Merritt Paulson Steps Down as Timbers, Thorns CEO After NWSL Abuse Report

Tim Daniels@@TimDanielsBRFeatured Columnist IVOctober 11, 2022

PORTLAND, OR - APRIL 04: Owner Merritt Paulson of Portland Timbers looks on after the Timbers 3-1 victory in the game against the FC Dallas at Providence Park on April 4, 2015 in Portland, Oregon.  (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Merritt Paulson (Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

Portland Thorns owner Merritt Paulson announced Tuesday he's stepping down as the NWSL club's CEO following the release of the findings of Sally Yates' investigation into sexual, emotional and verbal abuse in the league.

"As you know, I removed myself from Thorns decision-making, yet, in order for the organization to move forward and unite, I feel that another step is necessary," Paulson said. "Effective immediately, I am removing myself as CEO of the Portland Thorns and Portland Timbers, and announcing a global search for a CEO of the organization."

Last week, he stepped away from the team's day-to-day operations after describing the release of the Yates report as the "darkest day" he's experienced.

"I apologize to our players, the organization and the Portland community for the mistakes we made, including not being publicly transparent about Paul Riley's termination," Paulson said Tuesday. "Our organization's failures and mistakes were ultimately my responsibility, and my responsibility alone. It is devastating to me that my goal of creating the shining example of what a women's sports team could be, has now become synonymous with abhorrent and predatory behavior."

Paulson, who's owned the NWSL franchise since it was founded in 2012, made no mention of plans to put the club up for sale. He also owns the Portland Timbers and has stepped down as CEO of the MLS side.

His future with the Thorns has "yet to be determined," per Paul Tenorio and Meg Linehan of The Athletic.

"His primary objective is to ensure the Thorns are viable, successful and remain in Portland," a team source told The Athletic.

Yates found Paulson "minimized, obscured and failed to tell the whole truth" about allegations against Riley, who was accused of sexual coercion and manipulative behavior during his time as the team's head coach (2014-15), per Tenorio and Linehan.

Paulson also failed to provide information about Riley's tenure and departure during discussions with North Carolina Courage owner Steve Malik, who ultimately hired the coach to lead his franchise from 2017 through 2021, according to the report.

Portland fired President of Soccer Gavin Wilkinson and President of Business Mike Golub last week.

Heather Davis is serving as the Thorns' interim president and interim CEO, while interim COO Sarah Keane will lead the search for a full-time CEO.

"Given the complexities involved on several levels, finalizing the correct path forward will take time," Paulson said. "I love this organization as if it was part of my family, and to me, what is most important is getting it right."

The NWSL hasn't announced any punishments on the heels of the Yates report, but Commissioner Jessica Berman said last week the league remains "committed to implementing reform and disciplinary action."

In the aftermath of allegations against Riley and a number of other coaches in the league initially going public in September 2021, half of the teams in the NWSL parted ways with their head coaches as a result of player complaints about their behavior.

Portland has qualified for the 2022 NWSL playoffs, receiving a bye to the semifinals after finishing second in the regular-season standings. The Thorns' next match will be Oct. 23.