WE League aims to learn from NWSL’s harassment scandals

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Staff writer
As the National Women’s Soccer League recoils from yet another harassment scandal, the WE League knows it cannot idly watch developments across the Pacific.
The top U.S. women’s soccer league’s 2021 season concluded on Saturday, with the Washington Spirit crowned champions after an extra-time victory over the Chicago Red Stars.

Less than 48 hours later, Red Stars head coach Rory Dames resigned after being accused by several players of verbal and emotional abuse — conduct similar to that which resulted in the firing of former Spirit manager Richie Burke in September.
North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley was also dismissed in September after a bombshell report in The Athletic revealed years of allegations of sexual and verbal abuse — a scandal that led to the cancellation of a round of fixtures and the resignation of league commissioner Lisa Baird.
WE League Chairperson Kikuko Okajima, who resides in Baltimore and has fostered close relationships with many key figures in U.S. women’s soccer, insisted Wednesday that her league was taking steps to ensure the continued safety of its professional and youth players.
“We can’t look at the NWSL’s issues simply as someone else’s problem,” Okajima said following a meeting of the league’s board of directors. “We have to act as though something similar could happen to the WE League and ensure that our compliance measures are in full effect.
“The Japan Football Association has a hotline to report violence and harassment, and we plan to follow what the J. League has done and establish our own hotline in the future.”
The J. League has had its own share of harassment cases in recent years, with Tokyo Verdy’s Hideki Nagai — who resigned in September over poor results — and Sagan Tosu’s Kim Myung-hwi coming under investigation this season alone. Current Kyoto Sanga manager Cho Kwi-jae was dismissed in the middle of the 2019 campaign after he was found to have bullied his Shonan Bellmare players.
Former Nadeshiko Japan goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori, who now works in the WE League’s publicity office, said that she has seen marked improvements in both coaching methods and the way in which harassment cases are handled over the last decade.
“Things that were considered par for the course back then are totally different now, and I think it’s fair to say the quality of coaching has gone up a lot,” Kaihori said. “I think players understand that harassment is a social problem, and now they have a better environment in which to voice their concerns.”
The 35-year-old, who saved two key penalties in Japan’s famous win over the United States in the final of the 2011 Women’s World Cup, admitted that as a player she had not always felt confident enough to speak out about harassment.
“At the time, when there was power harassment or sexual harassment, I’d worry about whether it was okay to say something,” Kaihori said. “There’s a chance if I say something I’ll be dropped from the squad, and an uncertainty that causes you to think, ‘maybe I’m the only one who thinks this is happening.’
“It’s important for the WE League to ensure that players can speak out. As a league I think if we can act, it will have a positive effect on kids who are playing. It’s a difficult problem and there are no easy answers, but there are lots of things we can do.”
Okajima echoed Kaihori’s comments on young players, emphasizing a need for the league to ensure the wellbeing of its academy players.
“I think parents are particularly concerned with how their children are treated,” Okajima said. “As a league we’re going to be mindful of our academies, so that if any issues arise we’ll be able to deal with them.
“The definitions of power harassment and sexual harassment have changed considerably in recent times. Our players, coaches and team officials have to ensure that their understanding is up to date.”
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