Portland Soccer Feels the Power of Protest

Portland Soccer Feels the Power of Protest

Portland Soccer Feels the Power of Protest

A movement to remove franchise owner Merritt Paulson could send shock waves beyond the Rose City.

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An eerie silence descended upon the stadium as the Portland Timbers’ Major League Soccer match against the visiting Orlando City SC got underway last Sunday. Normally, the Timbers feature what is arguably the most rambunctious supporters’ group in the league: the Timbers Army. But as chants broke out from the north end of the stadium, members of Timbers Army waved their arms to silence them. This conspicuous quiet was part of a planned protest: five minutes of silence to spotlight the pattern of abuse—from allegations of domestic violence to sexual coercion—that the club’s front office has overlooked and allegedly even attempted to cover up.

This is not the first time supporters of the Portland Timbers and the Portland Thorns—the professional women’s soccer team in the Rose City—have stood up to the club’s owners, Merritt Paulson and his father, former US treasury secretary Henry Paulson. Back in 2019, when MLS owners supported a league-wide ban on political symbology like the anti-fascist Iron Front, Timbers Army remained silent for the first 33 minutes of a match against the archival Seattle Sounders. Afterward, the junior Paulson reportedly went ballistic, blaming supporters for the team’s loss.

This time, Merritt (and what a first name, spelling aside, for a scion of the 1 percent) himself is a prime target. Under his watch—and that of General Manager Gavin Wilkinson—a culture of impunity emerged, say critics, where horrific abuse was swept under the rug.

Two major incidents embroiling the Thorns and Timbers have galvanized this wave of dissent. The first involved the Portland Thorns, which, according to a blockbuster exposé by Meg Linehan for The Athletic, knew of allegations that former coach Paul Riley coerced two of his players into sex. Instead of calling out such ghastly behavior and immediately firing Riley, the organization created a cocoon of silence that protected the alleged abuser. After one of the players filed an official complaint with the team, the Thorns front office investigated, found clear violations of club policy, and opted not to renew Riley’s contract. A few months later, Riley was hired by the Western New York Flash, before eventually moving on to coach the North Carolina Courage.

The press release announcing Riley’s departure from the Thorns simply stated that he would “not be retained.” That’s not accountability. That’s the most craven kind of cowardice. GM Gavin Wilkinson made no mention of the allegations, instead commenting, “On behalf of Thorns FC, I would like to thank Paul for his services to the club these past two seasons.” Despite the fact that Merritt Paulson knew of these serious allegations against Riley and admitted that they factored into the decision not to renew his contract, he posted chummy tweets praising Riley’s work in North Carolina. He later deleted the posts.

The US Soccer Federation launched an investigation, spearheaded by former US deputy attorney general Sally Yates, to assess “allegations of abusive behavior and sexual misconduct in women’s professional soccer,” including the Riley accusations. The probe is ongoing.

The other major incident tarnishing the organization involves domestic violence allegations against Timbers player Andy Polo. In May 2021, the Washington County Sheriff’s Department was called to Polo’s home to intervene in a disagreement with his estranged partner Génessis Alarcón. According to reports, two representatives from the Portland Timbers showed up on the scene to intervene and try to dissuade Alarcón from pressing charges against Polo. Moreover, the Timbers failed to report the incident to Major League Soccer.

To make matters worse, the Timbers picked up the option on Polo’s contract in December, keeping him on the team for another year. It was only when Alarcón went public with her story in February that the Timbers backtracked and terminated his contract.

The league opened an investigation into the matter. The law firm hired by MLS determined that the Timbers did not pressure Alarcón—financially or otherwise—not to press charges against Polo. The firm also decided that the Timbers’ failure to report the incident to MLS, as required by league protocol, was not an active cover-up but instead just ignorance of the rule. The league fined the Timbers $25,000, which for the Paulsons is couch-cushion money.

On Sunday, protesters gathered outside the stadium before and after the match holding large banners reading, “Merritt Paulson Protects Abusers,” “#PooP” (Paulsons out of Portland), and “The Bar Was So Low But F*ck” (with an Iron Front symbol where the “u” would be). One of those banner hoisters was Huck Bales, an active member of the 107ist (the member-based nonprofit organization supporting the Timbers and Thorns), the Timbers Army, and the Rose City Riveters. He told The Nation that he aimed “to increase awareness of the actions and inactions of the front office. Most casual fans have no idea about the Andy Polo incidents or the Paul Riley affair. Each of these are egregious situations, but together indicate a systemic problem with the organization.” He noted that the banner protest was done independently of the 107ist, adding, “I love this club. I don’t want to be standing outside the stadium with a sign. I want to be inside singing my heart out. Many of my friends canceled their season tickets, and I respect that. I kept mine because I intend to continue to fight for a club that I can be proud of.”

The front office often floats the mantra “Two teams, one club,” meaning the Timbers and Thorns are united parts of something bigger. And yet, when the organization placed Wilkinson on administrative leave—and he was subsequently relieved of his duties—it only applied to the Thorns, not the Timbers. The Rose City Riveters—the Thorns’ supporters’ group—insists that Wilkinson should be fired from all positions in the organization, as does the Timbers Army. To say that the Timbers and Thorns organization’s actions are an affront to the courage of Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly—the two Thorns players who went public with their allegations of sexual misconduct against Riley—is an understatement.

Merritt Paulson has acknowledged that the club’s supporters are “the biggest asset we have.” And yet Paulson and Wilkinson have failed to honor supporters by being principled stewards of the soccer clubs. Not only this, said Todd Diskin, another protester holding a banner outside the stadium, but “they continue to drive narratives that they alone created the soccer culture in this community and that they are the only ones who can keep it alive. They discount and demean their own fans to maintain this narrative. They dismiss, and often take credit for, the work the community put into bringing the Timbers to MLS, the incredible creativity that defines who we are, and the countless hours of free labor they receive to create the soccer culture in our community.”

Diskin added, “And now, rather than accept responsibility for the horrible missteps and harm they have caused to women who looked to them to help them in the abuse they experienced from men who the organization employed, they would rather spin their PR bullshit and blame others.”

Inside the stadium, fans choreographed numerous—sometimes subtle—protests. Sunday White, one of the capos (people who lead the chanting at Timbers and Thorns matches) often dons a shirt emblazoned with “YOU KNEW” in block letters. She told The Nation that a series of actions have been designed to “bring attention to the topic” and jump-start conversations with “groups outside our immediate community.” White, who has “ORGANIZE” tattooed across her knuckles, said, “Past efforts and any future actions are all activism, a ramp of actions to raise awareness and push toward positive changes.”

Last weekend, when the Timbers scored, capos released purple smoke, rather than the traditional green or yellow, to denote domestic violence. One fan held aloft a “YOU KNEW” T-shirt for all to see. The “Merritt Paulson Protects Abusers” banner made its way into the stadium as well.

At the end of the match, fans chanted, “Sell the team!” White supports selling the team, but only to an owner—or ownership group—that shares the values of Portland’s progressive soccer culture. The current owners “have broken the trust of the supporters. They have damaged the community.” She added, “I want to have a steward of this team that is part of the community and that gives a damn about the equity of others and the health of the people in the stands and on the teams.”

It is rare to see an organized movement to dislodge a franchise owner from their perch. If there is success in this endeavor in Portland, the ripple effects would be felt throughout the sports world. In places like Washington, D.C., where dissatisfaction with ownership of the local football team is at an all-time high, close attention is being paid to this struggle. And if fans stop seeing themselves as passive spectators and instead pick up the call to fight for their clubs, the shock waves will travel even beyond the athletic arena.

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