Two-and-a-half years ago, the Portland Timbers were locked in a fight threatening their relationship with their most visible supporters: Major League Soccer had decided to ban supporters from displaying the antifascist Iron Front logo in stadiums, and supporters were irate.
At one point during the resulting negotiations, Timbers officials, including President of Business Mike Golub, met with supporters and their allies at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education in downtown Portland.
Civil rights activist Zakir Khan was one of the people who presented during that meeting, and in his presentation, Khan used a range of data to argue that professional sports teams increasingly must conceive of themselves social enterprises—organizations committed not just to making a profit, or winning games, but to supporting community causes their fans care about.
Not only was it morally important, Khan said, it was important for business too. In a city like Portland, with catering to fanbases as young and engaged as those of the Timbers and Thorns, it was critical that the club take steps to align itself with those causes.
Already, the club was seeing the damaging impact of crossing its supporters. But Khan didn’t get a sense that the club was all that interested in making aggressive changes to prevent that scandal from repeating itself.
“I felt like they weathered the PR storm, they got back to making money, and they didn’t have to care,” Khan said.
Now, the club is embroiled in another, even more serious scandal regarding its handling of allegations against former Portland Thorns manager Paul Riley, who two former Thorns players publicly accused of sexual coercion, abuse, and harassment in September.
One of those players was former Thorns fan favorite Mana Shim, who complained to the club’s top executives about Riley in 2015. The Thorns parted ways with Riley, but never publicly disclosed why, leaving supporters and media under the impression that his ouster was attributable only to lackluster results.
Riley moved on to two other NWSL coaching jobs after his tenure in Portland ended and was managing in the league up until the publication of The Athletic story detailing the allegations—all while Thorns and Timbers owner Merritt Paulson exchanged friendly tweets with him and congratulated him for his coaching performance.
The Thorns have taken steps in recent weeks to respond to player demands and grapple with the fallout from the story, including opening and cooperating with investigations into their handling of the allegations and placing general manager Gavin Wilkinson on administrative leave from his duties with the Thorns.
Last week, the club took its biggest step yet: hiring decorated former Thorns and international goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc as the club’s new general manager to replace the embattled Wilkinson.
Supporters and players have overwhelmingly applauded the move. But even its announcement left question marks. The club’s press release announcing LeBlanc’s hire made no mention of Wilkinson or the fact that he had been permanently removed from his role with the Thorns.
"“Issues are going to come up,. Yes, we’re dealing with this one right now, but [in general], what process do you undergo? Who is guiding that? Is it just a bunch of rich white dudes?” —Stephan Lewis, former member of 107IST's leadership
Wilkinson remains the Timbers’ general manager and the club’s most senior soccer executive, and while the NWSL Players Association announced last week that the league has met its accountability and transparency demands, the Thorns have not yet met a number of the eight demands made by the 107IST, the nonprofit organization that oversees the Rose City Riveters and Timbers Army supporters groups.
Those demands include the complete removal of Wilkinson from the club, the establishment of an executive-level Diversity Officer position, the implementation of a new player-approved safety, training and accountability plan, and more.
107IST officials say that they have not received a response to their demands from the front office, or even any acknowledgement that the club has received them.
Gabby Rosas, president of the 107IST board of directors, called the club’s lack of response “extremely frustrating.”
“Trying to engage in those larger, future planning, strategic type initiatives, they’re just off the table right now while the club is going through the larger investigations that are happening,” Rosas said.
But the lack of decisive action and accountability for leaders within the club who allowed Riley to continue his coaching career in NWSL despite full knowledge of the allegations against him has been deeply painful for a number of the club’s most ardent supporters.
“There aren’t concrete steps to how they are going to improve,” Khan said. “It’s just random actions out of nowhere when they feel like they have to do something—which is not a healthy way of resetting or rebuilding.”
Now, despite their continued support of the players and coaches who comprise the teams, a number of longstanding supporters say that they are reevaluating their relationship with the club and considering giving up their season tickets.
Angie Herrera has been a Timbers season ticket holder for more than a decade and a Thorns season ticket holder since their inception. She plays soccer locally and has also coached at Jefferson High School. She called The Athletic story “gut-wrenching.”
“Showing the Iron Front symbol is one thing, but… [this] is just deeper, it cuts more, when we’re talking about sexual harassment, sexual abuse, verbal abuse of these women who are just trying to do their jobs,” she said.
Herrera said that while she has historically felt a great amount of pride in her support of the Thorns, in particular, that pride has diminished. She said she is considering not renewing her season tickets.
Ian Rose, who has had Timbers season tickets since 2009, before the club jumped to MLS, is in the same boat. He said that, due to a combination of pandemic safety concerns and an “ambivalence about wanting to support the club,” he has missed a record number of games this season.
“It would be a huge change for me to not renew my Timbers tickets,” Rose said. “It’s probably the thing that most ties me to Portland as a place. So it’s not something that I want to do. But I have to see something, or else I feel like I’m paying someone to enable the abuse of players.”
It is difficult to know how widespread that frustration is or to what extent disillusionment with the club has contributed to diminished attendance at both Timbers and Thorns matches this season given the ongoing pandemic. But some supporters’ issues with the club go far beyond the Riley matter. They are structural.
“There’s this institutional problem,” Khan said. “They don't have a VP of Diversity, which is common within these large organizations. You don't see a specific equity focus. I think they have believed, if we donate money to certain causes, that absolves us of building towards actually developing equity within the organization.”
Stephan Lewis, who has been involved on-and-off with the leadership of the 107IST for a decade, said that supporters have repeatedly asked the club to install staff dedicated to diversity, equity and inclusion for years.
“I'll give them some credit,” said Lewis, “they've done some good, but one of the demands that's been constant—we saw that in the Iron Front, we saw that in our listed demands now—is that they need to have paid staff to be able to help them address these issues as they come up... someone [who] can tell them, ‘Hey, that’s a rake. Don't step on it.’”
The alternative is what Khan described as an “insular” organization that does not look like the community and is ill-equipped to respond to it.
“Issues are going to come up,” Lewis said. “Yes, we’re dealing with this one right now, but [in general], what process do you undergo? Who is guiding that? Is it just a bunch of rich white dudes?”
Meanwhile, the 107IST is in active discussions about escalating its protest—but leadership wants to ensure that its membership, as well as more casual fans, are aware of and bought into its demands.
"This is an opportunity to really get back to… what does this community need? How can this organization reflect the best parts of us? But it needs to be viewed as an opportunity by leadership—not as a bump in the road." —Gabby Rosas, president of the 107IST board of directors
Last week, the group sent a survey to its members asking how closely they are following the organization’s response to the abuse scandal, how they feel about the current level of protest, and their position on Wilkinson’s ongoing involvement with the club.
The last time the 107IST was during the Iron Front fight, when the Timbers Army and the Emerald City Supporters, their counterparts from Seattle, fell silent for the first 33 minutes of a match between the Timbers and Sounders. It made a big impression.
“We want this to be a community movement, and that takes time,” Rosas said. “That takes building momentum. The type of organizational change we're seeking isn’t going to happen overnight. It isn’t going to happen if one person is removed from the organization.”
For now, with both teams approaching their final home match of 2021, the 107IST is continuing its boycott of concessions and merchandise. On Sunday, the Timbers Army worked to bring Koi Fusion and Tamale Boy food carts to a parking lot outside the stadium so fans could eat before the match against Austin FC.
The Timbers and Thorns are not, by any means, the only club in soccer or organization in American professional sports generally facing a reckoning over their mishandling of equity and safety issues. The Portland Trail Blazers are facing their own misconduct scandal right now, as are other teams in the NHL and NBA.
“The owners of these teams and their management levels, as well as the leagues, are completely not in line with where their fan bases are and where their fan bases are going,” Khan said. “And if they want to sustain the product, then they need to adapt.”
That is certainly what many of the most frustrated fans want: to see the club take responsibility, change, and then get back to their full-throated, ‘til-death-do-us-part support for the Thorns and Timbers.
“Somewhere along the way, it became about profit margin, and it became about the business aspect, and we lost that purpose,” Rosas said. “This is an opportunity to really get back to… what does this community need? How can this organization reflect the best parts of us? But it needs to be viewed as an opportunity by leadership—not as a bump in the road.”