Merritt Paulson, owner of the Portland Timbers and Portland Thorns, stepped down as CEO of both teams, effective immediately.
“A successful team is built on trust, equality and accountability,” Paulson said in a statement released Tuesday. “Today I am holding myself accountable for not doing enough.”
Paulson did not address calls for him to sell both clubs.
Paulson’s decision to step down comes in the wake of a damning report from former attorney general Sally Yates, who was hired by U.S. Soccer to investigate reports of widespread abuse throughout the sport, particularly in the National Women’s Soccer League.
Portland was at the center of that investigation after not being transparent about why the team terminated the contract of former coach Paul Riley in 2015.
Former Thorns players accused Riley of unwanted sexual advances, among other abuses, in a story by The Athletic published last year. The Thorns investigated the accusations, declined to extend Riley’s contract and shared their findings with the league, but they never publicly disclosed why Riley wasn’t brought back. Riley was later hired by North Carolina’s NWSL team.
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Multiple players and season ticket holders have called for Paulson to sell both the Timbers and Thorns.
Becky Sauerbrunn, a Thorns star and USWNT co-captain, was among those voices and said last week “every owner and executive and U.S. Soccer official who has repeatedly failed the players, and failed to protect the players, and have not participated fully in these investigations, should be gone.”
USWNT star Megan Rapinoe took it one step further, naming owners she wanted gone.
“I don’t think Merritt Paulson is fit to be the owner of that team,” Rapinoe said, also naming Arnim Whisler, who owned and founded the Chicago Red Stars. Chicago’s board of directors voted last week to remove Whisler as chairman.
Numerous sponsors across the league have severed ties or paused their relationships with NWSL teams following the release of the Yates report Oct. 3.
Over the weekend, Alaska Airlines, the main sponsor of both the Timbers and Thorns, whose brand is synonymous with those teams’ jerseys, announced it suspended its sponsorship and will redirect money for both teams to a fund formed by the NWSLPA to benefit players. Also last week, a local mortgage company and local wine company severed their relationships with Portland’s soccer clubs.
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“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 Tuesday.
Paulson previously fired two front office executives, president of soccer Gavin Wilkinson and president of business Mike Golub, after both were named in the Yates report. He also removed himself from Thorns decision-making.
With Paulson out, interim president Heather Davis becomes interim CEO.
“Looking ahead, our organization is at a crossroads, and the future is not necessarily a clear path,” Paulson said. “Given the complexities involved on several levels, finalizing the correct path forward will take time.”
The Thorns are set to host an NWSL playoff game Oct. 23. Sophia Smith, a forward for the Thorns who is currently abroad with the USWNT, said Tuesday, “it would be really disappointing to play in front of an empty, silent stadium. Ultimately, fans not showing up affects the players more than it affects anyone.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Merritt Paulson steps down as Timbers, Thorns CEO. Will he sell next?