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NWSL releases joint investigative report on misconduct and abuse

The report includes more details on Farid Benstiti’s resignation from OL Reign

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OL Reign v Portland Thorns FC Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer/ISI Photos/Getty Images

On Wednesday, Covington & Burling LLP and Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP, the Joint Investigative Team between the NWSL and NWSL Players Association, released their investigative report following a 14-month independent investigation into historical and ongoing complaints of discrimination, harassment, abuse, and retaliation in the NWSL.

“Misconduct against players has occurred at the vast majority of NWSL clubs at various times from the earliest years of the League to the present,” the report found.

While much of the 125-page report focuses on the same coaches and clubs mentioned in Sally Yates’ report for U.S. Soccer, the joint investigation dedicates sections to additional coaches and club staff who have been fired or asked to resign due to inappropriate behavior. That includes OL Reign head coach Farid Benstiti, who was asked to resign in the summer of 2021 due to comments about player fitness and nutrition — although the club did not make those details public at the time of his departure.

While the reason for Benstiti’s resignation is not a surprise, as The Washington Post was the first to report those details last fall, the joint investigative report provides specific details about his hiring and the extent of his inappropriate comments toward players.

As the report notes, OL Reign hired Benstiti “despite the availability of public reporting by multiple media sources that Benstiti harshly criticized Lindsey Horan’s weight when he was her coach at the French club Paris Saint-Germain (“PSG”) and told her she could not play until she lost weight.”

The investigation criticizes the Reign for this hiring despite Horan speaking publicly about the weight-shaming behaviors at PSG on multiple occasions in 2018 and 2019.

For example, in 2018, Horan wrote an op-ed about her time at PSG and stated what she “went through . . . was almost like abuse ― emotionally and mentally,” and “extremely intense.” In 2019, several media outlets, including Yahoo! Sports and The New York Times, published articles detailing her experience at PSG. The Yahoo! Sports article mentioned Benstiti by name, stating that “the club’s technical staff, led by Benstiti, didn’t care about communicating fitness goals respectfully.” The same article reported that Horan said Benstiti and his staff “were just terrible” about discussing fitness goals and told players, “You need to lose weight, you need to get thinner, you need to run more.” The article also noted Horan’s observation that Benstiti’s insistence on weight loss was “more [about] how you were seen and not how it was helping you play.”

An April 2019 Adidas commercial focused on Horan overcoming her negative experience with Benstiti. In the commercial, she discussed a time when she beat all of her teammates in a physical fitness test but her coach said, in front of the whole team, “Lindsey, you’re not going to play in any games until you lose more weight.” Horan also said “the French coach was very brutal with it.” In October 2019, Horan also appeared in a Players’ Tribune podcast episode, titled “Lindsey Horan Opens Up About Body Shaming at PSG,” in which Horan said playing at PSG was the “lowest” part of her career in part because the coach was “brutal” and was not playing her because of “how [she] looked.”

According to a U.S. Soccer staff member, Bill Predmore — who at the time was the OL Reign minority owner and CEO — said it was a “cultural thing” and that he “worked on it.” While Predmore claimed in the report that he was unaware of the weight-shaming issues with Benstiti before he signed a contract, a former OL Reign staff member who worked closely with Predmore “was adamant that Benstiti had not yet been hired when Predmore was made aware of the issue.”

After announcing Benstiti’s hire, Predmore confirmed to Ride of the Valkyries that he spoke to Benstiti about Horan’s comments in addition to connecting with Horan’s agent, as she was at national team camp at the time. Predmore also claimed that he spoke to multiple players from Benstiti’s past. The joint investigative report notes that the Reign performed a background check on Benstiti but did not perform a reputational check.

Predmore — who was interviewed by the Joint Investigative Team — said that he instructed Benstiti not to discuss player weight or nutrition, and “specifically forbade him” from talking about anything food-related. Several additional individuals interviewed for the report confirmed this. However, it is clear now that Benstiti did not obey this instruction.

According to an OL Reign staff member interviewed for the joint investigation, a player in 2020 made overnight oats for breakfast, and Benstiti said in front of other players, “You don’t need those oats. You need to lose weight.” Another player said that during the 2020 Challenge Cup, Benstiti was “already hiding food under the table he didn’t want girls to eat.” That player also stated he was always commenting on food and women’s weight.

Predmore confirmed to the Joint Investigative Team that he was informed by a staff member during the Challenge Cup that Benstiti “made comments to a player about the quantity and type of food the player was eating during a team meal.” Predmore said he told Benstiti that his comments were not appropriate and that he was not permitted to have a conversation with any players about diet, nutrition, or fitness under any circumstance.

This theme continued in the 2021 season, however, and one player interviewed for the report said the team reached its “breaking point” when Benstiti gave a speech in late June about diet during a losing streak OL Reign was experiencing. Multiple individuals confirmed to the Joint Investigative Team that this speech occurred. Benstiti’s comments led one player to compile all players’ accounts of his speech into a formal complaint, which included Benstiti saying, “If I see you [eat] snacks, I will kill you.” There were multiple reports as well of players noting that Benstiti mentioned Horan by name, saying he will do the same thing and “I don’t care if it’s in the paper.”

According to the report, on June 28, 2021, a player reported Benstiti’s comments to Predmore, who suspended Benstiti from interacting with players the next day. Predmore also began discussing what action to take with OL Groupe management. Three days after Benstiti’s speech, a player formally reported Benstiti’s conduct to the NWSL. At the same time, on July 1, 2021, OL Reign asked for Benstiti’s resignation and notified the players that Benstiti would be removed as head coach.

While the report notes that a player told Predmore it was “so important” to make it public that Benstiti was terminated, the official statement from OL Reign said he resigned. Predmore’s quote in the club’s announcement said, “We are appreciative of Farid’s many contributions to the club over the past 18 months and wish him the best in all his future endeavors. We have great respect for Farid’s talents and all he brought to the organization, but in our recent conversations there was a collective agreement that new leadership was required to achieve the performances and results needed to satisfy our ambitions.”

Predmore told the Joint Investigative Team that the club’s “primary objective” was “to remove [Benstiti] from the role as quickly as possible” and the question of resignation or termination was “an important, but secondary concern.” This was communicated to the player who brought it up, who said they understood. However, one player told the Joint Investigative Team that Benstiti should have been fired and there should have been a private apology from the club to the players and a commitment to do right by the players.

Benstiti declined to speak with the Joint Investigative Team, but the details in the report make it clear that while the Reign handled things quickly, they could have addressed things even earlier and this could have been prevented in the first place by not hiring Benstiti with accusations surrounding him.

OL Reign’s response

OL Reign issued a statement a day after the report’s release. In the statement, OL Reign publicly acknowledged the harm done to players within the club. “OL Reign commends the courage of players who participated in the investigation and recognizes the comprehensive efforts to take significant steps towards systemic change would not be possible without their bravery in sharing their stories. We apologize to players, present and former, who were directly impacted by these events within our club.”

The club also lists some of the steps it has taken and will take to ensure this does not happen again. In late 2021, OL Reign launched an anonymous reporting system, Real Response, for players or staff to report misconduct. They also expanded Safesport training to all technical and front office staff and enhanced their hiring to improve stronger vetting procedures.

“All the work that was done since October 1 last year was to create transparency and to have a trusting relationship with the players so they could express anything they feel is wrong,” OL’s head of international women’s football, Sophie Sauvage, said in a recent interview with The Athletic.

As the joint investigation report notes, Predmore at the time of Benstiti’s hire and coaching tenure was in charge of both the business and HR sides of the club’s operations. While it should have come earlier, OL Reign’s statement also notes that they are hiring an HR & Sport Safety Director to address this.

In collaboration with players and key club stakeholders, OL Reign also plans to develop a Code of Conduct; establish and launch DEI programs and ongoing training to address all types of misconduct including discrimination, harassment, and abuse; and activate and support immediate and future initiatives driven by the NWSL and the NWSL Players Association.

OL Reign concludes in their statement that “these actions are not meant to diminish the pain or trauma players have endured throughout the process but reflects a collective pledge to build systems and an environment in which player safety is paramount to the long-term success of the club.”

In her Athletic interview, Sauvage also shared gratitude for “the players who were able to speak publicly, we owe them a lot. It’s brave to do that. When you speak, you don’t do that for yourself, you do that for everyone else.”

Sauvage concludes with a vision for what it means to be an organization that leads. “We need to be a role model organization because that’s what everyone deserves. You cannot just say we want to be a role model organization, you need to face the truth, take corrective actions and work on systemic reform.”

Joint Investigative Team Recommendations

OL Reign and Benstiti are just a small part of an extremely detailed, 125-page report from the Joint Investigative Team, which also notes acts of racism and further inappropriate comments made by club staff and coaches that created toxic environments for players. This joint report goes beyond the coaches Sally Yates focused on in her U.S. Soccer report (Rory Dames, Paul Riley, and Christy Holly), although those three and their clubs receive plenty of attention as well.

The report makes 39 systemic recommendations to the league, grouped into six different themes. Some of the recommendations include conducting more thorough vetting processes of coaches, sharing findings of misconduct among teams, and discouraging the use of nondisclosure agreements to prevent coaches who were fired or asked to resign from getting hired by another team. Other recommendations go even further — like widening the league’s anti-harassment policy to address microaggressions and derogatory language. The report also recommends creating guidelines on appropriate interactions between team staff and players, including responsible drinking at team events and appropriate locations for one-on-one meetings.

As Meg Linehan states in The Athletic, it is still up to the league to adopt these recommendations and turn them into new policies and guidelines. “Those will ultimately be up to NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman and the NWSL board of governors, though some decisions have already been made for them, with Portland Thorns FC owner Merritt Paulson and Chicago Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler both publicly announcing their intent to sell their respective clubs.”

If adopted, Rachel Bachman in The Wall Street Journal notes that “the rules and guidelines could be among the most far-reaching in professional sports.”

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