Portland Thorns owner Merritt Paulson and Chicago Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler have temporarily stepped aside from decision-making duties at their clubs. The announcements come one day after the release of an investigative report into the abuse and misconduct in the National Women’s Soccer League.
In a statement shared Tuesday, Paulson said he will relinquish active control of the team until the conclusion of a separate joint investigation by the league and NWSL Players Association. Gavin Wilkinson, the Thorns president of soccer, Mike Golub, the club’s president of business operations, will also step back in their roles.
“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,” Paulson said in the release. “All Thorns related decisions until that time that any of us would have made will now be handled by Heather Davis, our General Counsel.”
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Accusations against Portland Thorns
While the initial report — authored by former U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates — revealed deep-rooted abuse and malfeasance at multiple clubs, its revelations about the Thorns undercut claims that the club had done all that it could in discussing coach Paul Riley to a prospective employer, the Western New York Flash. The Thorns fired Riley in 2015 after a complaint from player Mana Shim accused the coach of sexual coercion and retaliatory conduct.
The announcement from Portland at the time said it was a mutual separation and included well-wishes for Riley on the Thorns’ behalf.
The Flash hired Riley in 2016. He remained in charge when the club relocated and became the North Carolina Courage. Riley was only terminated in 2021, after a report in The Athletic detailed years of misconduct.
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Yates’ report said Portland supplied the Flash with a glowing recommendation for Riley, including a comment to “get him if (the Flash) could,” and statements indicating that Wilkinson held Shim responsible for Portland having to dismiss Riley.
It also said the Thorns impeded the investigation, citing an open letter Paulson wrote that promised transparency before detailing multiple instances in which investigators felt stymied by Portland as an organization.
“The Thorns’ lack of cooperation delayed our investigation,” the report said.
It detailed a refusal to hand over documents, “specious arguments,” attempts to discourage witnesses from speaking to investigators and an outright refusal of Golub to submit to an interview.
Paulson and Wilkinson have long been the subject of consistent protests at Thorns and Portland Timbers matches, with banners and chants calling for Paulson to sell and for Wilkinson to be fired.
Most recently, 107ist — the umbrella organization for both clubs’ supporters groups — posted a statement Tuesday demanding Paulson sell both teams, and that both Wilkinson and Golub be dismissed from their roles.
Statement from Chicago Red Stars owner
In Chicago, Red Stars owner Whisler’s released a statement similar to Paulson a few hours later.
“I do not want to take any of the attention away from the players’ incredible and well-earned playoff run,” Paulson said. “So in the interest of the club and the players, and fans we serve, effective immediately, I will remove myself from my governance role within the NWSL board of governors and will hand over operational control of the club to our executive team in Chicago.”
Yates report found allegations against former Red Stars manager Rory Dames, who resigned after the 2021 season following a report of verbal and emotional abuse in the Washington Post. Dames would reportedly get so enraged he would spit in players’ faces while screaming at them.
Whisler did not promptly act to protect players when the first reports came against Dames in 2014, according to Yates’ report. Dames was allowed to resign and finish out the remainder of the 2021 season, which ended in a championship loss to the Washington Spirit.
Current NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman said in a statement Tuesday the league was “supportive of the important steps taken by the Portland Thorns and Chicago Red Stars.”
The joint investigation between the league and players association is ongoing and Berman said the investigative team is working toward concluding their report by the end of the year without interference from the league.
“While it will take time, we are fully prepared to take the necessary steps to protect the health and safety of our players, staff and other stakeholders in order to create the League that our players, fans, partners and staff deserve and expect,” Berman said.
USWNT captain says execs who failed players ‘need to be gone’
During a press conference ahead of the U.S. women’s national team game against England, Thorns defender and USWNT captain Becky Sauerbrunn said the players “are not doing well.”
The veteran player called the actions of her club’s leadership “abhorrent.”
“All I know is that the team that I play with and the staff, the technical staff and the medical staff — those people are good people,” Sauerbrunn said. “But the things that have happened above them in the front office as owners are abhorrent and it cannot continue. The fact that people were abused because things weren’t done well and right is inexcusable.”
Sauerbrunn called for “every owner and executive and U.S. Soccer official who has repeatedly failed the players” to be removed from their positions. She was asked to clarify whether she included Thorns ownership and executives in her demand for accountability.
“It includes everyone that has continued to fail the players time and time again, who didn’t take concerns seriously, who didn’t pass on information correctly, who have not participated in investigations — all of them,” she said. “If people continue to fail the players, and they don’t comply with anything that gets asked of them or gets implemented because of these reports, then they need to be gone gone.”
Pro Soccer Wire contributed to this report.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Portland Thorns, Chicago Red Stars owners step away after NWSL report