Merritt Paulson, the owner of the NWSL’s Portland Thorns and MLS’s Portland Timbers, announced he is stepping down as CEO of both clubs “effective immediately.”
The announcement follows the release of the Yates Report, which detailed systemic emotional and verbal abuse, as well as sexual misconduct in the NWSL, including within the Thorns’ organization.
“The Portland Thorns were created to be a beacon of what is possible in women’s sports. A successful team is built on trust, equality and accountability, and today I am holding myself accountable for not doing enough,” Paulson said in a statement on Tuesday.
He also apologized to the Thorns’ players, the organization and the Portland community “for the mistakes we made […] our organization’s failures and mistakes were ultimately my responsibility, and my responsibility alone.”
Paulson had previously announced that he was stepping aside from the Thorns’ day-to-day activities. But his latest statement now makes that move permanent, and the organization will engage in a “global search” for his replacement. His statement made no mention of whether he will sell either the Thorns or the Timbers. For now, the move adds another layer of management between himself and the teams.
The Thorns were featured at numerous points in the Yates report, especially as it related to its handling of sexual misconduct allegations made in 2015 by former players Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly against then-Thorns manager Paul Riley. The allegations were first reported by The Athletic.
“I owe Sinead and Mana, the Thorns players and the NWSL my tireless effort to actively make sure what happened in 2015 never happens again,” Paulson said.
But there was more to the Thorns’ involvement than what Riley is alleged to have done. While the Thorns terminated Riley for cause, the report detailed how the club publicly described the manager’s departure as a nonrenewal of a contract due to results, and Riley’s desire to return to the East Coast. Riley later received a positive job referral from Thorns’ president of soccer Gavin Wilkinson when Riley applied for the managerial opening with the Western New York Flash in 2016. Paulson was quoted in the report as saying to the Flash after Riley was hired, “Congrats on the Riley hire. I have a lot of affection for him.”
ESPN recently reported that in 2019, when Riley was put on a short list for the vacant manager’s position with the U.S. women’s national team, Paulson told North Carolina Courage owner Steve Malik that it would be “a good idea” if Riley withdrew. Otherwise the manner of his departure from the Thorns might become public. Riley withdrew from consideration shortly thereafter.
The Yates Report also detailed how the Thorns sought to impede the investigation, by delaying the sharing of documents and not making certain witnesses available.
“It is devastating to me that my goal of creating the shining example of what a women’s sports team could be, has now become synonymous with abhorrent and predatory behavior,” Paulson said. “Part of me holding myself accountable is recognizing that someone else needs to take the reins of the organization and operational decision-making.”
The backlash to the Yates Report has been prolonged and intense, with the Thorns’ sponsors and players publicly castigating the club. Both Wilkinson and the organization’s president of business, Mike Golub, were fired, but that wasn’t enough.
Thorns team captain Becky Sauerbrunn said that, “It’s my opinion that every owner and executive and U.S. Soccer official who has repeatedly failed the players and failed to protect the players, who have hidden behind legalities and have not participated fully in these investigations should be gone.”
Alaska Airlines, one of the club’s main sponsors, announced that it was redirecting its sponsorship funds for the Thorns and Timbers to the National Women’s Soccer League Players Association’s Support the Players Emergency Trust and to youth sports in the Portland community.
The Tillamook County Creamery Association said in a statement, “We will only reconsider future sponsorship if the organization makes meaningful, institutional changes.”
Union Wine Company announced it would “no longer participate as an official sponsor of either” the Timbers or Thorns, and would only reconsider “if the organization makes meaningful institutional transformation that help lead to positive systemic change.”
In his statement, Paulson announced that Heather Davis will remain interim president and interim CEO. Sarah Keane, who was appointed interim COO, will lead the search for a permanent CEO. Paulson added that players will meet with the final candidates, “so their voices can be heard.”
“Looking ahead, our organization is at a crossroads, and the future is not necessarily a clear path,” Paulson said. “No matter what happens, ensuring the long-term health and success of the Portland Thorns is critical to me, as I know it is for our players and the community.
“Given the complexities involved on several levels finalizing the correct path forward will take time. I love this organization as if it was part of my family, and to me, what is most important is getting it right.