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Lawsuit by ex-NWSL coach assaults investigation that led to his elimination: Employment & Labor Insider

EDITOR’S NOTE: A model of this put up was beforehand printed as an article in Hackney Publications’ Sports activities Litigation Alert.

In January 2023, the Nationwide Girls’s Soccer League completely or briefly banned seven former coaches and executives. The league’s actions adopted the issuance of a 125-page report by the regulation companies of Covington & Burling LLP and Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP that detailed a historical past of misconduct by coaches and executives.

James Clarkson, a former head coach of the Houston Sprint, was not amongst these banned. Nevertheless, Mr. Clarkson’s actions have been mentioned in quite a few locations within the report, which discovered that he “communicated with gamers in a fashion that created nervousness and concern for a number of gamers.” After being suspended for the 2022 season, his contract was not renewed. On December 8, 2023, he filed a lawsuit towards the NWSL, the Nationwide Girls’s Soccer League Gamers Affiliation, the regulation companies, and particular person attorneys at these regulation companies.


Though investigative experiences are usually not new to the sports activities trade, the way through which the NWSL’s report was produced was. As defined within the report, its genesis was a September 30, 2021, article within the Athletic detailing allegations of sexual misconduct by Paul Riley, head coach of the North Carolina Braveness. Three days after publication of that article, the NWSL introduced that it had retained Covington to conduct an investigation and suggest reforms. Covington is longtime outdoors counsel to skilled sports activities leagues and groups on a variety of issues. On the identical day because the NWSL announcement, U.S. Soccer, the game’s nationwide governing physique, introduced that it had retained former Deputy Legal professional Basic Sally Q. Yates of King & Spalding LLP to conduct an investigation. U.S. Soccer has lengthy performed a task within the league’s funding and administration.

Regardless of the 2 already initiated investigations, the Gamers Affiliation retained Weil Gotshal for a similar function. Weil Gotshal has represented gamers and gamers associations for many years. The Gamers Affiliation’s resolution to conduct its personal investigation was pushed by skepticism of the league’s willingness or capacity to conduct a radical and honest investigation in addition to the Gamers Affiliation’s need to be extra assertive. The Gamers Affiliation had solely just lately employed its first ever full-time Govt Director, former-player-turned-attorney Meghann Burke, and was within the technique of negotiating the primary collective bargaining settlement between the league and the Gamers Affiliation.

The league and the Gamers Affiliation finally agreed to mix their investigatory efforts, teaming up regulation companies which have been on reverse sides of numerous instances over time. The day after the Athletic article was printed, each NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird and NWSL Basic Counsel Lisa Levine resigned.

The experiences

The U.S. Soccer investigative report was launched on October 3, 2022, and the league-Gamers Affiliation joint investigative report was launched on December 14, 2022.  Each experiences recognized quite a few cases of sexual, racial, and different inappropriate feedback and misbehavior directed at NWSL gamers:

The Joint Investigative Crew discovered, for instance, that membership workers in positions of energy made inappropriate sexual remarks to gamers, mocked gamers’ our bodies, pressured gamers to lose unhealthy quantities of weight, crossed skilled boundaries with gamers, and created risky and manipulative working circumstances. They used derogatory and insulting language in direction of gamers, displayed insensitivity in direction of gamers’ psychological well being, and engaged in retaliation towards gamers who tried to report or did report issues. Misconduct towards gamers has occurred on the overwhelming majority of NWSL golf equipment at numerous instances, from the earliest years of the League to the current.

The joint report included quite a few suggestions, together with strengthening anti-harassment insurance policies, creating and imposing pointers addressing applicable interactions between membership workers and gamers, creating and implementing trainings that replicate and deal with participant and workers experiences, coordinating with golf equipment and U.S. soccer to enhance and centralize hiring practices, enhancing reporting and investigation procedures, and prioritizing range, fairness, and inclusion initiatives.

The aftermath

Whereas the investigations have been ongoing, the NWSL employed Jessica Berman as its Commissioner.  Ms. Berman had beforehand been an legal professional and government on the Nationwide Lacrosse League and the Nationwide Hockey League and is effectively regarded within the sports activities trade. Notably, Ms. Burke of the Gamers Affiliation was a part of the search committee for the Commissioner place.

Ms. Berman, who started her profession at Proskauer Rose LLP representing leagues and groups, was well-versed in league self-discipline. Moreover, there was appreciable public stress for a powerful response.  On January 9, 2023, the league introduced that it had completely banned 5 coaches from the league: Paul Riley (previously of the Portland Thorns and North Carolina Braveness), Christy Holly (Sky Blue FC and Racing Louisville), Rory Dames (Chicago Purple Stars), Richie Burke (Washington Spirit), and Kris Ward (Washington Spirit). The league additionally banned two others till 2025: Craig Harrington (Utah Royals FC) and government Alyse LaHue (NJ/NY Gotham FC).

Coach Clarkson’s claims

Though Mr. Clarkson was not banned by the league, the injury had been completed. In April 2022, based mostly on preliminary outcomes of the investigation, the Sprint suspended Mr. Clarkson. When the joint report was launched, the Sprint introduced that his contract wouldn’t be renewed. 

The joint report famous that Mr. Clarkson had advocated for the event of a psychological well being program for the Sprint however faulted his conduct in a number of cases. Particularly, Mr. Clarkson was alleged to have been insensitive to a Black participant’s issues about racial profiling by stadium safety, to have heaped “extreme and unjustified criticism” on gamers, to have had an “unpredictable temper [that] contributed to a tradition of hysteria,” to have unfairly accused gamers of unprofessional conduct throughout a street journey in Mexico Metropolis, and to have criticized an injured participant. Mr. Clarkson was interviewed by the joint investigative crew, which discovered that he “exhibited an absence of candor” in his denials of misconduct.

Mr. Clarkson’s lawsuit alleges that the report is defamatory and that the defendants tortiously interfered together with his potential contract with the Sprint or one other skilled soccer group.  Amongst others, Mr. Clarkson has sued the attorneys principally liable for the report: Amanda Kramer, Mona Patel, and Jason Criss of Covington; and Arianna Scavetti of Weil Gotshal.

Mr. Clarkson now seems to be teaching youth soccer in addition to the AHFC Royals, an newbie crew competing within the decrease degree of the United Soccer League.                                

The challenges

Mr. Clarkson’s claims evoke comparable instances in sports activities but additionally face substantial authorized hurdles. First, it’s well-settled that opinions are usually not defamatory. The overarching theme of Mr. Clarkson’s grievance is that the joint report mischaracterized his actions or described them with out extra context. Furthermore, it’s clear that Mr. Clarkson usually disagrees with the joint report’s opinion of his conduct. That doesn’t imply that the joint report was defamatory.

The lawsuit is comparable in respects to 1 introduced by former Nationwide Soccer League linebacker Jonathan Vilma towards NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in 2013 (observe: I used to be a part of Mr. Vilma’s authorized crew).  Commissioner Goodell had suspended Mr. Vilma for a complete season for allegedly main a scheme whereby New Orleans Saints gamers have been paid “bounties” for injuring opponents. Most notably, Commissioner Goodell had acknowledged in a press launch that Mr. Vilma had provided $10,000 to anybody who knocked Minnesota Vikings quarter Brett Favre out of the 2010 NFC Championship. Though a prolonged arbitration course of finally resulted within the vacatur of all self-discipline towards Mr. Vilma and different Saints gamers,[2] Mr. Vilma pursued a defamation case towards Commissioner Goodell within the U.S. District Courtroom for the Jap District of Louisiana.  The courtroom dismissed,[3] discovering that the claims have been preempted by the collective bargaining settlement and likewise weren’t legitimate authorized claims. As a public determine, Mr. Vilma had the burden to indicate that Commissioner Goodell’s statements have been made with “precise malice,” which means that the statements have been made with information that they have been false or with reckless disregard as to whether or not they have been true or false. The Courtroom discovered “precise malice” to be missing as a result of the statements “have been based mostly on an intensive investigation.”

Suing league investigators can be not with out precedent. In a 2008 case, Minnesota Vikings gamers Kevin Williams and Pat Williams sued the NFL after that they had been disciplined for failing a performance-enhancing drug take a look at (observe: I later joined the Williams authorized crew). However additionally they sued NFL lawyer Adolpho Birch as a result of, as a Minnesota courtroom later discovered, Mr. Birch knew {that a} complement that gamers have been taking contained an undisclosed banned substance however he made a aware selection to not inform gamers.[4] However, the Williamses finally agreed to dismiss Mr. Birch from the case on the eve of trial, in all probability attributable to the truth that any legal responsibility that might have been directed towards Mr. Birch would have been lined by the NFL. Both manner, league attorneys thought that the choice to sue Mr. Birch personally was pointless and inappropriate. 

The NWSL, NWSLPA, and their regulation companies little question would make the identical argument in Mr. Clarkson’s case. They’re additionally more likely to declare that the report is entitled to immunity below the legal professional immunity or litigation privilege doctrines, however the utility of these doctrines to the details of this case is unsure.


Coach Clarkson’s lawsuit faces an uphill climb. But, he seemingly thinks he has nothing to lose and that it’s higher to go down preventing. His case presents fascinating points which will affect comparable investigations sooner or later.

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