US Women’s National Team captain Becky Sauerbrunn turned heads last week when she said, “Every owner and executive and US Soccer official who has repeatedly failed the players…should be gone.” The words were especially powerful coming from a stalwart player for the National Women’s Soccer League’s Portland Thorns, since one person who “has repeatedly failed the players” is Thorns owner Merritt Paulson. (Yes, he’s the son of George W. Bush’s bank bailout secretary Hank Paulson. Yes, we find it amusing that this child of profound privilege is named “Merritt.”) US soccer megastar Megan Rapinoe spelled it out: “I don’t think that Merritt Paulson is fit to be the owner of that team, and I don’t think Arnim [Whisler] is fit to be the owner of Chicago. And we need to see those people gone.”
They are right. As we have said in this column space for many months, Merritt Paulson must go. It is time for him to sell the Thorns and Major League Soccer’s Timbers.
Sauerbrunn and Rapinoe were responding to an exhaustive report issued last week by Sally Yates, the former acting attorney general, which found after a yearlong investigation that multiple coaches in the National Women’s Soccer League had engaged in grave wrongdoing, including jaw-dropping allegations of sexual misconduct.
Yates’s report stated, “Our investigation has revealed a league in which abuse and misconduct—verbal and emotional abuse and sexual misconduct—had become systemic, spanning multiple teams, coaches, and victims.” It added, “Players described a pattern of sexually charged comments, unwanted sexual advances and sexual touching, and coercive sexual intercourse.”
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The Portland Thorns, in particular, earned the investigator’s ire. The investigation revealed that the Thorns “interfered with our access to relevant witnesses and raised specious legal arguments in an attempt to impede our use of relevant documents.” The report zeroed in on three Thorns executives: club president Mike Golub, general manger Gavin Wilkinson, and owner Merritt Paulson. Feeling the heat, the club fired Golub and Wilkinson.
And for good reason. According to the Yates report, Golub asked then–Thorns coach—and current president of the United States Soccer Federation—Cindy Parlow Cone, “What’s on your bucket list besides sleeping with me?” An investigation by Oregonian reporter Ryan Clarke found a pattern of negative behavior—“disrespect and intimidation toward women and working mothers employed at the club over a span of 11 years”—that included Golub’s throwing soccer balls and other projectiles at his subordinates and knocking over an employee by standing on her toes and pushing her with his shoulder.
When the Oregonian investigation emerged, Paulson, owner of both the Thorns and the Portland Timbers of Major League Soccer, defended Golub, stating:
“Mike leaned into trying to improve himself. I’m pleased with that, and I’m pleased with the work he’s done. Mike is a good person who’s meant a tremendous amount to our organization and our city. His work away from the Timbers with a variety of nonprofits, with the arts and education has been outstanding. He’s somebody that a lot of people have a tremendous amount of affection for, and for good reason. That does not mean he’s perfect.”
Under pressure, Golub resigned from the boards of various groups, including Oregon Public Broadcasting, the Oregon Shakespeare Theater, and the University of Portland Board of Regents.
Meanwhile, the Yates investigation fingered Gavin Wilkinson for inappropriate behavior. One Thorns player told investigators that when she asked Wilkinson to create benefits for the team, he responded, apparently as a joke, “Why can’t you just stop being a bitch?” Another player recalled how Wilkinson suggested she silence herself about “off the field” matters after she had come out publicly as a member of the LGBTQ community. Wilkinson denies both charges. Amid the Yates investigation, Paulson renewed Wilkinson’s contract, according to a report from The Athletic.
Wilkinson also played a central role in the mishandling of serious sexual misconduct allegations against Thorns coach Paul Riley. When the club opted not to renew Riley’s contract, Wilkinson made no mention of the allegations, instead stating, “On behalf of Thorns FC, I would like to thank Paul for his services to the club these past two seasons.” Paulson also knew about Riley’s depraved behavior—and he even admitted that they factored into the decision not to renew his contract—but he nevertheless posted numerous tweets praising Riley’s work. Paulson later deleted the tweets.
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For many Portlanders, the removal of Golub and Wilkinson is not enough. A joint statement from diehard supporters’ groups for the clubs—the 107ist, Timbers Army, and the Rose City Riveters—made this crystal clear: “The time for waiting has passed. The toxic culture that allowed these behaviors to exist and continue in our clubs’ organizations runs too long, too deep, and too high.… Merritt Paulson and Peregrine Sports need to sell the teams.”
The Portland supporters’ group Soccer City Accountability Now, or SCAN, has consistently protested both inside and outside the stadium. They are adamant that Paulson must go. SCAN’s Sofia Freja told us, “We believe the actions of [team owners] have been in bad faith and damaging to the city and its citizens.”
Freja said that SCAN will continue to pressure sponsors to distance themselves from the club, while encouraging Portland’s elected officials to reconsider the city’s contract with the club regarding the local, publicly owned stadium where the Thorns and Timbers play. “We will continue to stage protests and direct actions inside and outside Providence Park to carry these messages to the broader community, Freja said. “Ultimately, we will continue to fight online, in the street, and in the stadium to remove Peregrine Sports LLC and Merritt Paulson from our club.”
Dislodging Paulson from his ownership box will not be easy. Major League Soccer’s bylaws reportedly make it challenging for MLS to force a sale. The league’s commissioner, Don Garber, who is chummy with Paulson, does not wield unilateral power to remove an MLS owner, although he can issue a suspension and a $1 million fine for behavior “detrimental to the league, or soccer in general,” a description that fits Paulson’s conduct.
Let’s not forget: When the Timbers joined MLS, Paulson tried to squeeze $85 million out of public funds to revamp the team’s stadium. He was on the wrong side of what is known as the Iron Front controversy. And now he has prioritized creating safe spaces for abusers rather than for the women in his organization.
Each step of the way, Paulson has met resistance to his bad ideas, and each time activists have won: Instead of $85 million, Paulson received around $12 million in a special ticket tax; the league ultimately succumbed to supporter activism and allowed the Iron Front symbol back in stadiums; and now Paulson has been forced to fire his valued minions for creating an unwelcoming atmosphere for women within the club.
Portland is a city that prides itself on innovation. The time is right to break the mold and blast a path forward toward some form of public ownership. City council members have slammed Paulson for his lack of ethics. It’s time to convert that criticism into a forward-thinking plan. Portland soccer fans have become increasingly alienated from their beloved club, and Portland would be the perfect place to install public ownership, rather than placing the city’s teams at the whims of another millionaire or billionaire. Only public ownership could reverse that course. After all, at its core, sport is a public good, and, as Edward Abbey once noted, “Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.”
Dave ZirinTwitterDave Zirin is the sports editor at The Nation. He is the author of 11 books on the politics of sports. He is also the coproducer and writer of the new documentary Behind the Shield: The Power and Politics of the NFL.
Jules BoykoffJules Boykoff is a professor of political science at Pacific University in Oregon and the author of four books on the Olympic Games, most recently NOlympians: Inside the Fight Against Capitalist Mega-Sports in Los Angeles, Tokyo.