The Portland Thorns Front Office Suddenly Has a Lot to Answer For

The degree to which the Riley scandal will upend the Thorns front office and drain its fandom will depend on answers to a few central questions.

The atmosphere outside Providence Park last weekend was one of paradise lost—and it wasn’t just the billowing red smoke plumes released by fuming fans of the Portland Thorns Football Club.

When sports website The Athletic published allegations Sept. 30 by two former Thorns players that onetime coach Paul Riley had sexually harassed them from 2012 to 2015, the news rocked a city that supports women’s soccer in numbers seen nowhere else in America.

“We’re just so angry that the Thorns organization did not hold Paul Riley accountable,” said Thorns season ticketholder Emily Brew as she stood outside the stadium Oct. 2. “The two players he coerced and abused lost their jobs and he went on to get another job. It’s just unacceptable.”

For years, Thorns supporters—especially the die-hard Rose City Riveters—cheered and sang for their favorite players, treated the downtown stadium as a second home and de facto LGBTQ+ club, and brought their daughters to meet new heroes.

In a 2016 WW cover story, midfielder Meleana “Mana” Shim described how it felt to be serenaded by the crowd: “There’s a sense of family, just that this group of people has your back.”

Just 15 months earlier and a block away, Riley had allegedly brought Shim and her teammate Sinead Farrelly to his apartment so Shim could use the bathroom after a night of drinking for which Riley picked up the tab. When they were all alone, he pressured Shim and Farrelly to kiss each other, in exchange for a reprieve from grueling wind sprints at the next day’s practice.

That was just one sordid detail in a litany of abuses Farrelly and Shim detailed to The Athletic. The teammates said Riley had openly obsessed about both players’ sexual orientation, requested that Shim review plays in his room only to answer the door wearing only his underwear, and entered into a sexual relationship with Farrelly while coaching her.

“He’s a predator,” Shim said on the Oct. 5 edition of the Today show. “He sexually harassed me. He sexually coerced Sinead. And he took away our careers.”

Shim had reported her allegations to the Thorns’ human resources director on Sept. 16, 2015. Seven days later, the team announced it wouldn’t renew his contract.

And then, for the next six years: silence.

It’s that long gap that most troubles Thorns fans now. In the interim, Riley found not one but two new coaching gigs, near Buffalo, N.Y., and Raleigh, N.C. He coached the North Carolina Courage to two championships in the National Women’s Soccer League.

Observers say he was enabled by the Thorns’ burying his alleged misconduct.

“The organization keeps secrets,” says trauma therapist Dr. Sara Gilman, who specializes in sports psychology. “That doesn’t mean everyone in management knew what was going on, but there’s enough trail of communications that we see this was not a big surprise.”

Consequences arrived rapidly in the past week. The Courage fired Riley and the U.S. Soccer Federation suspended his coaching license. NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird resigned. All weekend games within the league were postponed.

The 200 fans who gathered outside Providence Park say the reckoning has not yet reached the Thorns front office. Many of them held signs demanding the firing of Thorns general manager Gavin Wilkinson. Others called for Timbers and Thorns owner Merritt Paulson to sell the soccer club.

“Many community members have lost confidence in Thorns management,” former City Commissioner Amanda Fritz, a devoted fan of the team, tells WW. “They opted to protect an accused predator over ensuring that he was immediately driven out of coaching and positions of power over women.”

The degree to which the Riley scandal will upend the Thorns front office and drain its fandom will depend on answers to a few central questions.

What did the Thorns tell the league about Riley in 2015?

In The Athletic story, Shim says she filed a complaint with the Thorns on Sept. 16, 2015. She emailed Thorns HR director Nancy Garcia Ford, Paulson, Wilkinson and Riley himself. Then she forwarded the report to then-NWSL Commissioner Jeff Plush. Whatever was in Shim’s email, they all had it.

Thorns management investigated Shim’s complaint and, seven days later, announced Riley “would not be retained.” In an Oct. 4 open letter, Paulson now says Thorns management “shared everything we learned in the investigation with the NWSL.”

It matters what exactly Thorns brass told the league they had found. If the NWSL knew the Thorns had confirmed the allegations against Riley, that meant the league was asleep on its watch. But if the Thorns didn’t pass along the results of their inquiry—or, worse, if they didn’t look very hard—that leaves much of the blame in Portland.

Why wasn’t the reason for Riley’s dismissal made public—then or after he was hired by another club?

Even if the Thorns told the league bad news about Riley, they kept it from the public. When they dismissed the coach, the boilerplate nature of the announcement gave the impression he’d been booted for a losing record.

In fact, Thorns general manager Gavin Wilkinson thanked Riley in the release “for his services to the club these past two seasons.”

In Paulson’s open letter, he gives a different account, saying he fired Riley. But if Riley was swiftly suspended and then terminated, why did Thorns management allow the public to believe it was routine?

In the open letter, Paulson said the team kept the matter quiet “out of respect for player privacy.” He conceded it was the wrong choice.

Did the Thorns discourage players from discussing their LGBTQ+ identities or politics?

Shim alleges Wilkinson called her into his office in 2014 and told her, in a “genial” tone, that she needed to stop discussing off-the-field matters publicly. Shim understood this as a rebuke of her publicly coming out as a lesbian in 2013.

That year, she had told Outsports, “I think the silence sends a message that it’s not OK to be a lesbian in sports, or that it’s a taboo topic.”

Wilkinson told The Athletic that the idea he would muzzle a player was “bullshit.” He later softened his denial and apologized.

If Wilkinson did instruct Shim to stop speaking out publicly about being a lesbian, that suggests that a culture of controlling players’ personal lives extended beyond one rogue coach. That’s what Shim asserts: On the Today show, she described feeling like a possession, “not just from Paul but from the team that I was playing for. They silenced me for multiple issues, my sexuality being the most important one.”

What is the Thorns front office saying it will do now?

The Thorns say they’ve now launched a fresh investigation into the way they handled the last one.

That might buy the team some time. Thorns management declined to respond specifically to any of WW’s questions about past practices: “Thorns FC will withhold comment until findings of the investigation are complete.” A Thorns management representative didn’t know how long the investigation would take.

But the heat is now firmly on Wilkinson and Paulson.

Paulson is the son of former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury (and before that CEO of Goldman Sachs) Hank Paulson. He’s known for being passionate, combative and persuasive: In 2010, he convinced the Portland City Council to spend $40 million renovating Providence Park to Major League Soccer specifications, placing the sport in the literal center of the city.

Wilkinson has similarly been with the Timbers organization since before the major league expansion. He was operating as the Timbers’ coach but moved into the role of general manager as the Timbers joined the major leagues.

Former Commissioner Fritz says he should not be on the job. “Gavin Wilkinson should be removed from any aspect of management of the Thorns until the investigation is completed,” she tells WW.

In his open letter to fans, Paulson wrote: “We as an organization disavow the culture of silence that may have allowed for additional victimization by a predatory coach, whose actions we forcefully condemn.”

Paulson’s letter outlined eight actions management would take. Some are tangible changes—like the adoption of a confidential and anonymous reporting system. Some are hazier, like renewing the team’s commitment to its preestablished anti-harassment policy.

He apologized to Shim and Farrelly. The next morning, they appeared on national television to rebuke his franchise, and the Riveters demanded a boycott of stadium concessions.

WW staff writer Sophie Peel contributed reporting to this story.