PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN/AP) — Portland Thorns Owner and CEO Merritt Paulson is responding to a new report released by U.S. Soccer, which details systemic abuse within the National Women’s Soccer League, including in the Portland Thorns organization.
The Thorns were accused of excluding key details of a 2015 complaint made against former Thorns coach Paul Riley by a former Thorns player.
“I cannot apologize enough for our role in a gross systemic failure to protect player safety and the missteps we made in 2015,” Paulson’s statement reads in part. “I am truly sorry.”
Read Paulson’s full statement at the bottom of this article.
The Associated Press reports U.S. Soccer commissioned the investigation by Yates and the law firm King & Spaulding after former NWSL players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim came forward with allegations of harassment and sexual coercion dating back a decade involving former coach Paul Riley. Their account was published by The Athletic in September 2021.
However, the AP says it was clear the problems were widespread. Five of the 10 head coaches in the NWSL last season either were fired or stepped down amid allegations of misconduct.
“The verbal and emotional abuse players describe in the NWSL is not merely ‘tough’ coaching. And the players affected are not shrinking violets. They are among the best athletes in the world,” Yates wrote.
More than 200 people were interviewed by investigators. Some two dozen entities and individuals provided documents. U.S. Soccer also provided documents and the firm reviewed 89,000 deemed likely to be relevant.
U.S. Soccer President Cindy Parlow Cone called the findings “heartbreaking and deeply troubling.” The report recounts an episode in 2013, when Parlow Cone was coach of the Portland Thorns, in which she herself experienced an inappropriate comment by a team executive.
“I’ve been a part of this game all my life, from the youth all the way up to the professional level and an international level, so the women’s game is really important to me. And many of the players in this report I know. Many of them I coached,” Parlow Cone said. “I just found it really maddening that players had to go through this.”
The report made numerous recommendations to prioritize player health and safety. Among them is the requirement that teams accurately disclose coach misconduct to the league and the soccer federation to ensure coaches aren’t allowed to move between teams. It also calls for meaningful vetting of coaches and timely investigation into allegations of abuse.
Tina Ettlin from the Timbers Army says the fan crew will be suspending communication with the front office. She also believes that Paulson should sell both the Timbers and Thorns.
“They’ve had five-plus years to do literally anything about any of these reports,” she said. “it’s time for them to fully go. Them getting a paid vacation is not exactly a consequence.”
Additionally, Ettlin commended the women that have come forward.
“We have so much admiration for them for coming forward doing this difficult thing,” she said. “And putting themselves on the line to make this change and make things better and make sure something happens and that players don’t go through this again.”
Brandi Williams, the General Manager of Laurelwood Brewing, says the company may not sponsor the Thorns and Timbers going forward.
“At the end of the day, we can say what we want to say, but I think financially things go a lot further. Our sponsorship was for one year. And unless we see real true action on the part of the organization and from the league, I don’t think we’ll be considering a sponsorship again,” she said. “I think it’s still kind of like punches you in the gut in a little bit. In a lot of ways, just to hear that nothing had been done.”
The NWSL said it was reviewing the report. The league and the NWSL Players Association are also conducting an investigation.
Full Paulson statement:
“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. I would imagine that it was even harder and darker for those whose stories were shared publicly. We have promised the NWSL that we will not do media or make any public statements related to the investigations until the joint NWSL/NWSLPA Investigation is released in November, which is tremendously difficult. 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.
“Given the Thorns are about to enter the NWSL Playoffs, I have told the NWSL that I will be removing myself effective today from all Thorns-related decision making until the joint investigation, which we are fully cooperating with, is released. Gavin Wilkinson and Mike Golub will do the same. All Thorns related decisions until that time that any of us would have made will now be handled by Heather Davis, our General Counsel.
“I very much appreciate your patience and believe it’s critical that the process play out with the Joint Investigation.
“I love the Portland Thorns and women’s soccer, and am taking these steps with those interests in mind.