Portland Thorns Fans Demand Change, Question the Silence of Team Owner Merritt Paulson

At the Saturday, Oct. 2, protest, Thorns fans blamed management and said not to lose sight of the larger systemic problems.

UPDATE, 10:20 am Monday, Oct. 4: Thorns FC and Portland Timbers owner Merritt Paulson released an open letter containing eight actions he says the organization will undertake.

“Ultimately, we could have done more,” Paulson wrote, “which is particularly hard to say as the team that we have held as the highest standard in women’s professional soccer in the world. I apologize to Mana, Sinead and everyone else who is hurting as a result. I welcome the investigations that will be forthcoming.”

Original post: On Oct. 2, the Rose City Riveters—an organized fan club for the Portland Thorns FC—gathered in front of Providence Park to sing, chant and call for accountability within Thorns management amid a sexual harassment scandal.

“Whoa oh oh, fire Wilkinson!” chanted the crowd of around 200, many wearing red and black Thorns scarves and jerseys. Gavin Wilkinson is the general manager of both the Thorns FC and the Portland Timbers.

The accountability demands stem from this week’s allegations that former Thorns coach Paul Riley sexually harassed his players. A story on sports website The Athletic alleges that when those players spoke out about Riley, after he was hired by another team, Thorns and National Women’s Soccer League management attempted to silence them.

Although this year has seen a number of sudden NWSL resignations related to the league’s relatively new, April 2021 anti-harassment policy (OL Reign coach Farid Benstiti, for instance, resigned suddenly in July after reports that he continually disparaged his team’s players), many see the chaos as a move toward progress.

“The fact that this comes to light this year does not mean that this is a bad year,” 2021 Steering Committee chair Gabby Rosas said in a short break between chants. “It means that this year is a good year. Players feel able to speak out. Now the players have an anti-harassment policy that they can report against.”

But Rosas was troubled by allegations that the Thorns and the NWSL ignored the request this year from two players, Sinead Farrelly and Meleana “Mana” Shim, to reexamine their allegations that Riley abused them—combined, their accounts range across 2012-2015.

“We’re seeing these two players who are not in the league anymore reporting and still being dismissed,” Rosas continued. “Even when there’s an anti-harassment policy in place, players still were dismissed.”

Since Thursday, when the exposé by The Athletic dropped, fallout within the world of the NWSL has been swift.

All weekend games within the league were postponed. The players’ union released a list of accountability demands. Paul Riley was fired from the team he coached, the North Carolina Courage. Riley’s coaching license was also suspended by the U.S. Soccer Federation.

On Friday, the NWSL announced it had received the resignation of Commissioner Lisa Baird, who—in The Athletic’s piece—appeared to have stonewalled players bringing forth allegations against Riley.

On Sunday, Oct. 3, the NSWL announced it was “immediately launching several critical investigative and reform initiatives to protect players and staff.” The five-point plan included “reopening of the 2015 investigation regarding former NWSL coach Paul Riley, including a review of the circumstances surrounding his departure from the Portland Thorns FC, and his subsequent hiring by Western New York Flash and the North Carolina Courage.”

At the Saturday protest, fans had their eyes focused locally, at what could happen with the Thorns and Timbers shared management. Many noted the silence from Thorns owner Merritt Paulson.

“Which is pretty surprising. Paulson is a pretty vocal guy,” season ticketholder Miel Nelson said.

“They basically built this whole organization on a pile of sand,” Nelson continued. “Being an organization that is about women athletes, and you fail on this basic thing? And you can’t admit that you failed? It’s all just a bunch of lies.”

During the two-hour demonstration, Thorns fans pounded on drums and set off red and black smoke in front of Providence Park, which still advertised the canceled game between the Thorns and Seattle’s OL Reign.

In the small sea of red and black, it was surprising to see only a handful of those present wearing Timbers Army green and gold.

Alan Mutter, a season ticketholder for both teams, wore Timbers colors and a Thorns scarf. He ventured that a number of those present might be Timbers Army fans wearing red and black to support the Thorns. He noted he was sure the Timbers Army would demonstrate in some way at the Sunday game.

“I’d love to see the men walk off the field, but I don’t think they will,” Mutter said. “If the players walked out of the game, I wouldn’t hold it against them at all. I love soccer and I think this is bigger than that.”

At Sunday’s game, the Timbers Army voiced their support in chants and with enormous banners that read “Cut the rot out,” “Believe, support and protect NWSL players” and, perhaps most damningly, “You knew.”)