Allegations of Misconduct and Sexual Harassment by Former Thorns Coach Rock the NWSL

The Rose City Riveters plan to demonstrate at Providence Park in support of Thorns players Oct. 2, at 5 pm.

Portland Thorns fans in 2016. (Corri Goates)

The Portland Thorns game against Seattle’s OL Reign is canceled, and supporters of the Thorns have planned a protest Saturday, Oct. 2, at Providence Park, as allegations of misconduct by a former Thorns coach sweep the National Women’s Soccer League.

On Sept. 30, sports journalism site The Athletic published a deeply reported investigative story by Meg Linehan that alleged a pattern of misconduct by Paul Riley, coach of the North Carolina Courage and former coach of the Portland Thorns.

Two former Thorns players, Sinead Farrelly and Meleana “Mana” Shim, alleged Riley had sexually harassed them, entered into a sexual relationship with Farrelly while coaching her, openly obsessed about both players’ sexual orientation, and pressured them into sexual situations—such as asking them to kiss each other in his Portland apartment after a night of drinking in the Pearl District so the whole team could avoid a punishing drill called “the suicide mile” the next day. He also allegedly called Shim to his room to review film footage of games but was only wearing underwear when she arrived. (Riley has denied the players’ accounts.)

In response to the story, the North Carolina Courage fired Riley and the U.S. Soccer Federation suspended his coaching license.

The article’s allegations raise significant questions for the Thorns franchise and its owner, Merritt Paulson. The team told The Athletic that it dismissed Riley weeks after Shim filed a complaint with the team’s human resources department in 2015. But it did not make any public statement about the reasons for Riley’s firing at the time, and he was hired by another NWSL team, the Western New York Flash, five months later.

The Portland Thorns released a statement, saying, “There is much in the article that we are first hearing about now.” While the findings of the Thorns’ investigation into Riley’s conduct at the time “did not show unlawful activity, they did uncover clear violations of our company policies. The findings of the investigation were fully shared with the NWSL.”

Approximately 20 minutes after that, the Thorns social media account added, “We want to thank Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly for bravely speaking out and fully apologize to them for our role in the abuse they detailed.”

Following the accusations, the players’ union, the National Women’s Soccer League Players Association, issued a series of demands:

Following the cancellation of not only the Thorns’ game but all of NWSL’s planned games this weekend, the players’ union also revealed it had requested the postponement.

“Suiting up for game day under the lights in front of wildly supportive fans is what brings us joy. We refuse to let that joy be taken from us. We also recognize, however, that mental health struggles are real,” the statement by the union read. “We hope that fans will support us during this time.”

The Thorns’ fan club Rose City Riveters—actually part of a network of fan clubs, the Independent Supporters Council—put out a call on Twitter: “18th and Morrison. 5:00 pm to 7:00 pm tomorrow. We will be gathering to support our players, so bring your voice!”

Fans of Seattle’s OL Reign, who may have traveled down to Portland for the now-canceled game, were encouraged to join the demonstration by their own fan club, Royal Guard, which tweeted: “Solidarity trumps rivalry.”

The Riveters’ account responded to questions about the event—it will be family-friendly and fans should bring signs to wave—but when reached for comment on what the demonstration wanted to accomplish, they referred WW to the statement released by the Independent Supporters Council.

The ISC statement expresses disgust at the revelations and the “pattern of lack of fundamental protections in the workplace” within NWSL. “There is no policy to protect players,” the statement read. The ISC statement then repeats the demands of the players’ union verbatim. Read the full statement here.

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