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U.S. Soccer breeding a culture of fear and abuse

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Soccer coach Rory Dames has been banned from the sport for life after allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced (Image by Dan Jensen)

Rory Dames is one of many soccer coaches recently outed as an abusive predator, with teams now speaking out against the toxic culture of the sport in the U.S., writes Zayda Dollie.

*CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses sexual abuse

U.S. SOCCER is a soccer federation, the national governing body for the sport in America. It was one of the first organisations to be affiliated with FIFA, the world’s governing body. The Federation oversees American soccer at every level, from youth clubs to coaching licenses, to the national teams.

In 2013, the Federation launched the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). The League originally featured only eight teams, eventually blooming to 12 and the idea was that the teams would own the League. In turn, the Federation would act as manager of the League, which it did up until three years ago.

In order to protect minors and athletes from sexual abuse, SafeSport was established in 2017 and was tasked with reviewing allegations of sexual misconduct. SafeSport is pegged as being a safe point of contact for athletes — their website includes a “report a concern” tab as well as a hotline. SafeSport, however, is primarily funded by the U.S. Olympic Committee — a body that seeks to positively promote its national teams and sports, which includes U.S. Soccer, its league, the athletes, as well as the coaches.

So when the Federation is the problem, who do you turn to?

In 1998, Rory Dames was 25 years old. Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, he was considered a key figure in the Chicago area soccer scene. After a brief professional stint playing for the Rockford Raptors, he eventually founded the youth soccer club, Eclipse Select. It was and still is a ‘soccer club for boys and girls’ according to its website. Dames was the sole owner of the club. At the time, he was also the head coach at his former high school — St Viator High.

That year would be the first time a complaint was made against Dames, but it would not be the last. Over the next two and a half decades, many more allegations would be made against Dames, through various authorities, but none of these would see him brought to account until 2023.

In 1998, a female player, who chose to remain anonymous, told her school counsellor that Dames had “touched her inappropriately on her upper thigh” and was “verbally inappropriate” with her. The police department in Illinois launched an investigation. The player eventually decided against taking legal action, saying she only wanted to “protect other players” by coming forward. It was later reported that the player was leaving for college and was worried because Dames was still coaching her younger sister.

As part of the investigation, 150 interviews were conducted with players from Eclipse and St Viator where Dames was coaching. One of the interviewed players was with Megan Cnota, who said that Dames made ‘degrading sexual jokes’ and spent a lot of time alone with young players.

Cnota said of Dames many years later:

“Looking back on it, you think, ‘What the hell is that guy doing hanging out with teenagers?’ It was grooming behaviour.”

One more anonymous woman came forward to allege that Dames had begun grooming her from the age of 14. She claimed Dames initiated a sexual relationship with her once she had turned 18 and that she had felt she had no choice in the matter.

Five more people interviewed corroborated the allegation that Dames spent a lot of time with the girls he coached outside of soccer.

Dames made his players and allegedly the parents of the players feel as though their future was in his hands. He marketed himself as being a bridging point between the athletes and college programs with parents complying in hopes of their child being awarded a college scholarship or other opportunities that came from playing soccer. Seeking favour would be a common theme associated with Dames’ coaching style, something that several players in the women’s professional league would later suffer from.

Haley Leanna said of him:

“He could single-handedly take your future in soccer away if he wanted to. No one wanted to risk that.”

Dames hired an attorney and denied all claims, saying through his lawyer that the allegations were false and that the facts relied on anonymous sources. No charges were brought against him.

Although at the time the investigation did not legally prove that Dames was guilty of grooming, he would eventually go on to marry and have two children with a former player from one of his teams, Sarah Uyenishi. They are alleged to have met when she was 14 and to have started a sexual relationship when she was still a player.

In early 2011, the owner of the team Chicago Red Stars, Arnim Whisler, met Dames at a facility where Eclipse and the Red Stars were training. He hired Dames, who was still a youth coach at the time, to coach the Red Stars. A year later, Arnim Whisler would work together with U.S. Soccer to found the National Women’s League. For the entirety of Dames’ career, while he continued to coach the Red Stars in the League, Whisler would support Dames, ignoring claims brought against him by players and management.

Dames was known to yell at his players, including vulgar and offensive obscenities, from the sidelines as well as in training. He had a habit of singling out players and making personal attacks on them. During one training session, multiple players shared an account of Dames accusing a player of not communicating clearly, screaming at her, “If you can’t even talk on the field, what kind of mother are you?”

Two players verified that he made a joke that an Asian player should be smarter than she was playing because she was Asian. He referred to another player from Appalachia (the eastern part of the U.S.) as “trailer trash”.

Jen Hoy, who played under Dames for five years, recounted a match they had played in New York before a long weekend. Her parents had driven eight hours to watch the game and she had requested to stay in New York after the game so she could see them. He told her he would let her know after the game and in the locker room told her, “You’ll be travelling back with the team tonight”. When the team returned to Chicago, he gave them the rest of the weekend off. 

Five players recalled that during a pre-season training trip, Dames had informed the team that there would be a day of one-on-one meetings but gave them no schedule and ordered them to be available with five minutes’ notice. Three players verified that on the day no one dared to leave the hotel room, not even for food, in case they would be called and not show up.

“He’s holding your career in the palm of his hands,” one player said of the incident. The culture of fear surrounding Dames seems to have reinforced not only the silence that existed around player mistreatment, but enabled and exacerbated the power play that Dames utilised against the players he was coaching.

Another player said Dames would send her frequent text messages, late at night, commenting on her appearance or telling her that he was disappointed in her. He would ask her to make appearances at youth team practices and she felt that they were mandatory. Eventually, she began to decline his invitations and was immediately benched at the next game. For two weeks, she was barred from training with the team and only allowed to train with the reserves.

After two weeks, Dames said to her:

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that you’ve pulled yourself away from me and you’re playing worse. We’re better when we’re connected.”

When she was allowed to play again, Dames blamed her in front of the media, referencing her position (without naming her directly), “That person didn’t do their job. It’s as simple as that”. The same player was singled out again during half-time at a different match, when Dames screamed at her in front of the entire team, saying: “I swear on my daughter’s life, if you pass the ball backward or sideways one more fucking time, I’m taking you off the field!”

On multiple accounts, former players describe Dames as having treated the team like “little girls” and not as adults — demeaning and degrading in its effect.

In 2014, Christen Press came forward to tell the president of U.S. Soccer that Dames was abusive and that the environment at the Red Stars was unprofessional. Two other players corroborated Press’ concerns.

The director of the League then sent an email to Whisler, the owner of the team, who then responded that the claims ‘paint a wildly inaccurate picture of the team’. He further stated that unhappy players had ‘an axe to grind’ and no further action was taken.

In 2015, the League conducted a player survey among all teams and Dames was again called out for being abusive. The players had begun expressing their fear of speaking out, worried about retaliation from Dames and it negatively impacting their careers. This happened again in 2017, with players even more emphatic about the “poor coaching” and the fear connected to sharing negative feedback about Dames.

On 12 June 2018, Red Stars player Samantha Johnson sent an email to the League to report Dames for inappropriate behaviour and called out Whisler for having been made aware of this but choosing not to action it. On 18 June, six days later, Johnson was traded to the Utah Royals, another team.

In 2019, SafeSport received a report alleging that Dames had had a relationship with a former player, who he then went on to marry. SafeSport notified the Federation that it received the report and subsequently determined that there was insufficient information to proceed with a formal investigation.

In 2021, a group of the Red Stars minority owners made three formal attempts to communicate with Whisler about the reports of alleged abuse by Dames, but to no avail.

Finally, on 6 October, something incredible happened.

It was a Wednesday night and three matches across the League were being played. In the sixth minute of all three matches, every player on the field from both teams stopped play and made their way to the centre of the pitch. In silence, they formed a circle, linking arms. The players held their position for one minute before resuming the match.

The act was a league-wide protest against the mismanagement of teams and a demonstration of solidarity among its players. An article had come out just a few days prior, in which two players from the Portland Thorns spoke out about being abused by their coach, Paul Riley, and in so doing, exposed the culture of both abuse and silence within the League.

Neither the Federation nor the League had provided players with the support and protection they deserved but through the media, fans did — they brought placards and signs that expressed their solidarity with them.

Rory Dames had the longest tenure of any coach in the League, having coached the Red Stars even before the League’s inception in 2012 through to 2021, when it all came to a head.

Recently, on 10 January 2023, Dames – together with three other coaches – received a life ban from the League, permanently disbarring him from coaching any of its teams or players again.

If you would like to speak to someone about sexual violence, please call the 1800 Respect hotline on 1800 737 732 or chat online

Zayda Dollie is a sports journalist who believes in athlete story-telling, the redemptive power of sport and having female voices heard.

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