Merritt Paulson, owner of Portland Thorns, Timbers, is stepping down as CEO after Yates reported backlash


Portland Thorns and Timbers owner Merritt Paulson resigned as CEO of both clubs as fans, sponsors and players call for more action in response to allegations of emotional abuse and sexual misconduct detailed in a report. (Photo by Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports)

Thorns and Timbers owner Merritt Paulson announced on Tuesday that he was stepping down as CEO of both football teams following allegations of sexual assault against ex-Portland Thorns coach Paul Rile.

Paulson withdrew from day-to-day decision-making after news of the allegations broke. He acknowledged in a statement on Tuesday that his previous decision was not up to par.

“I believe another step is necessary,” Paulson wrote. “Effective immediately, I am stepping down as CEO of Portland Thorns and Portland Timbers and announce a global search for a CEO of the organization.”

He retains involvement with both teams.

This is the latest development following a massive investigative report commissioned by US Soccer by former federal prosecutor Sally Yates. The report concluded that Paulson and Thorns General Manager at the time, Gavin Wilkinson, were fully aware of the allegations of sexual misconduct against Riley in 2015 and these actively undercover players who allegedly sustained Riley’s persistent and unwelcome advances, retaliation, when he was asked to stop, as well as detailing a specific incident involving another player.

While the Thorns terminated Riley’s contract seven days later, the report stated that the club was silent on the true nature of the allegations. Riley’s departure was announced as a non-renewal of a contract. When Riley later received a positive job recommendation from Wilkinson for an executive position at the Western New York Flash in 2016, Paulson was quoted in the report as saying, “Congratulations on hiring Riley. I have a lot of affection for him.”

Paulson and Wilkinson were two of several alleged accomplices named in the investigation.

Riley continued to train with the USWL for six years after the Flash and North Carolina Courage allegations. He has denied the allegations against him as “completely untrue”, writing in an email to the Athletic: “I have never had sex with these players or made sexual advances towards them”.

Portland Thorns actively responded to the Yates report

The day after the troubling findings of the independent investigation into misconduct and abuse were released on October 5, the Thorns announced that Wilkinson and manager Mike Golub had both been fired. Paulson released a statement the same day that he “retired from all decisions made by Thorns.”

Minutes before Paulson’s statement was released, Thorns defense attorney and USWNT captain Becky Sauerbrunn addressed the media and expressed her desire for all alleged complicit owners, executives and US football officials to be removed.

“It’s always fallen on the player to demand change for so long, and that’s because the people in positions of authority and decision-making have consistently failed to protect us and failed to hold themselves and each other accountable ‘ said Sauerbrunn.

General Counsel Heather Davis and Sarah Keane – Davis-appointed Chief Operating Officer – will step in for Paulson and lead the search for his successor.

These decisions come as fans, sponsors and players demand more action from the club. A group of devout fans organized to post a social media expression He declared Paulson’s title move “not enough” until he no longer has financial interests in either team.

Club sponsors Tillamook Country Creamery Association, Union Wine Company, and Alaska Airlines all announced they were dropping their Thorns sponsorship. For all of the above sponsors, review of these decisions is pending “meaningful, institutional changes” by the Thorns.

It remains unclear what next steps will be taken as waves of the Yates report continue.

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