The Portland Timbers and Thorns owner Merritt Paulson released an open letter today in response to the recent reports of former Thorns coach Paul Riley’s alleged sexual coercion and outcry over the club’s mishandling of the situation. There was no mention made of general manager Gavin Wilkinson, who has been the target of many fan protests because of his actions in dealing with the situation when it first occurred.
Paulson started the letter by saying that the safety and well-being of the players have always been the club’s top priority. Paulson went on to applaud the bravery of Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly, who came forward to report their abuse by Riley.
Paulson wrote that the Portland Thorns have “zero tolerance for harassment or discrimination of any kind” and outlined the steps the Thorns organization took in dealing with the complaints about Riley:
(1) placed Coach Riley on immediate suspension; (2) conducted an investigation of the claims that, within a matter of days, led to his termination; and (3) shared everything we learned in the investigation with the NWSL.
Paulson detailed that the reason for the “opaque” announcement of why the Thorns did not renew Riley’s contract “was guided by what we, at the time, thought was the right thing to do out of respect for player privacy.”
The owner acknowledged that he and the organization contributed to a culture of silence that could have led to further victimization of players under Riley. He said that the organization should have done more and apologized to Shim and Farrelly and those hurting as a result.
Paulson went on to welcome the positive change that must come — albeit should’ve come sooner — via investigations in the Thorns organization and in the NWSL. Then he outlined what the organization is doing now:
We are creating opportunities for safe and open dialogue with our players and staff, and have made supplemental crisis, mental health and wellness resources available to them.
We are in the process of adopting a confidential and anonymous reporting system for allegations of harassment and discrimination involving our organization. This function should be in place and available by week’s end.
We renew our commitment to the NWSL’s anti-harassment policy, including its anti-retaliation provisions, which our head of HR and General Counsel were trained on this past spring.
We will continue SafeSport training, which all Thorns players, Thorns staff and youth academy staff completed this year. We fully embrace the U.S. Center for SafeSport, and share its commitment to prevent the emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse of athletes – in our stadium and throughout the sport.
We are creating a form on our website to enable our fans and community to provide anonymized feedback and input as we go through this transformative process.
We are evaluating our own organizational plan for the Portland Thorns. Our north star is what is best for the players and technical staff.
We have retained new outside lawyers including a female former federal prosecutor to conduct a comprehensive and deliberate independent investigation of our original 2015 investigation. Whatever findings result from this review, I commit to you, we will make public in summary form. We will be equally transparent with whatever corrective actions we take in response to the investigative findings.
Similarly, we welcome and will fully cooperate with the related investigations by FIFA, US Soccer and the U.S. Center for SafeSport, and look forward to the much needed light they will shine on the facts as they emerge in due course over the investigative process.
Paulson closed by saying that the organization stands with Shim, Farrelly, the past and current Thorns players, the fans, and the Thorns community. He said he was proud of what the Thorns have achieved, but acknowledged that the organization can and must do better.
The full statement can be accessed here.