Portland Thorns owner Merritt Paulson has removed himself from a decision-making role with the National Women’s Soccer League club until the findings are released from an ongoing investigation into numerous scandals around the league.
Paulson, who is also the owner of Major League Soccer’s Portland Timbers, announced his decision in a statement Tuesday, one day after the release of the findings of a disturbing independent investigation into the NWSL's abuse scandals commissioned by U.S. Soccer. A concurrent investigation is still being conducted jointly by the league and the players' union, and Paulson plans to step away until its completion.
Gavin Wilkinson and Mike Golub, who have both served in executive roles with Paulson's teams, are also stepping away from the Thorns, who are headed into the NWSL playoffs. Paulson's statement didn't indicate whether the trio will also step away from the Timbers, and Paulson gave no indication he plans to sell his teams.
“Yesterday’s Yates report unveiling was the darkest day I have experienced, and I know the same is true for everyone else who loves our team and our league,” Paulson said. “I know it was even harder and darker for those whose stories were shared publicly. I cannot apologize enough for our role in a gross systemic failure to protect player safety and the missteps we made in 2015. I am truly sorry.”
In the investigation report commissioned by U.S. Soccer, Paulson is accused of enabling and supporting former Thorns coach Paul Riley after Riley was accused of harassment and sexual coercion by players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim. The investigation also found that Paulson and Wilkinson made inappropriate workplace comments to women.
Golub is accused of making inappropriate sexual remarks in 2013 to former Thorns coach Cindy Parlow Cone, now the president of U.S. Soccer. Golub has previously faced criticism for his workplace behavior and his tolerance for others' misbehavior.
In her investigative report, former acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Q. Yates also accused Thorns management of not being forthcoming with information around Riley's departure from the team in 2015, writing that the club "interfered with our access to relevant witnesses and raised specious legal arguments in an attempt to impede our use of relevant documents.”
The Thorns didn't announce why they weren't renewing Riley's contract that year, and Paulson subsequently vouched for Riley as he landed a job with the Western New York Flash, which subsequently became the North Carolina Courage. Riley was with the Courage until being fired in September 2021 after allegations of his misconduct were made public.
Heather Davis, the general counsel for the Thorns, will oversee the team's decisions in Paulson's absence.
“I very much appreciate your patience and believe it’s critical that the process play out with the Joint Investigation,” Paulson wrote in his announcement of his decision. “I love the Portland Thorns and women’s soccer, and am taking these steps with those interests in mind.”