Portland Thorns owner Merritt Paulson and Chicago Red Stars owner Arnhem Whistler are stepping back from decision-making roles with their respective National Women’s Football League clubs until results are released from an ongoing investigation into numerous reports of sexual misconduct and abuse in all over the league.
Paulson, the owner of Major League Soccer’s Portland Timbers, announced his decision in a statement Tuesday, a day after revealing the findings of a troubling independent investigation into the abuse of the English soccer league commissioned by US Soccer. A concurrent investigation is still underway jointly by the league and the players’ union, and Paulson plans to stay away until it’s complete.
“The unveiling of the Yates report yesterday was my darkest day, and I know the same goes for anyone else who loves our team and our league,” Paulson said. “I know it’s been much more difficult and darker for those whose stories have been shared publicly. I cannot apologize enough for our role in a massive systemic failure to protect player safety and the missteps we made in 2015. I’m really sorry.”
Later on Tuesday, Whistler, who also serves on the NWSL Board of Governors, made a similar move with the Red Stars, announced in a statement: “Our organization is committed to rebuilding trust and respect between players and staff towards our league and club, and I recognize that my current presence is a distraction. I don’t want to take any of the attention away from the amazing and wonderful players that have earned the playoff round.
“Therefore, in the interest of the club and the players and fans we serve, I will immediately remove myself from the governance role within the NWSL Board of Governors and will hand over operational control of the club to our Chicago executive team.”
The Yates report found Whistler dismissed players’ concerns about the abusive behavior of Red Stars coach Rory Dams, who resigned on November 21, 2021, amid accusations of verbal and emotional abuse by several players.
Gavin Wilkinson and Mike Golub, who served in executive roles with Paulson’s teams, are also moving away from the Thorns, who are heading to the NWSL playoffs. Paulson’s statement did not indicate whether the trio would also move away from the Timbers, nor did Paulson provide any indication that he plans to sell his teams.
NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman issued the following statement Tuesday in Support of Owners Decisions: “The NWSL supports the important steps the Portland Thorns and Chicago Red Stars have taken today. As the league continues to evaluate the Yates report, I want to assure you that we remain committed to implementing reform and disciplinary action, as a result of the Yates report and the findings of the investigation team. NWSL/NWSLPA Affiliate Subscriber”.
Berman added that the NWSL Joint Investigation Team was working to finalize its report by the end of the year.
In the report submitted by former US Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, Paulson was accused of enabling and supporting former Thorns coach Paul Riley after Riley was accused of sexual harassment and coercion by players Sinead Farrelly and Manna Shim. The investigation also found that Paulson and Wilkinson made inappropriate workplace comments to women.
Golub is accused of making inappropriate sexual statements in 2013 to former Thorns coach Cindy Barlow Kohn, who is now the head of the NFL team. Golub has previously faced criticism for his behavior in his workplace and his tolerance of the misconduct of others.
In her investigative report, Yates also accused Thorns management of failing to provide information about Riley’s departure from the team in 2015, writing that the club “interfered with our access to relevant witnesses and raised misleading legal arguments in an effort to impede our use of relevant documents”.
The Thorns did not announce why Riley’s contract was not renewed that year, and Paulson later agreed to Riley when he took a job at Western New York Flash, which would later become the North Carolina Brawl. Riley was with courage until he was fired in September 2021 after his misconduct allegations were made public.
Heather Davis, Thorns’ general counsel, will oversee team decisions in Paulson’s absence.
“I greatly appreciate your patience and believe it is critical that the process goes with the joint investigation,” Paulson wrote in announcing his decision. “I love the Portland Thorns and women’s football, and I take these steps with these interests in mind.”
Information from the Associated Press was used in this story.