Merritt Paulson steps away from CEO role with NWSL's Thorns, MLS' Timbers amid scandal
Goal of model women's sports team 'now synonymous with abhorrent, predatory behaviour'
Merritt Paulson removed himself Tuesday as the chief executive officer of the Portland Timbers of Major League Soccer and the Portland Thorns of the National Women's Soccer League.
It comes in the wake of an investigation that found abusive behaviour, misconduct and administrative failure throughout the NWSL.
Last week, both teams dismissed general manager Gavin Wilkinson and president of business Mike Golub in response to the investigation. Paulson, the owner of both teams, previously stepped away from day-to-day operation of the Thorns.
"As you know, I removed myself from Thorns decision-making, yet, in order for the organization to move forward and unite, I feel that another step is necessary," Paulson said in a statement on Tuesday. "Effective immediately, I am removing myself as CEO of the Portland Thorns and Portland Timbers, and announcing a global search for a CEO of the organization."
Former acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Q. Yates and the law firm of King & Spaulding released results of their investigation last week that detailed "systemic" abuse and misconduct in women's soccer.
Five of 10 NWSL coaches either were fired or stepped down last season amid allegations of misconduct. Among them was former Thorns and North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley, who was accused by former players Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly of sexual coercion and harassment dating back a decade. Riley has denied the allegations.
Inappropriate workplace comments
Riley was coach of the Thorns in 2014 and 2015. His alleged misconduct was investigated by the team, which opted not to renew his contract but did not publicly reveal the reason for the decision.
Yates wrote 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 investigation also found team executives made inappropriate workplace comments.
Riley went on to coach the Western New York Flash, which became the North Carolina Courage. He was there until September 2021, when allegations of misconduct were published in The Athletic.
Paulson said Heather Davis will continue to serve as interim president and interim CEO of the clubs and that Sarah Keane, the interim chief operating officer, will lead the search for a permanent CEO.
"I apologize to our players, the organization, and the Portland community for the mistakes we made, including not being publicly transparent about Paul Riley's termination. Our organization's failures and mistakes were ultimately my responsibility, and my responsibility alone." Paulson wrote. "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 behaviour."
The NWSL and its players association are also investigating alleged misconduct in the league.
On Monday, players for the Chicago Red Stars called on owner Arnim Whisler to sell his stake in the team.