Merritt Paulson, owner of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) Portland Thorns and Major League Soccer (MLS) Portland Timbers, will not travel to Washington, DC, for Saturday’s NWSL championship game between the Thorns and the Kansas City Current, the team announced in a statement.
Paulson was under pressure to sell both teams, and resigned as Thorns and Timbers CEO on October 11 following the release of the Yates Report, which revealed systemic sexual and emotional abuse of players in the NWSL.
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The report detailed multiple instances of player abuse and found that some executives ignored player complaints or hid the reasons why a coach was fired. Those include allegations against former Thorns manager Paul Riley, as well as Paulson’s role in hiding the reason for Riley’s firing, which allowed the coach to continue working in the NWSL.
“Merritt is thrilled to have the Portland Thorns play in another NWSL Championship game,” the statement read. “Given the recent changes that have been implemented in the organization [Paulson] will watch the game on CBS remotely.”
The statement added that interim CEO Heather Davis, interim CEO Sarah Keane and GM Karina LeBlanc will represent ownership in Washington “when the Thorns hopefully win their third league title in 10 years.”
The statement continued, “As Merritt has said with the team and the organization, he is committed to ensuring the long-term health and success of the Portland Thorns.”
It was not known if Paulson was present for Sunday’s 2-1 semifinal win over the San Diego Wave. Paulson was not seen in his suite, and when ESPN asked multiple Thorns employees if he was present, each said they did not know.
– The Yates report explains: Key findings about the abuse of Holly, Riley and Dames
Riley was fired by the Thorns for cause in 2015 following a complaint filed by former Thorns player Mana Shim alleging sexual harassment and coercion.
During the scandal, Paulson tried to frame his mistakes as one mistake in 2015 in which the club kept the real reason for Riley’s departure hidden from the public, instead claiming that Riley’s contract was not renewed for on-field reasons.
In a letter announcing his retirement as CEO, Paulson wrote that he promised to “make sure that what happened in 2015 never happens again,” adding that the mistakes included “a lack of transparency about with the firing of Paul Riley”.
But Yates’ report said Paulson received player complaints alleging Riley was abusive and ignored them in 2014, a year before Shim’s complaint resulted in Riley’s firing.
Records obtained by Yates also show that Paulson continued to maintain Riley’s exit from other team owners and downplayed Shim’s allegations until 2019, instead voicing support for Riley, allowing the coach to remain employed by the NWSL. Paulson was also accused of making inappropriate comments to players.
With some fans demanding that Paulson sell both teams, and sponsors like Alaska Airlines diverting sponsorship dollars from the organization, Paulson fired two top executives — president of football Gavin Wilkinson and president of business operations Mike Golub — before resigned as CEO.