Accountability and Transparency: With a new season looming, is Racing Louisville able to move on from scandal?

It’s a new year and with a new season just around the corner, but Racing Louisville fans are still waiting to see how the club responds to the fallout from two recent reports that exposed deep systemic abuse in United States women’s soccer. 

Specific to Racing, both reports — from former U.S. General Attorney Sally Q. Yates on behalf of U.S. Soccer in October and the NWSL/NWSL-PA in December — highlighted just how terrible Racing’s environment was under inaugural coach Christy Holly. In both reports and subsequent reporting by Tyler Greever of Louisville’s WHAS-11, former and current players have described a myriad of misconduct by Holly and his coaching staff including abusive language, sexual abuse, withholding treatment, retaliation, and more.

In the months since the Yates report was released, team leaders have made some apologies, some promises, and even some progress. However, they’ve failed to respond to everything reported and are still not fulfilling some of their major promises. As preseason looms, fans are justifiably questioning if the club will be ready for the upcoming season or capable of making the changes needed for the club’s culture to be as safe or healthy as it needs to be. 

Here’s a quick rundown of what’s been promised, what’s been completed, and what’s still pending for Racing Louisville. 

Some Progress…

Since the reports came out, Racing has released statements saying they would be hiring a general manager to take over control of the team’s day-to-day operations, hiring a new assistant coach to help with player development, starting an internal committee of club employees to interface with players and discuss concerns, and holding open forum meetings with community members. 

Racing has made some progress in these areas. For example, they hired Bev Yanez, a veteran of the NWSL as both a player and coach, as the new assistant coach. She will provide the club with desperately needed NWSL-specific experience that has been lacking in the club for the past two years. She will also be Racing’s first full-time female coach for the senior team. As someone who understands what it’s like to not just be a female soccer player, but a player in the NWSL, she has the chance to serve as a critical bridge between players and other club staff.

The club has also stated that they’ve improved their internal communications and made progress in creating the internal committee they pledged to create. Considering the NWSL/NWSL-PA joint report detailed that players were often unsure of communication channels and weren’t even widely aware that Racing had a dedicated human resources staff member, this improvement is also a definite positive. 

…Some Setbacks

Despite this progress, it’s increasingly concerning that they haven’t made visible progress in hiring a general manager or announcing upcoming community forums. The club originally announced these plans in October. It’s now early January with no public comment on either area.

The general manager is a critical position because this person will theoretically take control of Racing’s operations away from club president James O’Connor who was described by players as not taking their ongoing complaints about Holly seriously and even providing opportunities for them to be retaliated against by exposing the names of who complained Holly himself. 

Since the release of the Yates report in October, there have been loud, widespread cries for O’Connor to leave the organization completely and not just step aside from Racing. Although Racing’s season was done by the time the Yates report was released, fans took their protests to the team’s brother squad Louisville City’s games where they unfurled banners that read “Arrest Holly” and “JOC Out” with JOC being an acronym for James O’Connor. These protests continued throughout the entirety of Louisville City’s championship run in 2022 and are likely to continue into 2023.

It’s worth noting that all former players that spoke to Greever believe O’Connor should no longer be part of Racing Louisville. No current player has publicly shared their opinion on this matter, but back in October when the Yates report was released they gave a statement that called the abuse “an unimaginable horror” and said they were waiting for the joint investigative report to uncover “the remaining truths we deserve and demand.” As of publication, no new player statement has been released.

Without a general manager, there are serious questions about who is actually handling Racing’s operations. The draft is next week and a new trade window just opened, so these are very pressing questions. Both these events will have serious repercussions for Racing’s upcoming season and there are no clear indications of who is actually at the helm of the club.

Additionally, the club has yet to announce any open forums with the community. It’s possible the club is waiting for the general manager to be hired to meet with fans, but these meetings were announced in October. It’s been the better part of three months — a quarter of a year — and there’s no hint of one coming soon. True, it’s been the off-season and the holidays, but it’s fair to say fans expect to see something materialize soon.

“Accountability Begins With Transparency”

In all their statements, the club has talked a great deal about transparency. In the one released after the NWSL/NWSL-PA report, for example, the club states that “accountability begins with transparency.” 

This is absolutely a true statement. Accountability does require transparency. The problem is, Racing hasn’t been fully transparent or accountable. Not only have they not released any updates or progress reports to fans or season ticket holders, they also failed to acknowledge all accounts of mistreatment that were listed in the reports. 

The NWSL/NWSL-PA joint report elaborated specifically on misconduct against Black players that wasn’t included in the Yates report. These include staff mixing up photos of Jorian Baucom and another Black player and the club’s 24-hour delay in apologizing for the error and what players describe as the club putting “the substantial burden of engaging in race and other culture-related activities on them” (NWSL pg. 65).

In none of their statements has Racing even acknowledged these incidents or pledged to work to prevent similar incidents from happening again. The closest the club comes to mentioning it is saying they are updating company-wide anti-discrimination policies and practices, but only in the context of addressing “specific issues facing our Industry.” 

This isn’t accountability. The club was criticized directly for failing to apologize for misidentifying a Black player and has since failed to apologize yet again. How will the club embrace change as promised if they don’t directly acknowledge some of the misconduct that took place or provide any evidence that they’re working to prevent future issues? How can the club claim to be dedicated to creating a safe environment for all players when they fail to address this harm to Black players?

Quite simply, they can’t. 

Can Racing move forward?

In light of everything that’s happened, the question remains: Where can Racing go from here? They’ve made promises and kept some, but these issues — both addressed and unaddressed — will remain a stain on the club for a long time to come. Racing allowed a toxic culture to become so pervasive for so long that it will be hard to shake off quickly and it’ll likely have ongoing repercussions for some time. Some players and staff will choose not to come to Louisville and it’s not hard to imagine that some current players and staff might want to leave it now after all that’s happened. 

Still, as grim as this is, it’s not all dire for the club. In Greever’s reporting, former players who continued on in 2022 say it was an improved environment even if it wasn’t perfect. Both Lauren Milliet — an original player from the inaugural season of the club — and 2022 breakout star Savannah DeMelo signed long-term extensions at the end of last season showing they are committed to the future of the club. Sources say additional extensions will be announced soon, also. And nearly everyone interviewed has praised the city and wider community as being fully supportive of the team and women’s soccer as a whole. 

The fact that the club hired someone as respected and accomplished as Bev Yanez while all these reports were being released is also a sign that the club can still attract talented individuals who believe in the club’s potential. And as low a bar as this is, it’s also a definite positive that no complaints about misconduct were issued about current coach Kim Björkegren in any report. Considering more than 10 coaches have resigned or been fired for misconduct in the past few years, this is a bigger accomplishment than might be immediately apparent. There’s been so much movement that after only one year in the NWSL, he’s now the fourth longest-tenured coach in the league. 

For Racing to move forward, however, they need to fully embrace the transparency and accountability they promise in their statements. This means owning up to mistakes quickly instead of becoming self-protective. It means being forthcoming about the changes they’re implementing and the progress that is being made. And it means acknowledging absolutely everything that has happened and explaining how they’ll prevent it from happening again in the future. Right now, many supporters are ashamed to support the club. What are they going to do about this? How are they going to reach out and mend some of these bridges?

After everything that’s happened, they can’t just expect fans to trust them at their word that work is being done and things will get better. They need to be aggressive in demonstrating that action is being taken. 

And, possibly most importantly, they should absolutely not put it on the players to win back fan support. The players have been the victims in absolutely everything. While many are probably very worried about losing support from the fans, it’s not their job to win back the community’s trust. That’s the club’s problem. 

In spite of everything that’s happened, Racing still has the potential to become a positive, healthy environment, but it’ll take work and a lot of time. It’ll take actually putting transparency and accountability into action and not just leaning on them as buzzwords. They’ve already started making positive changes and now they need to demonstrate that they’re committed to making continuous improvements as they move into the future.

Racing has world-class facilities and provisions for players, a core of young committed talent, and a foundation of good community support. They already have so many pieces in place to make them a strong club in the NWSL. It’s now up to club leadership to make sure it happens.

Bekki Morgan

Covering Racing Louisville on the Beautiful Game Network and the central NWSL teams on Co-host of Butchertown Rundown: A Racing Louisville Podcast. Find me on Twitter @bekki_morgan and my pod @ButchertownR.