Portland Thorns and Timbers supporters are calling for a boycott of stadium concessions and club merchandise and the removal of Thorns general manager Gavin Wilkinson as the fallout from the Paul Riley abuse scandal continues.
“Our hearts and our actions are with Portland’s players — one hundred percent,” reads a letter signed Tuesday by the Rose City Riveters, the Timbers Army, and 107IST, the nonprofit that oversees the two groups. “Our trust, however, is utterly shattered, and it cannot be repaired until significant changes take place across all levels of the PTFC organization.”
The groups’ statement announced eight demands in response to how Thorns management handled allegations of abuse made against Riley by a number of players.
Those allegations, among others, were made public in an article in The Athletic last Thursday which detailed how Riley, a decorated manager in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), harassed, intimidated, and sexually coerced players for years—including while he managed the Thorns in 2014 and 2015.
Hours after the story was published, the North Carolina Courage fired Riley, who was employed as the Courage’s head coach. NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird resigned the following day. But there has been no such accountability in Portland, despite the Thorns’ central role in the Riley saga.
After the conclusion of the 2015 Thorns season, then-Thorns midfielder Mana Shim complained to the club about Riley’s conduct. The club says it responded by suspending the coach, opening an investigation, and ultimately firing him, though it was generally believed at the time that Riley’s contract had simply not been renewed. The Thorns then reported their findings to the NWSL.
Thorns leadership made no public mention of Riley’s “clear violations of our company policies,” let alone announce that he had been fired at all. Several months later, Riley was hired to manage the Western New York Flash.
Riley and Thorns owner Merritt Paulson continued to exchange lighthearted and congratulatory tweets in the years that followed. Paulson deleted a number of those tweets earlier this week.
The Rose City Riveters, Timbers Army, and 107IST’s first demand is for Paulson to fire Wilkinson, the longtime general manager of both the Thorns and the Timbers who has been affiliated with the club since he was signed as a player in 2001.
Wilkinson’s role in Riley’s story is significant. He was one of the three Thorns officials along with Paulson and HR Director Nancy Garica Ford who received Shim’s complaint in 2015. Sinead Farrelly, another Thorns player Riley allegedly sexually coerced, said that Wilkinson avoided answering her later that year when she asked him whether Riley might coach in the league again.
And it was Wilkinson’s former teammate in Portland, Aaran Lines, who helped hire Riley to coach the Flash several months later, despite being aware of an internal investigation into the coach.
Shim also accused Wilkinson of calling her into a meeting in 2014 to ask her to stop speaking publicly about non-soccer matters, an allegation that Wilkinson initially told The Athletic was “bullshit” before walking that statement back and saying that he had “clearly said something to Mana… that made her feel differently.”
Wilkinson has run afoul of Timbers supporters before and has long had a tense relationship with the most ardent segment of the club’s fanbase, but this marks the first time that the club’s supporters groups have officially called for his removal.
From a purely competitive standpoint, it is unclear whether Wilkinson can continue to do his job as Thorns general manager effectively in the face of significant personal animus from NWSL players.
Just Women’s Sports reported on Monday that multiple players on an NWSL player conference call said that they wanted Wilkinson fired and were “particularly upset with the fact that no Thorns employee had lost their job over the scandal, despite the organization having admitted to covering up the details of Riley’s 2015 dismissal.”
On Monday, Paulson released a statement that did little to mollify that frustration. While the Thorns owner expressed contrition for the Thorns’ role in “a systemic failure across women’s professional soccer,” and acknowledged that the club’s statement announcing Riley’s departure was “opaque,” he did not announce any personnel changes in the Thorns front office.
Wilkinson has not made any public statement regarding the totality of the allegations against Riley and was not mentioned in Paulson’s statement earlier this week.
The club as a whole, meanwhile, has declined to release the findings of their 2015 investigation into Riley, clarify what steps they did or did not take to ensure that Riley’s NWSL career would not continue, or make Paulson or Wilkinson available for interviews.
In a statement released Wednesday morning, North Carolina Courage owner Steve Malik said that his club knew of an investigation into Riley after buying the Western New York Flash in 2017 but was “assured he was in good standing.”
It is not at all clear who did the assuring—the NWSL league office, the Thorns, or some other entity—but the fact that Riley was vetted and hired by two separate organizations following the investigation into his conduct in Portland is damning.
The continued trickle of supporters’ boycott measures suggest that the Thorns may struggle to ride out this storm without taking further action. Just two years ago, Timbers supporters fought and won a protracted battle with the club and Major League Soccer over their ability to use anti-fascist imagery like the Iron Front in the stadium.
In addition to the removal of Wilkinson, supporters are calling for the club to create an executive-level Diversity Officer position, hire separate general managers for the Thorns and Timbers, create a club culture and player liaison position for each team, and implement a player-approved safety, training, and accountability plan.
Supporters are also calling for the club to push the league to fulfill the NWSL Players Association’s demands, one of which is that the NWSL disclose how Riley was hired again within the league following the 2015 investigation.
So far, supporters have not proposed a repeat of one of their protest tactics from the Iron Front fight in 2019, when the Timbers Army memorably stood in silence for the first 33 minutes of a derby match against the Seattle Sounders.
The Thorns return to the field tonight for a match against the Houston Dash at Providence Park after last weekend’s NWSL games were postponed.
Unlike other groups of players, namely those of the Washington Spirit, who have asked that their owner Steve Baldwin sell the team following abuse allegations against former Spirit manager Richie Burke, current Thorns players have yet to make any demands about the future of the club.
Thorns and Timbers supporters said that their demands could change depending on direction from Thorns or NWSL players.
“The players know their rights and are fighting for their rights,” the supporters’ statement read. “We support them in taking their power back, and we are fully behind them.”