Confronted with a rebellion by fans and sponsors over his handling of sexual abuse charges levied by members of the Portland Thorns women’s soccer team against a former coach, Merritt Paulson today resigned as CEO of the Thorns and the Timbers, effective immediately.
“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 in a statement.
Heather Davis, general counsel at the Timbers organization, succeeds Paulson as interim CEO. Interim chief operating officer Sarah Keane will lead the search for a permanent CEO, Paulson said.
Paulson’s move comes a week after an investigation by the U.S. Soccer Federation determined that Thorns management “interfered with our access to relevant witnesses and raised specious legal arguments in an attempt to impede our use of relevant documents.”
The report says Paulson and other Thorns executives failed to stop abusive sexual behavior by former Thorns coach Paul Riley who allegedly pursued player Mana Shim, then benched her after she declined his advances. Thorns management eventually fired Riley but said in public that it “had elected not to renew his contract and thanked him for his service,” the report adds.
Riley went on to coach the Western New York Flash. Gavin Wilkinson, the recently fired Thorns general manager, allegedly said at the time that he would hire Riley “in a heartbeat,” the report says.
In an open letter published on Oct. 4, 2021, Paulson pledged to be “transparent” and to “fully cooperate” with Sally Yates, the former U.S. attorney who led the investigation. Soon after, the report says, Thorns management thwarted access to witnesses and refused to turn over documents.
Thorns players said Paulson made inappropriate comments, “including trying to talk with a player about Hope Solo’s nude pictures,” the report says. Solo was a goalie in the women’s professional league.
Paulson purchased the Timbers in 2007 and paid $35 million to become an expansion team in 2011. His father, former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, who made his fortune as CEO of Goldman Sachs, put $50 million toward his son’s $129 million project, Bloomberg News reported at the time.
City Commissioners Carmen Rubio, Jo Ann Hardesty, and Dan Ryan have called upon Paulson to sell the Thorns. Mayor Ted Wheeler said that “anyone who knowingly covers up allegations of sexual abuse should have no role in professional soccer,” but his office did not respond to questions about a sale.
Last Friday, Timbers and Thorns sponsor Union Wine company yanked its support. A day later, Alaska Airlines said it was “taking an immediate next step to redirect Alaska Airlines’ Timbers and Thorns FC sponsorship funds this quarter to the National Women’s Soccer League Players Association Support the Players Emergency Trust and to youth sports in the Portland community.”
Paulson studied English at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., then earned an MBA at Harvard. He managed the HBO on-demand service at Time Warner Inc. before doing marketing work for the National Basketball Association. He started looking for a sports franchise in 2004, then bought the Timbers—then Portland’s minor league soccer team—and moved his family to Portland from New York.