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NWSL/NWSLPA release Joint Investigative Team report; James Clarkson out as Dash head coach

The NWSL and NWSLPA released the joint investigative report on ongoing complaints of discrimination, harassment, abuse, and retaliation.

NWSL: Racing Louisville FC at Houston Dash Maria Lysaker-USA TODAY Sports

Covington & Burling LLP and Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP, and the Joint Investigative Team between the National Women’s Soccer League and NWSL Players Association released their investigative report on Wednesday afternoon. The 14 month independent investigation uncovered more information on historical and ongoing complaints if discrimination, harassment, abuse, and retaliation in the NWSL. The full report can be read here.

The 125-page report focused on coaches, clubs, and front office staff mentioned in the Sally Yates report for U.S. Soccer, but also included more information on Houston Dash head coach James Clarkson. Clarkson was suspended indefinitely days before the 2022 regular season began and Sarah Lowdon guided the team as acting head coach before Juan Carlos Amorós finished the season as interim head coach.

Former Dash head coach Vera Pauw was also named in the report, having shamed players for their weight and trying to control their eating habits. Pauw refused to cooperate in an interview with the Joint Investigative Team but did provide a written denial for what she supsected were the allegations against her.

According to the report, “Clarkson communicated with players in a manner that created anxiety and fear for multiple players”. The investigation summarized Clarkson’s inapprropriate conduct as follows:

James Clarkson communicated with players in a manner that created anxiety and fear for multiple players. Interviewees expressed that Clarkson failed to recognize when his ineffective communication was detrimental to players’ emotional wellbeing, though many players also stated that Clarkson was tough but fair. In one instance, Clarkson suspected that players had been drinking alcohol the night before a game, so he convened the players and reprimanded them in a manner that left multiple players feeling scared and attacked. In his interview by the Joint Investigative Team, Clarkson acknowledged having this meeting with players, but reported that he did not single out or attack any players.

In another instance, a player reported that Clarkson angrily asked her, “How the f**k are you so unprofessional,” when she had to come out of a game due to an injury. Clarkson’s comment left the player crying and visibly upset. Clarkson denied making this comment, but witnesses corroborated that Clarkson was visibly upset and frustrated at the player, and that the player was upset.

Although Clarkson advocated for the development of a mental health program at the Dash, he also demonstrated insensitivity towards players’ mental health in his interactions with them. In multiple instances, Clarkson failed to understand how his conduct impacted players.

The investigation centered around Clarkson’s “unconstructive, personal, or threatening verbal misconduct” among other incidents. Several layers who were inteviewed for the investigation said Clarkson targeted players for excessive and unjustified critcism.

Several players interviewed reported that Clarkson targeted one or two players each year for excessive and unjustified criticism, and that Clarkson’s conduct towards these players was outside the bounds of appropriate coaching. Some of these players reported feeling significantly affected by Clarkson’s conduct; some reported that it affected their performance during games; and two players reported that they sought therapy. A majority of players expressed the view that Clarkson’s treatment of players did not rise to the level of abuse or misconduct, though some of them took issue with some of Clarkson’s conduct or aspects of his coaching style. Several of these players described Clarkson as fair, but tough on players based on their soccer performance and potential. Nearly every interviewee agreed that Clarkson was not adept at tailoring his coaching style to particular players’ needs or reactions, and that he failed to recognize or appreciate when certain players did not respond well to his coaching style. A majority of interviewees believed that Clarkson’s mood could be unpredictable—that he could be hot or cold, or they would not know what to expect in terms of his attitude on any given day. Some players reported that Clarkson’s unpredictable mood contributed to a culture of anxiety. One player said she felt that she could not breathe or think when Clarkson yelled at her as she was playing; another said she felt under the microscope based on the position she played and feared she would be cut from the team.

Multiple players described an incident in which Clarkson was “out of line” and created a culture of fear and anxiety. During the 2022 preseason, the Dash traveled to Mexico City for preseason games against the Mexican club Pumas. The team’s first game was scheduled for 10:00 a.m. Tuesday morning, which required a 6:00 a.m. wake-up call. On the Monday night before the game, four Dash players had dinner at a Pumas player’s apartment and returned to their hotel around midnight. On Tuesday, one player, who attended the dinner and was expected to start in the day’s game, became ill during the warm-up.

Interviewees reported that the performance staff told Clarkson that the player was dealing with altitude sickness (Mexico City is over 7300 feet above sea level). Clarkson believed the player was hungover because he had been alerted by a local friend that the sick player had gone out the night before with some Dash teammates and several Pumas players. A staff member reported that he and another staff member told Clarkson that they did not believe it was a hangover. According to several interviewees, the Dash players had not been drinking alcohol. Clarkson asked a staff member to request security footage from the hotel, but the staff member was not able to obtain the footage.

At a team meeting the next day, players observed that Clarkson was visibly angry as he reprimanded the team at length, calling them selfish, disrespectful, and unprofessional by going out drinking prior to a game. According to multiple interviewees, Clarkson did not allow the players to address the accusation that they had been drinking and told them, “Cameras don’t lie.” After the meeting, the team captains followed up with Clarkson and reportedly told him that his conduct had scared players. Two interviewees reported that Clarkson told the team captains that the players “should be scared.” Some players reported feeling that the incident left them feeling attacked, scared, and on edge. Clarkson admitted speaking to players about drinking and professionalism, and although he understood that the players may have felt attacked, he denied “attacking” anyone.

In another incident, players reported that Clarkson criticized an injured player. The player had reported to one member of the coaching staff, but not to Clarkson, that she was feeling ankle discomfort before a game. Nevertheless, she decided to dress for the game because she did not think she would get any playing time. The staff member stated that Clarkson believed that the player was “100%” fit to play because she had dressed for the game, although the player reported that Clarkson was aware she had been dealing with the injury. Clarkson put her in as a substitute, and she soon began struggling with pain. She told Clarkson during a water break shortly after entering that she had to come off the field due to her injury. Accounts differ about what happened next. The injured player recalled that Clarkson angrily asked her, “How the f**k are you so unprofessional?” One player on the bench reported that she did not recall those specific words, but recalled Clarkson reacting with “disgust on his face” while the injured player “was visibly crying and upset.” This player who observed the incident from the bench said she discussed the incident with Clarkson and he agreed that he did not handle it correctly. Clarkson denied making this comment to a player.

In his interview with the Joint Investigative Team, Clarkson exhibited a lack of candor. Clarkson denied ever raising his voice at players or losing control of his emotions, notwithstanding credible evidence to the contrary.

Clarkson was also cited in the investigative team’s section on insensitivity toward mental health. Players reported that they experienced mental health challenge due to toxic and abusing environments from coaches’ behavior. In the report, it is noted how Clarkson emailed club staff, including the club president, in 2020 and 2021 in an effort to develop a mental health program to support players. Interviewees reported that Clark on occasion failed to recognize or appreciate his effect on players.

For example, in one incident, Clarkson likened an injured player’s stride to that of a “lame horse,” and laughed when she jokingly responded, “So should I shoot myself?” After this exchange, the player reported having a panic attack in the locker room, and multiple interviewees described her as crying and visibly upset when walking onto the field for the game. The player reported that she later told Clarkson she found the comment offensive, and he laughed again. Clarkson denied ever having a second discussion about the remark with the player. On another occasion, after the detention of WNBA player Brittney Griner and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Clarkson approved conveying to a player’s agent a contract offer from a Russian club, without acknowledging or showing sensitivity to the risks that would accompany playing in Russia.

Dash players interviewed also told the investigative team that they were unsure where to report misconduct by Clarkson because he was “best friends” with club president John Walker. Walker is no longer with the club.

Coupled with the fact that Clarkson served as both head coach and general manager, this perceived close relationship led players to feel like they had no avenues to report their concerns and that no one was monitoring Clarkson’s conduct to ensure that it was appropriate.

The Dash released a statement on Wednesday afternoon and added that Clarkson’s contract was set to expire at the end of 2022 and will not be renewed. The Dash will need a new head coach for the 2023 season. Amorós left to become head coach of Gotham FC, Lowdon is still with the club as an assistant.