come up for air and express what occurred to us, to follow what the system says we should do and report our experiences, our expectations of protection and trust are ignored or, at best, trampled on.

The best thing a survivor can do is to keep speaking up and calling out. Then a survivor will learn two things: you were not the only one, and in many cases the institution knew something about the perpetrator before you told them your story but did nothing.

But unfortunately, governing bodies and institutions, like the University of Toledo where I experienced my assault and abuse, have the protections we as survivors often do not have: opaque or non-existent oversight and the money to keep the truth away from the public. But make no mistake. They know there is a problem, yet they do nothing about it and get away with it because the systems that supposedly provide protections fail in every way and every day. In one of my conversations with a Special Victims Unit police detective I was told, “You probably need at least 10 victims. You’re at seven. Do you think you could find more?” They know there is a problem, yet they do nothing about it.

Administrators and leadership in positions of influence survive because of silence. It’s a circle of silence, in which a survivor feels defeat, shame and guilt when the institution’s inaction and silence breaks a survivor’s will to keep fighting. In my own case, the University of Toledo survives because of silence. The Ohio Soccer Association, where the coach who assaulted me continued his career, will survive with silence. US Soccer, which gave the coach who assaulted me credibility and a career, will survive because of silence. They know there is a problem, yet they do nothing about it.

Abuse in sports is normalized and has been too long masked under “what a coach is” and what a “coach must do to help you improve”. Holding expectations and accountability are pieces of a coach’s responsibilities but what everyone is now witnessing is how normalized abusive practices and behaviors have been a direct path to manipulation, harassment and abuse. They are vastly ignored because we explained them away for so long and at such a young age to most athletes.

Bobby Knight, the infamous chair-throwing basketball coach from Indiana University, was idolized by my Chicagoland club coach during my teenage years. I experienced similar temper tantrums from my coach as a teenager. I knew no different. Many of us knew no different for most of our playing days and those at the top typically did not acknowledge the difference between what helps and what hurts.

Since my lived experience at Toledo was published, the public has been generous in their words of support and comfort. Outrage is shared in the lack of empathy for the victims and the lack of accountability from the University of Toledo, NCAA, Department of Education, SafeSport, Ohio Soccer Association and US Soccer in response to the reports. Yet silence must not be allowed to win.

My plea goes to all of the institutions and organizations that have the capability to take a stand on accountability and consequences. Keep this game as safe as possible for the players, coaches, referees, administrators and fans. Be brave. Be courageous. And stop being silent. You knew. And you could have done something about it.

  • Candice Fabry is the owner of Fearless & Capable; Head Women’s Soccer Coach at Ottawa University (KS); Head Women’s Soccer Coach for Kansas City Courage, Midwest Region Coach for the US Youth Olympic Development Program; State Coach for Kansas Soccer Youth State Association Olympic Development Program; and a US Soccer Grassroots Coaching Instructor. She was a former assistant coach and player at the University of Toledo.

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