‘There's something systemic going on here’: Fans react to report alleging Louisville soccer abuse
Warning: This story contains details about abuse.
Just outside of Louisville’s Lynn Family Stadium late Wednesday, a small group of demonstrators held up protest signs, offering them to fellow fans entering the venue.
Others wore teal shirts, some with logos of the women’s soccer team Racing Louisville FC, some with messages written in black marker.
While the fans would typically be focused on the night’s upcoming Louisville City men’s soccer game at the stadium, which it shares with Racing Louisville, their attention was also on an upsetting report.
This past Monday, an investigation into misconduct in the National Women’s Soccer League accused Racing Louisville’s former head coach Christy Holly of sexually abusing a player before and while the two were on the team, as well as verbally and emotionally abusing more Louisville players and having a relationship with a staff member.
The report, led by former U.S. deputy attorney general Sally Yates, also said that he had been accused of misconduct on a previous team he coached. It added that the reasons for his departure from that club were hidden and that neither Racing Louisville nor the league properly vetted his hiring in Aug. 2020.
WFPL News does not identify victims of sexual abuse.
Braeden Downey is a board member of The Louisville Coopers and The Lavender Legion, two official supporters groups for Racing Louisville. They said the report’s findings were stunning.
“It was honestly quite a shock realizing how bad it was. Because, like, we were told by the front office, ‘Oh, it's not that bad, it's not that bad,’ repeatedly. But then when the investigation came out and said the exact details of what did happen, it's kind of [a] shellshock,” Downey said.
Commissioned a year ago by U.S. Soccer, the sport’s national governing body, the study examined the wrongdoings of NWSL coaches and inactions by league and agency officials. It found that Racing Louisville fired Holly in Aug. 2021 after a “swift investigation” of the sexual abuse.
However, it also said that the club did not fully cooperate with the report’s goals. Club officials refused to provide documents on Holly’s time with the team and prohibited past and current employees from speaking with investigators about him. According to the report, that was due to mutual non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements the team signed with Holly.
Soccer Holdings, LLC, which owns the men’s and women’s clubs and Lynn Family Stadium, did not offer a clear explanation of why Holly was fired at the time.
On Wednesday afternoon, more than 48 hours after the report was released, Soccer Holdings president James O’Connor released a letter acknowledging the report. He apologized to the former player who was abused, as well as other players and fans, and said the team would cooperate with another ongoing NWSL investigation created by the league and its players association in Oct. 2021.
But he added that leadership had since worked on providing “a safe environment” through changes like anonymous reporting services and an updated hiring process.
Kaitlyn Whiteside, a member of The Lavender Legion, said O’Connor’s statement rang hollow. She was one of several group members passing out protest signs ahead of Wednesday’s game.
“I think it's wholly insufficient and doesn't address the things that needed to be addressed. And I don't really see any accountability in that statement, and that was disappointing to read,” Whiteside said.
Fans criticized O’Connor’s statement on social media as well as the club’s silence up to that point. That silence was matched on Wednesday night.
Members of the Louisville Coopers, which is also a supporters group for Louisville City, typically chant and play music during games at Lynn Family Stadium. But they were subdued during the first half of Wednesday’s match between the men’s team and Detroit City.
Board president Herman Quinn, Jr., said the protest was aimed at the clubs’ leaders.
“They depend on us to help drive the atmosphere, to help bring people in, to help make what’s going on in the stands more enjoyable, to help bring the spirit. But if you can't even be trusted to gain our trust, then why should we go and help your pockets by bringing that spirit, bringing that joy?” Quinn said.
Once the second half began, attendees at Estopinal End, a standing supporter section that hosts The Coopers and other fans, revealed signs and banners in the bleachers referencing the report. One said “ARREST HOLLY” while another, targeted at O’Connor, read “J.O.C. OUT,” referring to his full name. It was a striking show of anger over the alleged abuse that many fans, especially online, have echoed.
Robin Pryor, board president of The Lavender Legion, said that leadership change from the top of the club is needed.
“James [O’Connor] has to go. He cannot remain in this position of power, as he has obviously, and clearly, and openly enabled abuse to continue in his organization,” she said.
Michael Shaw, another Lavender Legion member, said he believes the roots of the problem run beyond O’Connor.
“There's something really wrong and broken in this organization because it's hardly ever one guy’s, or one person's, fault that something's going on. Now, he may end up being the scapegoat or may ultimately fall on his sword. But there's something systemic going on here. And somebody needs to lead change that makes this a safer place for its players,” Shaw said.
Several former Racing Louisville players, including one identified as a victim of sexual abuse, have spoken out in the wake of the report. A previous team captain, Michelle Betos, told WLKY that when players went to O’Connor to express complaints about Holly, Holly was brought into those meetings, and worse treatment followed.
So far, at least two of Racing Louisville’s corporate partners, Barrell Craft Spirits and GE Appliances, have responded to the report. Through social media posts, both companies said meaningful change would need to occur in order to keep sponsoring the club.
Louisville City, which plays in the United Soccer League, won Wednesday's match 2-1.
The club did not allow for media interviews, which usually happen after games.
The men’s team will play another match at Lynn Family Stadium on Oct. 15, before moving into its league’s postseason.
Racing Louisville did not qualify for the NWSL playoffs this year. The team’s season ended on Saturday, two days before the league report was released.
Note: If you or a loved one has experienced sexual assault or harassment, contact the confidential National Sexual Assault Hotline at (800) 656-4673 to be connected to a provider in your area.