There are two new names to add to the list of firings due to misconduct in the NWSL – Portland Thorns assistant coach Sophie Clough and head athletic trainer Pierre Soubrier.
On Jan. 24, the NWSL put out a statement saying that the Portland Thorns reached out to the league to investigate concerns about two separate incidents, one involving Clough and the other involving Soubrier.
The Thorns reported to the league that Clough, who joined the team in 2016, had kissed a player on the neck during their championship celebration on Oct. 31, 2022. This contact violated league policy. There were also accusations of Clough bullying the players, but third-party investigators found that claim to be unsubstantiated.
Soubrier was fired after he had told team physician Dr. Breanne Brown that he had given two players medication containing codeine on Oct. 22 — both without physician supervision and one without informed consent. Soubrier was placed on administrative leave on Dec. 7 and that claim was found to be substantiated.
But these are just the most recent misconduct cases to turn up in the NWSL. After almost two years since bringing the investigations to light, coaches have been fired, players have spoken out, and teams have called for the league to take broader preemptive action. Why are we still seeing this happen? Will the NWSL ever be misconduct and controversy-free?
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A scientific perspective
“Sexual harassment, in all its forms, thrives in power imbalances. The relationship between an athlete and their coach or a patient and their medical professional is inherently vulnerable because one person has so much power over the other,” Nicole Bedera, a sociologist who studies how social structures make sexual violence more likely to occur, told Deadspin. “When we add gender inequality into the equation, these power disparities deepen. It is normative in our society to sexualize women and women don’t always have autonomy over their own bodies. As a result, these kinds of violations are more likely in women’s sports than men’s. They feel ‘normal,’ even though they are damaging.”
We see this trend of power imbalances riddled throughout the history of women’s sports. Think about Larry Nassar, for example, and his decades of abuse towards young women and girls in the gymnastics world. He used his position as the physician of USA Gymnastics to assault countless athletes. The first person who spoke out against him, Rachael Denhollander, came forward in 2004 when she was 15. Nassar was not sentenced until Denhollander was 29.
In the 10 years that the NWSL has existed, the scale of misconduct and abuse of power is finally coming to light. As long as the power imbalances continue, however, the NWSL and other areas of women’s sports will continue to face this type of misconduct and abuse.
But it can’t go on any longer.
Long-term consequences for NWSL
The complete eradication of assault and misconduct is a long shot of a wish, but it took Denhollander and the rest of Nassar’s victims 14 years to see their abuser go to jail. If it takes 14 years for the NWSL to fix its imbalances, the league will fall apart. There could be lockouts and protests. Players will play overseas in Europe or in Canada’s league once it’s established. The NWSL will be known around the world as the league that allowed its players to be assaulted.
That is a dismal conclusion. It’s unsatisfying. We want to see things go better. Thankfully, we are already on the right track. The players are taking back their autonomy and more importantly, their power.
The people who have been abusing their power with their position are no longer getting away with it, as the players of the NWSL are speaking out, like Mana Shim. Shim accused former Thorns coach Paul Riley — who was given a lifetime ban by the league — of sexual coercion in 2015, allegations detailed in the Sally Yates report that came out in October 2022. Former Racing Louisville defender Erin Simon told Yales about the sexual coercion she faced from former coach Christy Simon, stating he would touch her inappropriately for “every pass she fucked up.” The vocality of the players has not gone unnoticed.
“It is encouraging that there are consequences in this case,” said Bedera. “The research that exists is perfectly clear: The only spaces where sexual harassment does not occur are the ones that will not tolerate it. For decades, women athletes have been expected to endure sexual harassment and assault as part of the job. But as social norms shift, we will eventually see these kinds of cases become less common. It chips away at those gendered expectations that women’s bodies — and women athletes’ bodies, in particular — belong to the public.”
The Yates report was a huge eye-opener to how deep and how long the abuse was occurring in the NWSL. The league is now heading in the direction of being misconduct free. The actions by the Thorns and the league proves they are trying to move forward and not continue to perpetuate the damage these people like Clough and Soubrier have done.