Lawyers representing former Houston Dash manager James Clarkson said they filed a lawsuit against the NWSL, the NWSL Players Association (NWSLPA) and others Friday, claiming Clarkson was defamed when a joint investigation conducted by the league and the NWSLPA concluded he engaged in "abuse and emotional misconduct."
Others named in the suit include law firms Covington & Burling LLP and Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP, as well as Amanda Kramer, Mona Patel and Arianna Scavetti, lawyers who were part of the team investigating Clarkson and others.
The lawsuit, a copy of which was obtained by ESPN, filed in District Court for Harris County, Texas, alleges that the defendants engaged in defamation, tortious interference and conspiracy. Among the damages sought by the lawsuit are those for injury to reputation, the monetary value of all lost benefits of the contract defendants tortiously interfered with, and punitive damages.
"The NWSLPA was notified by an ESPN reporter that James Clarkson, former Houston Dash coach, intends to name us in a defamation lawsuit," the NWSLPA said in a statement issued to ESPN, citing the fact that the NWSLPA has not yet been served with the lawsuit.
"Without having been served, we are unable to respond to any specific allegations. We know, however, that the truth is our defense. We are steadfast in our commitment to protecting NWSL Players, and we will do so anywhere, anytime, anyplace, including in a court of law, where facts and evidence matter."
The NWSL did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Each of the other defendants named in the lawsuit were not immediately available when ESPN attempted to approach them for comment.
Clarkson's lawsuit follows a joint investigation conducted by the NWSL and NWSLPA after reports of numerous allegations of sexual and emotional abuse perpetrated by coaches against players began surfacing in September 2021. The joint investigation was conducted by the two aforementioned law firms, and was done in parallel with a similar investigation conducted by the U.S. Soccer Federation.
In April 2022, just before the start of the season, Clarkson was suspended by the Dash at the urging of the NWSL and NWSLPA after the joint investigation alleged it had uncovered "initial findings" of "discrimination, harassment and abuse." The NWSLPA issued a statement confirming the reasons for Clarkson's suspension. The Dash continued to pay Clarkson, but he was not permitted to have contact with the team.
The findings of the USSF investigation were released on Oct. 3, 2022, with Clark mentioned five times, once in reference to his suspension, and four other times as part of footnotes. He was not accused of wrongdoing in that report.
The findings of the joint investigation were released in December 2022 and provided details relating to Clarkson's suspension. It said that Clarkson was placed on temporary suspension after the league received complaints from players that he engaged in "ongoing emotional misconduct and insensitivity." Upon release of the joint investigation's final report, the Dash announced Clarkson's contract would not be renewed.
The investigation revealed that a majority of players considered Clarkson "fair" and that his behavior didn't rise to the level of abuse or emotional misconduct. But the Joint Investigative Team concluded otherwise, citing an incident in which Clarkson berated the team because he thought that some of them had been out drinking the night before an exhibition game, and that players felt it created a culture of "anxiety and fear."
Clarkson's lawsuit states: "The law does not allow professional sports organizations and their lawyers to ruin careers by publishing libelous keystrokes to the world. Yet Defendants did exactly that to Plaintiff James Clarkson."
The lawsuit also contends that the joint investigation's report contains 14 unsubstantiated allegations and that other Dash staff members, such as assistant coach Brenton Saylor, athletic trainer Francis Gilbert, then-team president John Walker and stadium general manager Juan Rodriguez, who could back Clarkson's version of events in relation to some of the allegations, weren't interviewed.
The lawsuit also states: "As a result of Defendants' course of conduct, Coach Clarkson and his family have been humiliated. His reputation has been tarnished, he has been unable to find comparable work despite his best efforts, and his employment prospects remain depressingly limited. Through this lawsuit, Coach Clarkson intends to clear his good name, expose Defendants' lies, and hold them all accountable for the harm they recklessly and maliciously inflicted."