When Madison Shanley took the mic to sing the national anthem ahead of the Portland Timbers’ April 3 match against the LA Galaxy, she wore a red shirt emblazoned with the phrase “YOU KNEW” in white letters, an allusion to the club’s front office being informed about—but failing to properly act on—serious charges of sexual misconduct against former Portland Thorns coach Paul Riley and allegations of domestic violence against Timbers player Andy Polo. For those unfamiliar with the latter case, in February, Génessis Alarcón, Polo’s ex-partner, went public with allegations that Polo had physically attacked her and that the Timbers tried to cover it up. “He pulled my hair. I fell to the floor,” the mother of Polo’s children said on a Peruvian TV show. “He slapped me in the face and gave me a black eye.”
One of the alleged domestic violence incidents occurred on May 23, 2021, when police were called to the home of Polo and Alarcón after Alarcón’s friend told police dispatch that Polo was hitting his ex-partner. According to the Washington County Sheriff’s Office report, which we obtained, two members of the Portland Timbers staff arrived on the scene to smooth things over: Gabriel Jaimes, the manager of player affairs and professional development, and Jim McCausland, a former Portland Police detective and the current head of security for the Timbers. The report states that the officers decided to cite and release Polo in part because he was immobilized due to a recent injury and there was “a safety plan in place,” but also because of “having Gabriel and Jim at the residence.”
Two weeks later, Alarcón alleged that the Timbers sent McCausland and Christine Mascal, an attorney and former prosecutor hired by the Timbers to represent Polo, to her home to pressure her not to file charges against Polo in exchange for financial support offered by the Timbers.
The Timbers have denied this. But on audio recordings made by Alarcón, you can hear Mascal speaking at length about Polo paying Alarcón a $400 monthly stipend and saying that she and McCausland will ask Polo to increase the amount before pivoting to whether Alarcón intends to press charges. (It should be noted that Mascal resigned from the Oregon Crime Victims Law Center, a victim-advocacy group, amid allegations that she blamed an alleged rape victim for the crime.) After Alarcón says she does not want Polo to go to jail, Mascal seizes on this, emphasizing how Polo could very well go to jail if charged and implies that if Polo were incarcerated, payments could cease.
“If it goes to court, if you want to pursue it, there would be a trial … do you know what a trial is?” Mascal asks in the recording. “Do you watch any TV shows where they have trials, like that? That’s kind of what that’s like.”
To be clear, the Timbers representatives did not barge in and bully Alarcón. The process was more subtle. As Mascal says in the audio, “He probably won’t get that year in jail. He’ll get some jail, and then he’ll be on probation for probably three years. Of course, he doesn’t want to go that route, right? And that’s why we’re telling him to get you what you need, and then hopefully it doesn’t end up in a trial situation.”
The Timbers, upon contacting them, referred us to Major League Soccer’s independent investigation into the incident that they say exonerates them. The MLS report stated that it “found no evidence that the Timbers organization influenced Ms. Alarcon’s decision to press charges and that they did not attempt to conceal the incident.”
Yet the Timbers front office not only failed to report the incident to MLS, per league rules, but it picked up the option on Polo’s contract, keeping him in Portland for another year. It acknowledged the episode only after Alarcón went public with her story in February, and only then did it terminate Polo’s contract, which it reportedly paid out in full. MLS fined the Timbers $25,000 for failing to report the domestic-violence incident to the league, money that Merritt Paulson—whose father, Hank Paulson, was the treasury secretary under George W. Bush—would hardly find to be a hardship or deterrent. Not only is the $25,000 essentially a rounding error for the Paulsons, but it reveals Major League Soccer’s upside-down moral universe. In 2019, Merritt Paulson was tagged with a $100,000 fine for vehemently disagreeing with referees. It’s as if MLS is trying to send the message that yelling at referees is four times worse than failing to take seriously the league’s domestic-violence rules.
In 2021, the league fined Inter Miami CF $2 million for violating budget and roster rules, while the club’s managing owner was fined an additional $250,000. At the time, league commissioner Don Garber stated, “The integrity of our rules is sacrosanct, and it is a fundamental principle of our league that our clubs are responsible for adhering to all league regulations.” And yet, when the Portland Timbers violated a league policy around domestic violence, it received a fiscal slap on the wrist. The MLS response creates a sheen of accountability—but without real consequences.
Critics also point out that the MLS investigation was carried out, not by a neutral party, but by Proskauer Rose, a prominent law firm that has worked with the league for decades. In 2019, when it helped bring an expansion team from St. Louis into the league, the firm boasted, “Proskauer has advised MLS since its inception. This is the 18th expansion transaction we have handled for the league since 2004.” The law firm’s own handbook says that it worked on MLS’s expansion into Portland. In short, Proskauer appears to be more of an adviser or partner of MLS, not an impartial arbiter in an investigation that could harm their long-time client. (Proskauer Rose did not respond to inquiries in time for publication.)
Just after the investigation into the Timbers was made public, Garber stated in February, “I have great faith in the Paulson family.” Piling on the plaudits, the MLS commissioner added, “Hank Paulson could be the most involved MLS board member, and I have enormous faith and confidence in Merritt Paulson, who’s built from scratch one of the great sports teams, in any sport, in our country, if not throughout North America.”
For one, claiming the Paulsons “built from scratch” the rambunctious soccer culture that buoys the Timbers and Thorns erases the dedicated fan base that makes the Rose City soccer scene special. Secondly, Garber’s comments seem to signal what he hoped the outcome would be. Soccer commentator Sebastian Salazar was right when he tweeted, “Trying to claim this was an ‘independent investigation’ is an insult.” When we asked about the investigation, Alarcón’s attorney Michael Fuller told us tartly, “You get what you pay for.”
The report went out of its way to show grace to Timbers executives for failing to know basic rules about reporting domestic violence incidents to the league, asserting, “The investigators found that the failure to report the incident to the League was the result of a lack of an understanding of the MLS Constitution, rather than an intent to conceal it.” The fact that the Timbers front office often slaloms around the arcane rules involving GAM and TAM (General Allocation Money and Targeted Allocation Money) but couldn’t be bothered to learn how to report alleged domestic violence beggars belief. Even if true, ignorance of these rules shows gross negligence and disrespect toward the community.
Such grace was not extended to Alarcón and her lawyer, however. The report stated that an excerpt of the interview that Alarcón’s lawyer released online “was taken out of context and did not accurately capture the overall substance of the meeting.” We reviewed the full 55-minute audio recording and believe the clip where Mascal says she is “hoping” that Alarcón decides not press charges is indicative of the lawyer trying to convince her not to pursue legal action.
When the Timbers front office learned that Shanley planned on donning her “YOU KNEW” shirt during her rendition of the national anthem, Mike Golub, the club’s president of business, reached out to Shanley’s father in an effort to get her to change her clothes. It is unconscionable under any conditions to call an adult’s father to pressure her for workplace wardrobe choices. But in this situation, given the issues at play, it is ghastly. For her part, Shanley retorted, “When I heard that my dad had been contacted, I was like, ‘What in the actual patriarchy is this?’ I am a 27-year-old woman. I have a mind of my own and a voice of my own.”
Oregon-based civil rights advocate Zakir Khan has been following the situation carefully. “These last several months should’ve been a time for a deep introspection and reflection that yielded substantial internal personnel and mindset changes,” he told us. “Instead, the ownership of the Timbers has decided to ride it out with the management team that can seemingly only add fuel to the fire and grow the fracture with their fans. The reluctance to dismiss this management team makes fans right to question what the values of this organization and Major League Soccer are and whether or not they know how to properly support and believe survivors. This isn’t just about making amends to those directly impacted. It is about making amends to the community that embraced and supported you before you were anything.”
Khan is not alone. There is a rising chorus calling for General Manager Gavin Wilkinson to be fired and demanding that MLS consider compelling the Paulsons to sell the club. These are serious steps, but the moment demands nothing less.