US Soccer has big plans to curb player abuse. The difficulty is in implementing them


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 US Football Association plans to change a number of key licensing standards to limit the use of non-disclosure agreements and strengthen other protections against professional player abuse.

The association announced The proposed changes on Monday, four months after the Yates report revealed such abuse is widespread and systemic at all levels of women’s football.

The report, which emerged from a year-long investigation commissioned by US Soccer itself, made 12 core recommendations — steps the USSF could take to protect players. In response, US Soccer established a board-level committee and “Participant Safety Task Force.” On Monday, a day before a self-imposed deadline, she publicly shared plans these two groups had developed to follow Yates’ recommendations and clean up the sport.

It announced its vision for a Safe Soccer program, which Emox News detailed earlier this month.

The board committee, chaired by former United States international Danielle Slaton and US Club Soccer CEO Mike Cullina, have proposed changes to US soccer’s Pro League Standards, a set of requirements shared by the NWSL, MLS and others must meet obtaining certification at the top of the sports pyramid.

Subject to a vote by the Board of Directors at US Soccer’s annual general meeting in mid-March, these standards will be updated for the first time in nine years to include:

  • A requirement for each league and each of its member clubs to 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 reasonably common practice, allowing abusive coaches to move freely from one organization to another.

  • A requirement for all leagues to “report allegations of misconduct or abuse” to US Soccer within two days of the allegations becoming known.

  • A provision that would allow US soccer to “put leagues and teams on probation and fines for failure to meet participant safety standards.”

They also include a requirement for annual player experience surveys 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 vague guidelines in some cases where teeth might be missing. The leagues will be responsible for specific policies.

“Our job is to set the high-level policy,” Slaton confirmed Monday to a small group of reporters via Zoom. “The implementation and weeding of that will be the responsibility of each professional league, with us as US Soccer really overseeing 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, made that clear in her report.

“Abuse in the NWSL is rooted in a deeper culture in women’s football, beginning in the youth leagues, which is normalizing verbally abusive coaching and blurring the lines between coaches and players,” she wrote.

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

Monday’s announcement touted it as a program for all adults that will “redefine the processes and criteria used to determine eligibility to play football in the United States.” It “will include safety training, an annual review of background and contact information, and background checks.” It will “ensure coaches and team personnel are properly screened.” It “will strengthen US Soccer’s licensing program and allow the federation to hold coaches accountable for any wrongdoing and keep bad actors out of the sport altogether.”

The program ranges from professionals to recreational football.

“That’s the vision,” Slaton said Monday. “And the challenge we have is how that’s going to be done and how that’s going to be operationalized. … It’s not going to be just one thing that flips the switch.”

A timetable for the planned introduction of the Safe Soccer program. (Courtesy of US Soccer)

According to a presentation made to US Soccer’s board of directors earlier this month, implementation will take three to five years and will be a massive institutional, financial and technological undertaking. According to Emily Cosler, the U.S. soccer staffer tasked with coordinating the effort, there will be a “phased rollout” that will begin in 2023 with U.S. soccer staffers and in 2024 with professional coaches, then 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. Onboarding over 100 member organizations and thousands of people will be the challenge.

Cullina described on Monday what that could look like in practice. For an adult interested in coaching, he said, “It’s going to involve a few things. One, there is the [U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee] standard background check for all our adult participants in all our memberships. It will also include annual training and additional resources that participants will need to go through – similar to SafeSport, but we are looking at our own modules and filling in gaps where training can help.

“It’s not too dissimilar to what’s happening in each of the other states now [soccer] Associations or affiliates, but it will raise the standard of screening, it will raise the standard of education before you can get certified.”

It will create additional hurdles that every coach, whether paid or volunteer, will have to jump through to get in on the game. And admins across the landscape are wary of it.

“I don’t want to call it resistance,” Cullina said, “but there is a cause and an effect to raising standards. Costs and barriers to entry increase with everything we do. Every 30 minutes, every 45 minutes, every hour and a half of seminar you have to go through, all the costs associated with screening, these are all real factors that we work through.

“But that won’t stop the work,” he promised. “No one puts their hand up and says, ‘Stop it, that’s nonsense.'” Rather, it’s what US Soccer believes is necessary to keep players safe.

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