The PUL has started an investigation into both itself and the Milwaukee Monarchs over their handling of sexual assault allegations in 2021. The accused player was recently given a four-year suspension by USAU.
February 23, 2022 by Mags Colvett in News with 0 comments
On January 31, Ari Nelson — a player on Denver Molly Brown, the Western Ultimate League’s Arizona Sidewinders, and the most recent U24 Women’s National Team — posted a statement to her personal Instagram sounding the alarm about a situation involving the Premier Ultimate League’s Milwaukee Monarchs, tagging the team and the league and asking others to do the same. In a series of text images, Nelson wrote that she had been sexually assaulted by an unnamed player who was currently being considered for a roster spot on the Monarchs, which had just completed tryouts for the 2022 season.
“The Milwaukee Monarchs know that this person has been credibly accused of sexual assault by multiple people,” Nelson wrote. She also disclosed that there had been a recent USAU hearing and investigation into the same incidents, with members of Monarchs’ organization leadership appearing on behalf of the player who had assaulted her.
Now, three weeks later, the PUL has initiated an investigation into both the Monarchs and itself, with the two organizations releasing a joint statement earlier this week. Additionally, the players of the 2022 Monarchs team have organized and released a statement of their own.
In fact, the sexual misconduct at issue in the 2022 USAU hearing — incidents after 2019 U24 Worlds in Heidelberg, Germany, where the accused was a member of the US mixed team, and again at Lei Out in 2020 — had been investigated separately by the Monarchs in 2021, and Monarchs leadership was aware of the allegations. That investigation led to a one-season suspension from the Monarchs; the USAU hearing, now complete, has led to a four-year membership suspension and lifetime coaching ban for the accused player.
As tryouts were scheduled for the 2022 season, some members of the 2021 team with knowledge of the investigation were surprised to learn that the previously suspended player would be trying out again — and surprised further to learn that two members of Monarchs leadership who had handled the case within the team, Katy Stanton and Ness Cannaday, would be appearing as character witnesses for that player in the USAU hearing.
While no one in a conduct-adjudicating rule on the Monarchs was in clear violation of preexisting Monarchs or PUL policy, the situation has revealed important gaps in policies and procedures for handling sexual misconduct and player safety issues within the league and its teams.
June-July 2021: Initial Monarchs Investigation
While the player accused of sexual assault — referred to in this article as Player A1 — was included on the Milwaukee Monarchs’ first roster in 2020, like other expansions who joined the PUL that year, the team didn’t practice or play until well into 2021.
Over the pandemic, Nelson had become close with 2020 and 2021 Monarchs player Emilie Willingham through the online ultimate-based mental health advocacy group Time for the Ultimate Talk. As the 2021 Monarchs were beginning to practice together, Nelson noticed that Player A was on the team with Willingham. Nelson disclosed to Willingham that she had been sexually assaulted by Player A in 2019 and 2020, and — with Nelson’s consent — Willingham shared the allegations with a small group of trusted teammates. That group decided to notify the Monarchs’ organizational leadership via Risa Umeno, a 2021 captain.
On June 27, Umeno sent an email to Monarchs leadership with their concerns, including screenshots of conversations with Nelson describing the incidents, and copying coaches and other captains along with the group of players who had been in communication about the issue.
“I was just informed that one of our teammates, [Player A], has a history of sexually assaulting several people at various events,” Umeno wrote. “In order to ensure that everyone feels safe and that this type of misconduct will not happen, what are policies that we have set in place for this type of problem? Do the Monarchs specifically have sexual harrassment policies in place that are separate from PUL’s policies? Or what are the next steps that we plan to take as leadership?”
The group received a response from the Milwaukee Monarchs team address the following day thanking Umeno for the email and saying they would circle back. On June 30, the Monarchs account sent another email to the players and leadership members included on the original message:
Thank you for your patience as we work to understand these very serious allegations and appropriately address them. We have begun to investigate this matter and would ask that anyone who has information or facts relevant to this case to please schedule a time with us to discuss these, if you are willing. It’s critical to the success of this investigation that we collect all possible facts surrounding the allegations in order to make an informed decision on next steps.
Out of respect for all those involved and given the highly sensitive nature of these allegations, we ask that you please treat this as a confidential matter at this time.
According to Stanton and Cannaday, Monarchs leadership notified the PUL within 24 hours of receiving the allegations. They also notified Player A and temporarily suspended them from the team pending the investigation, which included a call between Nelson and Monarchs management as well as a signed letter from Nelson and another person alleging that they had been sexually assaulted by Player A.
Finally, on July 22, the Monarchs leadership address sent the following message to the group included in the initial emails:
Thanks for your patience as we worked through this to find the appropriate response. Leadership has decided to suspend [Player A]’s contract at this time.
We are working on creating policies and procedures so that we are able to create a space that is safe, inclusive, and supportive for the team.
We ask for your continued respect and discretion around this specific matter.
As Stanton and Cannaday explain it, since PUL players sign on for one season at a time, the suspension of a then-active 2021 contract amounted to a one-season suspension, with no definite internal plan at that time for how to handle rostering in future seasons. Monarchs players who received the email were also unclear on what the plan going forward would be. Of the players who spoke to Ultiworld, no one interpreted the suspension as an unambiguous indefinite ban, but given the seriousness of the allegations, no one assumed that the player would be back for the next season, either.
Asked about the thinking behind their 2021 decision to suspend Player A, Cannaday said, “I think, in general, we live in a society where that was an expected consequence — or, you know, some sort of punitive action was expected, and we’re influenced by those things. And so that’s a path that we went down.”
“We never doubted that sexual assault happened,” Stanton added. “And as we were going through our process, we never questioned that. And, therefore, we made our decisions based both on that and based on what we found in our investigation.”
August-December 2021: Monarchs Offseason and USAU Complaint
Due to the unusual structure of PUL play in 2021, the Monarchs’ competitive season was compressed into a single regional championship weekend in August, with most players in the middle of full club seasons during their semi-pro events. Stanton, Cannaday, and Player A were competing with Madison NOISE in a breakout year for that team that saw them place 4th overall at USAU Club Nationals and qualify for WUCC in 2022.
According to Cannaday, that season — played mostly after the Monarchs had already suspended Player A — was the first time she really got to know Player A, having had only limited interactions through the Monarchs or in the Madison community. “I’m 15 years older than her or something, you know? [So] my experience with her is really informed by that. I didn’t ever play with her before,” she said.
Watching from afar, Willingham and Umeno weren’t sure what to make of Player A’s continued participation on the same high-profile club team with two of the Monarchs directors who had investigated them for sexual misconduct and decided to suspend them from the semi-pro team. “That sat very odd,” said Willingham.
The uneasy feeling lingered with Willingham into December, when the Monarchs were beginning to plan the 2022 season. For the coming year, the Monarchs named a group they called the “leadership core,” a group of early signings representing the Chicago, Madison, and Milwaukee scenes that contribute to the Monarchs’ player base who would consult on roster decisions with management and coaches. Three of those players — Stanton, Cannaday, and Austin Prucha — were also team founders and directors of the Monarchs organization; the other four — Madison Moore, Jacqueline Jarik, Kaitlynne Roling, and Hannah Frank — were designated player leaders without a formal organization management role.
Willingham and a leadership core member agreed to have players on that group ask the Monarchs directors about Player A’s potential involvement in the next PUL season. On December 26, Willingham learned from members of the core that the player suspended in 2021 was going to be allowed to try out in 2022; she then passed the information along to Umeno and Nelson. Days earlier on December 22, Nelson had filed the formal complaint that would initiate USAU conduct proceedings. Player A would be trying out for the Monarchs during the same month USAU’s hearing and decision were in process.
January 2022: Monarchs Tryouts and USAU Hearing
Umeno and Willingham went on to arrange a call with Stanton and Cannaday in early January to discuss their concerns. As described by Umeno and Willingham to other Monarchs players shortly afterwards and in interviews with Ultiworld this month, the conversation surfaced significant differences between the two players and the two directors about an appropriate response to the situation. Stanton and Cannaday emphasized the importance of creating a restorative path for those who have done harm to re-enter the community, while Willingham and Umeno objected that that couldn’t come at the expense of others’ safety or without survivors’ agreement and participation. Ultimately, neither Willingham nor Umeno attended tryouts in 2022 due to their discomfort with the situation.
The leadership core who consulted on team selections were also not in favor of re-rostering the suspended player. “From the beginning, none of them wanted to roster [Player A],” said a 2022 Monarchs player with knowledge of the 2021 investigation who asked to be anonymous in this article. “They all submitted rosters of people they wanted on the team, and none of them wanted to roster [Player A]. Pretty much everybody was like, while [Player A] is talented enough to make the roster, we should just avoid this entire thing altogether. Despite all of that, ownership still had this notion of wanting to provide the opportunity to [Player A] as an act of restorative justice.”
Umeno had a similar impression. “I almost felt like they were trying to make it their responsibility to help [Player A] become this better person through the Monarchs, which is not the Monarchs’ or the PUL’s job or responsibility.”
During the same weeks in January that the Monarchs held their tryouts, documents were being submitted and a schedule sent to participants in the USAU hearing, through which Nelson learned that Stanton and Cannaday would be appearing as character witnesses for Player A.
“I was asked by the accused to participate,” said Cannaday. “I do not and never did doubt that these things happened, which was obviously information that I had wearing a different hat. I participated in the hearing based on my experience with her as a teammate [on NOISE], and I was there to speak about her character and not defend her in any way.”
“I’d say much the same as Ness, which is that we’re there not to question whether sexual assault happened, but to provide our perspective on our experience with [Player A] on NOISE,” affirmed Stanton.
The USAU hearing took place on January 21, between the Monarchs’ two 2022 season tryout weekends. A decision would ultimately be handed down by USAU on February 4, with the public suspension of Player A posted on February 7. In addition to the four-year member suspension and lifetime coaching ban published on USAU’s site, the membership reinstatement requirements include completion of a course of therapy focused on unlawful sexual behavior, as well as a two-year period after reinstatement in which Player A must share the decision with leaders of any ultimate team they join.
Asked about the contrast between the Monarchs’ decision and USAU’s, Stanton responded, “I don’t think we can comment on that. That’s a different body’s decision.”
January 2022: Roster Offers Made; Nelson Goes Public
Over the weekend of January 29-30, players were offered roster spots on the 2022 Monarchs team via phone calls from Monarchs coaches and founders. For most players, the calls included a standard disclosure about Player A’s potential inclusion on the team.
According to Stanton, “We had a script [and] the wording we used was, ‘Last season, the Monarchs had a player who is accused of sexual misconduct involving unwanted touching prior to joining the team in March of 2021. Upon receiving information about that accusation, Monarchs leadership put the player on probation and performed an internal investigation. The Monarchs issued a season-long suspension for the 2021 season as a consequence. The reason we’re telling you this is that the player is under consideration for the roster this season, and the Monarchs organization has considered the issue seriously and believes the player can rejoin the community while we hold them accountable.'”
Umeno, who was offered a spot after submitting the form application for players who didn’t attend tryouts, got her call on Sunday, January 30th. “The sequence of events was, ‘congratulations, we’re offering you a roster spot.’ So, you know — imagining being another person who’s getting offered a spot, it’s like, you’re excited, right? It’s like, ‘oh hey, I made it.’ And you’re on this high. And then they went through the logistics — okay, like, we’re going to have two away games and four home games, and the two away games, one is going to be in Medellín, we’ll play at TEP, these are the stipends, blah blah blah. So they’re just throwing a lot of logistics and information at you, so it’s already overwhelming,” she said. “And then — and I mean, this is how the information was presented to me — but then I was told, like, okay, here is the statement that we came up with, and we shared it with the other players who were offered a roster spot […] so it was just overwhelming information.”
“And again, it’s the tone, right?” Umeno added. “They made it very passive and casual, so that made it seem like, okay, we’ve already kind of worked on this. It’s in the past, everything’s okay.”
Still uncomfortable, Umeno asked for more time to consider, which she was granted. The following day on January 31, Umeno checked in on the issue with Stanton and Cannaday on the team Slack. “Hi Risa, at this point, we’ve reached out to all of our other players under consideration for our roster, and gave everyone the same information we informed you of around the situation. No players expressed concerns about the rostering of [Player A] (we did not name her) or being rostered with [Player A]. Given that, we are planning to offer her a roster spot,” Stanton replied.
“Thank you for letting me know. I’m not sure if all the players really understood the situation,” Umeno responded. “Would you be able to send me what you have said to everyone? I remember bits of it but I was trying to process and feel like I wasn’t able to capture all of what you said.”
Stanton replied at 3:16 PM Central time, agreeing that it was a lot to process and scheduling a follow-up call for 6:30 that evening, when they would be “happy to review our process and what we told people again, and answer any questions you have.”
In the approximately three-hour window before that followup call took place, Nelson called another Monarchs player to give notice that she was about to go public with the story via Instagram; the Monarchs player then passed this along to the team’s directors. Nelson also called a PUL board member, who communicated the situation to league management. Close to 7 PM, the Monarchs directors sent a short email to players being offered roster spots informing them that, as a follow-up to the conversations from the weekend, the Monarchs would not offer a roster spot to the player who was suspended for the 2021 season.
Around the time that email went out, Umeno (who had also received a heads-up call from Nelson) had a follow-up call with Stanton, Cannaday, and Monarchs head coach Becky LeDonne, where she was informed that Player A would not be rostered. “It was a big shock to me because, literally, you know, a few hours prior to this phone call, I have a message thread with Katy and Ness saying that they were still considering and were going to offer a roster spot to [Player A],” said Umeno. “I knew this, but then I didn’t know if the Monarchs were aware of this. And then all of a sudden, they just completely changed their minds and decided they’re not rostering [Player A]. And so I’m in shock.”
At about 8:15 PM, Nelson made the Instagram post, which was shared widely on multiple platforms. At 10:30, as the story continued to spread, the Monarchs leadership sent a slightly longer email to players reaffirming that the former Monarchs player suspended for the 2021 season would not be rostered for 2022.
Finally, at 12:43 AM on February 1, the Premier Ultimate League account sent the following tweets:
The PUL firmly stands with survivors of assault and abuse and holds the safety of its players and community above all else. (2/2)
— Premier Ultimate League 🏆🥏 (@PremierUltimate) February 1, 2022
Was Player A Going to Be Rostered?
Player A never received a formal offer to sign with the Monarchs in 2022.
During the events of January 31 and in the time since, though, perceptions and accounts have varied on how close Player A was to being offered a roster spot. As of that afternoon, the Monarchs player who got the call from Nelson knew that Player A had been mentioned on the rostering calls, but was under the impression that Player A wouldn’t be rostered based on her communication with the leadership core and others on the team who had opposed the idea. In those same hours, Umeno and Willingham believed that Stanton’s Slack message to Umeno reflected a definite intent to offer a roster spot to Player A, despite clear enough objections from Umeno and others.
“They told Risa no one objected,” said Willingham. “Well, first of all, Risa objected, and she counts.”
“Risa was pretty adamant, and I think a few other people were just like, I would prefer not to. Whereas I was like, ‘you know my stance,'” said the anonymous Monarchs player, referring to her stance against rostering Player A.
“Throughout these calls, nobody raised any red flags in the moment,” said Stanton. “But obviously, it’s a complex thing, so we wanted to continuously offer them an opportunity to come back if they had other questions or concerns.”
Stanton and Cannaday made a point in their first interview for this article to say that Player A was never on the 2022 roster. When the screenshot of the Slack conversation above was described, in which Stanton told Umeno that they were “planning to offer [Player A] a roster spot,” they clarified that Player A was “considered” for the roster.
In a follow-up interview, Stanton explained further: “When we wrote that Slack message, we were very clear across all of the calls that we made that we were considering, you know, rostering this person if we didn’t get the feedback. So, ‘considering’ and ‘planning’ feel very similar, along the same continuum, to me. And so we were at that point still considering rostering [Player A].”
February 2022: Statements and Communication from the PUL
On February 3, a PUL Accountability Committee of four board members sent a more detailed letter to all PUL players and staff. In addition to affirming the league’s commitment to player safety and its appreciation for the vocal feedback, the letter also acknowledged “our failure as a league” in not having a system in place for players to report concerns about misconduct and player safety, and provided a link to a temporary anonymous reporting form for any further reports.
(Members of the Accountability Committee also provided their individual contact information, which has been removed in these images.)
An eventual joint statement from the PUL and Monarchs leadership released February 21 publicly confirmed that, in 2021, the Monarchs had notified the PUL of their investigation and suspension of Player A. The PUL’s section of the joint statement continues, “We recognize that the Premier Ultimate League should have taken this opportunity to review and refine league policies to address similar situations in future years.”
In addition to communication between the Monarchs and the PUL about the 2021 case, Stanton and Cannaday also say that they consulted with a PUL board member in the 2022 season about their approach to “bring[ing] someone back into the community who has caused harm” by disclosing information in the form of the standardized statement given to players offer roster spots. The PUL declined to comment on this.
“So who’s at fault here, right?” said the anonymous Monarchs player. “Like, did the PUL set the Monarchs up for success after 2021? No. Do I believe that the Monarchs ownership tried — like, did they try their best? Yes, given they had no support. Was their best good enough? Probably not.”
February 2022: The Monarchs Players Organize
As the situation surrounding Monarchs management and the PUL bubbled into wider awareness in the weeks after Nelson’s posts, the 2022 Monarchs themselves — the 22 players outside the management group who were offered roster spots for this season — were also talking. Headed by the four 2022 leadership core members besides Cannaday, Stanton, and Prucha, the group has organized through calls, chats, and feedback forms, and has begun participating as an entity of their own in conversations with the Monarchs directors and the PUL about the future direction of the team.
In a statement approved by all players in the group and sent to Ultiworld this week, the Monarchs players wrote, “We trust that the Premier Ultimate League (PUL) and the Monarchs leadership do not condone sexual assault […] However, we recognize that the two have created environments that have fostered and caused harm in this situation. We have asked both organizations to take public accountability for their actions in the ways listed below, and we believe that their recent joint statement is just the beginning of the work that needs to continue to be done.”
The player group asks for Monarchs director-level leadership to “acknowledge that leadership failed to create a survivor-centered process when attempting to re-introduce a sexual assailant into the community […] ultimately centering the assailant” and “failed to recognize the risk of reputational and interpersonal harm to past, present, and future Monarchs through their actions as representatives of the organization.” The players also ask the PUL to acknowledge their failure to support Monarchs leadership when they asked for support on the suspension case in 2021 and failure to create better league-wide policies at that time.
After a 2021 season and 2022 preseason that left several Monarchs in player leadership roles on the team unclear on who had real influence on team decisions and operations, their requests include “diversifying the Monarchs leadership group by shifting decision-making power to an expanded group of individuals” with clearly delineated responsibilities, as well as asking the PUL to outline a public plan to “prevent future conflicts and guide teams and the League toward solutions.”
“We recognize that the PUL and the Monarchs are organizations run by individual people, working with limited resources, susceptible to mistakes, and deserving of forgiveness, grace, and patience. At the same time, we will not waver in asking for accountability,” the players’ statement reads.
As of late February, most have not signed contracts.
A Gap Between USA Ultimate and the Semi-Pro Leagues
While the February 3 letter from the PUL Accountability Committee highlighted Stanton and Cannaday’s participation in the USAU hearing as an area of concern for the league, statements from the Monarchs and the PUL have mostly focused on inadequate policy within the league or its teams, rather than how those policies interact with those of other governing bodies. For many who play, watch, and socialize around the sport, however, the line between USAU play and the semi-pro leagues is much blurrier; though the organizations that run competition are technically separate, they often feel like part of the same community, and gaps between their policies for handling misconduct can register as inconsistencies within that community — holes in the kind of social contract around member safety and accountability that policies like USAU’s are supposed to establish.
In 2021, the American Ultimate Disc League’s Raleigh Flyers unknowingly rostered a player who was serving a USAU member suspension for sexual misconduct. Though the Flyers investigated the situation and ultimately suspended the player once the USAU suspension and related allegations were brought to light, the incident revealed a disconnect between USAU’s conduct system and the AUDL’s, with intervention from the survivor needed to bring the USAU suspension to the AUDL team’s attention.
The PUL and its teams are in a similar position: with no formal connection between their conduct policies and USAU’s, a suspension from one body has no bearing on the other. In the Monarchs’ 2021 and 2022 seasons, that disconnect went both ways, with Player A able to complete a full season of USAU club after being suspended from the Monarchs, then trying out for the Monarchs’ next season while their USAU membership was temporarily suspended during that investigation.
Asked what their plan for the 2022 season would have been if Player A had been rostered with the Monarchs and then been served the USAU suspension, Cannaday said, “I don’t think it’s the Monarchs’ purview to decide what the league-wide response should be to USAU — like, how those two things overlap.”
Stanton and Cannaday’s participation in Player A’s USAU hearing also raised questions about their continuing role in deciding how the allegations would be handled within the Monarchs. While there were no hard policies preventing Stanton and Cannaday from appearing as character witnesses in a USAU hearing about the same incidents investigated by the semi-pro team, several people who spoke to Ultiworld for this story pointed to this as reason for doubt in the Monarchs’ internal process — especially once it was known that the outcome of USAU’s investigation would be dramatically different than the Monarchs’.
“I think it would be great if there were enough money in women’s sports that we didn’t have to wear multiple hats,” said Cannaday in answer to a question about potential conflict between those roles. “It would make things easier for everyone. Not just the Monarchs or, you know, games, or whatever, right? Like, if there were more people interested and more money here to go around, right, we could get impartial people in.”
Asked again about their decision to participate in the USAU hearing, Cannaday responded, “You know, hindsight is 20/20. It would have been great to have more outside support to make these decisions and to help the Monarchs organization. [We] really tried to put forward the best effort we could, right? [And] we fell short on that. We fell very short of where we hope to be.
“It’s something I did, and I don’t like to look backwards. I like to look forward to see, what can we do in the future to make all these processes better? I think it’s a real opportunity for learning — not just for Monarchs leadership, but for the PUL, teams in the PUL, and for USAU to really sort of grapple with. Obviously, we didn’t do a good job. But I also ask, what is a good job, and how, as a community, do we all decide? I mean, maybe we won’t ever all agree on an approach, right? I don’t think anybody is [apologizing for] sexual assault. But we live in a society where people do that, so what do we do with them? I don’t know. We didn’t do it the right way, and we’re taking responsibility for that, and trying to learn. But you know, even USAU, what are they going to do when their process is up, and people come back into the community or want to do that?
“I don’t have the answers,” she said. “I think it’s very clear we don’t have the answers.”
Edit: An earlier version of this article included a paragraph summarizing correspondence between Player A and Ultiworld for this story. It has been removed at their request.
While USAU suspensions are public, USAU’s page only links the suspended player’s name to a general conduct code section and not any specific behavior; accordingly, the player’s name is not included here. The player was contacted by Ultiworld for this story but has declined to comment publicly about the incidents or hearing. ↩