PHILADELPHIA — At the core of its response to revelations of rampant and systemic abuse throughout its sport, the U.S. Soccer Federation is developing a “safe soccer certification” program that, it hopes, will curtail coach misconduct at all levels of the game.
In the aftermath of the Yates report, which detailed a vicious cycle of power imbalances and insufficient safeguards that followed girls from youth soccer to the pros, the USSF assembled both a board-level committee and a sprawling “task force” that would attempt to break that cycle and protect players.
While the board committee has focused on heeding the specific recommendations of the Yates report, which targeted the National Women’s Soccer League, the 37-member task force has focused on everything else. Its mandate is to address everything from the criminals who prey on kids to the well-meaning volunteer coaches who, with their actions or words, unknowingly cross a line.
They — the criminals and the volunteers, and everybody in between — exist across the amateur soccer landscape. “We’ve got a lot of problems. We know that,” Mana Shim, the task force chair, said last week. But she and her team also have urgency, a willingness to broach uncomfortable subjects, and ideas.
They outlined some of those ideas publicly for the first time at the United Soccer Coaches Convention last week, ahead of a presentation to U.S. Soccer’s board of directors Thursday. They want to “implement safeguarding officers across the soccer landscape.” They hope to launch the “safe soccer” program, which would provide educational materials or formal training to everybody in amateur soccer, from the assistant coach to the volunteer bus driver to the parents. Certified coaches and clubs could then be tracked using a centralized U.S. Soccer database.
And perhaps most importantly, the task force will attempt to better define what, exactly, proper and improper coaching is.
“In soccer, in sport, there’s a lot of gray area,” Shim said. “So, that’s the hardest thing to address.”
“I have an internal compass, and I can tell you, ‘No, this doesn’t feel right, this needs to be addressed,’” Shim later added. “That isn’t explicit across the board. And we want to make that the case.”
Participant Safety Task Force laying groundwork for solutions
Shim’s path into this role and this world was a painful one. She, back in 2015, was the relatively powerless Portland Thorns player who reported Paul Riley’s sexual harassment — and was largely ignored. When she retired from the sport a few years later, she thought: “I really need to do something about this. [I need to] make the soccer ecosystem a safer place.”
So she enrolled in law school at the University of Hawaii. While studying, she also publicly told her story, which instigated the reckoning that took down Riley and shook and remade the NWSL.
Then, in October, months after she graduated from law school and weeks after the release of the Yates report, U.S. Soccer called her. President Cindy Parlow Cone and CEO J.T. Batson wanted her to lead the task force, reform the institutions that had failed her, and tackle the systemic abuse that she had helped expose.
Shim accepted, then got to work.
She worked with two vice chairs — former U.S. women’s national team player Shannon Boxx and Maryland youth soccer director Greg Smith — and a recently hired U.S. Soccer staffer, Emily Cosler, to guide the task force forward. It comprises everyone from active players and soccer executives to doctors and heads of school. They started by sharing their own personal experiences and researching abuse prevention in other fields, such as education and medicine.
Through outreach and listening, they identified gaps in soccer’s systems, and brainstormed solutions. They used Miro, an online whiteboard tool, to “organize all the thoughts,” Smith said. They then tossed the ideas into a shared spreadsheet and prioritized their desired outcomes. They are now meeting regularly as subcommittees — “Governance,” “Standards and policy,” “Education” and “Reporting and response” — to map out routes to those outcomes. Members then bounce the ideas off their respective peers and constituents.
At a virtual forum with various stakeholders last month, “we got some tough questions,” Shim acknowledged. She and her colleagues also know that they don’t have all the answers — not yet, anyway. But she spends her mornings and nights trying to find them. U.S. Soccer has what Cosler called a “staff SWAT team” coordinating the effort. They meet “almost every day,” taking input from the task force. Batson and Cosler, whose background is in strategy and management consulting, also meet with the board committee every other week.
And together, they have some preliminary proposals for how to make soccer a healthier place.
‘Safety should be a competitive differentiator for clubs’
Their objectives sound very aspirational and, in some cases, vague. They want to “develop a code of conduct for all participants” and “create a matrix/thresholds for the severity of infractions.” They want to “establish a baseline level of training for each constituent” and “educate all players” on how to report misconduct. They want to clearly define who, in the convoluted youth soccer world, has jurisdiction over what, and where responsibilities lie.
“When I was playing, and really up until this point, there weren’t clear guidelines or policies for how coaches should conduct themselves — [and] refs, parents,” Shim said. “It was kind of piecemeal. And while there are some policies … OK, great, I love that it’s there, but who knows about it? Who is actually adhering to those policies?
“When I stepped out [of soccer] and went to law school,” she later continued, “I realized a lot of the things that I thought were OK — the way people talked to me, the way I talked to other people — it’s not OK out in other fields.”
So she and U.S. Soccer hope to formulate training material that not only explains to coaches what not to do, but what to do. They have talked about moving from a “red-light approach” to a “green-light approach” — whereby, rather than just policing bad actors, and relying on the U.S. Center for SafeSport, they’ll highlight and incentivize the certified good actors throughout the game.
Shim threw a celebratory fist up in the air when one attendee at their coaches convention presentation suggested such a system.
“That’s exactly what we’ve been talking about,” she said. “Thank you!”
“In my mind,” Cosler added, “safety should be a competitive differentiator for clubs.” She outlined her vision for a database where parents could research a youth club or compare multiple clubs, and decide between them based on their “safeguarding practices,” or their level of “safe soccer” certification. “We see that as an opportunity to market a club,” she said. “How can we, as U.S. Soccer, as a federation, allow this to become a competitive differentiator, and something, a brand, that people are proud of and want to lean into and adopt?”
They haven’t yet said, and perhaps don’t yet know what, exactly, this “safe soccer” program will look like. But Cosler said they’d “provide updates as we build out the implementation plan,” and as they work to optimize the program for each of their many stakeholders, from recreational clubs to elite academies. They’ve set a March 31 deadline.
They also know, though, that they have to tread carefully. Another attendee last week passionately pointed out that if they pile on too many trainings and cumbersome licenses, they risk driving good people away from the sport.
Which, of course, is not their goal. They want to bring kids and families to soccer because it’s safe, and want to keep well-intentioned coaches in it.
“I think some people thought we were gonna come in and be like, ‘Punish, consequences, no, blackballed, you’re out of the game,’” Shim said. On the contrary: “There are so many coaches and people involved in this game who just are ignorant. We don’t have the skills, we’re not equipped with the skills, to do the right thing. And there are a lot of people who aren’t malicious, but they made mistakes. And we want to have a path forward for those people, we want to give them the tools, and resources and education, make it available to everyone so they can do the right thing the next time.”