US Soccer has big plans to prevent player abuse. The problem is implementing them

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HARRISON, NJ - JUNE 19: A close-up view of San Diego Wave FC goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan (1) clearing the ball during the second half of the NWSL soccer match between NJ/NY Gotham FC and San Diego Wave FC on June 19, 2022 at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, NJ.  (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

On Monday, US Soccer announced its plans for a Safe Soccer program to clean up the sport. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The U.S. Soccer Federation plans to change a key set of licensing standards to limit the use of nondisclosure agreements and strengthen other protections against pro player abuse.

The alliance name the proposed changes on Monday, four months after the Yates report revealed that such abuse is widespread and systematic at all levels of the women’s game.

The report, which came from a year-long study commissioned by US Soccer itself, contained 12 key recommendations – steps the USSF could take to protect players. In response, US Soccer convened a board-level committee and a “participant safety task force.” On Monday, one day before a self-imposed deadline, he publicly shared the plans these two organizations have drawn up to take into account Yates’ recommendations and clean up the sport.

They announced their vision for the Safe Soccer program, which Yahoo Sports detailed earlier this month.

He also said the board’s committee – led by former US national team player Danielle Slaton and US Club Soccer CEO Mike Cullina – has recommended changes to the US Pro League Soccer Standards, a set of requirements which the NWSL, MLS and others must achieve. maintaining a qualification at the top of the sports pyramid.

Pending a vote by the board of directors at US Soccer’s annual meeting in mid-March, those standards will be updated for the first time in nine years to include:

  • A requirement that each league and each member club appoint a “player safety officer”.

  • A ban on “the use of non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements used to protect information about allegations of abuse” – which had become a semi-common practice, and allowed abusive coaches to get away from one group to another without restriction.

  • A requirement that all leagues must report “any allegations of misconduct or abuse” to US Soccer within two days of learning of the allegations.

  • A provision that would allow US Soccer to “probate leagues and teams and levy fines for non-compliance with participant safety standards.”

They also include a requirement for annual player background checks, and mandatory annual training “on verbal and emotional abuse, sexual misconduct, harassment and retaliation.” US Soccer worked with the NWSL to develop the league’s training program for 2023.

They are, in some cases, vague guidelines that may lack teeth. The leagues will be responsible for specific policies.

“Our job is to set the high-level policy,” Slaton acknowledged to a small group of reporters via Zoom on Monday. “Its implementation and weeding will be up to each individual pro league, and we, as US Soccer, will monitor that.”

And more importantly, the federation knows that Pro League Standards can only go so far. Sally Yates, the former US Assistant Attorney General who led the year-long investigation, laid this bare in her report.

“Abuse in the NWSL is rooted in a deeper culture in women’s soccer, starting in youth leagues, that normalizes abusive coaching and blurs boundaries between coaches and players,” she wrote.

US Soccer’s efforts in the youth arena will depend on the effectiveness of the Safe Soccer program – which, as explained by task force members and in press releases thus far, sounds ambitious and difficult to implement.

Monday’s announcement described it as a program for all adults that “will redefine the processes and criteria used to determine eligibility to participate in football in the United States. ” It “will include safety training, annual verification of background and contact information and background checks. ” He will ensure proper vetting of coaches and team personnel. It will strengthen US Soccer’s “licensing program, allowing the federation to hold coaches accountable for any wrongdoing and keep bad actors out of the sport entirely.” “

The program extends from the pros all the way down to recreational football.

“That’s the view,” Slaton said Monday. “And our challenge is how to do that, and how to implement that. This is not just going to be a flip-the-witch thing.”

A timeline of the proposed program for the Safe Soccer Program.  (Courtesy of USA Soccer)

A timeline of the proposed program for the Safe Soccer Program. (Courtesy of USA Soccer)

It will take 3-5 years to implement, according to a presentation given to US Soccer’s board earlier this month, and will be a huge institutional, financial and technological undertaking. There will be a “gradual rollout,” according to Emily Cosler, the U.S. Soccer staffer tasked with coordinating the effort, which will begin with U.S. Soccer staff in 2023 and pro coaches in 2024. Then, it will extend to youth coaches in 2025 and all other participants, from assistants to bus drivers, in 2026 and beyond.

Or, at least, that’s the goal. Bringing over 100 member organizations and thousands of people on board will be a challenge.

Cullina on Monday described what it would look like in practice. For an adult interested in coaching, he said, “there are a couple of things involved. One, the [U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee] standard background screening, for all our adult partners across our entire membership. It is also going to include additional education and resources every year that the participants have to go through – similar to what SafeSport has, but we are looking at our own models and ‘ address gaps where education can be helpful.

“It’s not too dissimilar to what’s happening now in each of the different states [soccer] associations or member organizations, but it will raise the bar for screening, it will raise the bar for education before you get certified.”

It will create additional hoops that all coaches, whether paid or volunteer, must jump through to be around the game. And administrators across the landscape are monitoring that.

“I don’t want to call it a contradiction,” Cullina said, “but there’s a cause and effect to raising standards. The cost, and the barriers to entry, rise with everything we do. With every 30-minute, every 45-minute, every hour and a half seminar you have to sit through, all the costs associated with screening, these are all real factors that we are working on.

“But that won’t stop the work,” he promised. “No one is raising their hand and saying, ‘Stop it, this is nonsense.’ It is, instead, what US Soccer feels is necessary to keep players safe.

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