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Portland Thorns owner says he and implicated execs will step back amid investigation

A report released Monday concluded that the Thorns interfered with an investigation into alleged sexual abuse and misconduct.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Portland Thorns FC owner and CEO Merritt Paulson has issued a statement in response to Monday's report on an investigation into allegations of abuse in the National Women's Soccer League, of which the Thorns were a primary focus after two former players accused former coach Paul Riley of sexual coercion.

The statement is Paulson's first public comment since the release of the report, which said the Thorns interfered with the investigation and also revealed inappropriate comments by Paulson, team president Mike Golub and former general manager Gavin Wilkinson.

Paulson said he would remove himself from "all Thorns-related decision making" effective immediately and turn over decision-making to Thorns general counsel Heather Davis, and that Wilkinson and Golub would also step back.

RELATED: Portland Thorns interfered with investigation into alleged sexual abuse and misconduct, report says

He said the team's leadership has promised NWSL that it will not make further public statements about the matter until a joint NWSL and Players Association investigation is completed in November, but added that Monday was "the darkest day I have ever experienced" and was likely "even harder and darker for those whose stories were shared publicly."

"I cannot apologize enough for our role in a gross systemic failure to protect player safety and the missteps we made in 2015," he wrote. "I am truly sorry."

Paulson's full statement is included at the bottom of this story.

A NWSL spokesperson confirmed that the league had requested clubs refrain from making any statements that would "improperly influence or jeopardize the integrity" of the report or its findings. The investigation is expected to close by the end of the year, the league said.

"While it will take time, our League is fully prepared to take the necessary steps to protect the health and safety of our players, staff and other stakeholders in order to create the League that our players, fans, partners and staff deserve and expect," the spokesperson said in a statement.

RELATED: Abuse in women's pro soccer league was systemic, report says

U.S. Soccer commissioned the investigation from a team of lawyers led by former acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates after The Athletic published a 2021 story in which former Thorns players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim raised allegations of harassment and sexual coercion involving former coach Paul Riley.

Yates wrote in the Monday report that the Thorns interfered with investigators' access to witnesses and attempted to impede her team's use of documents, including a report from the team's own 2015 investigation into Riley.

Flurry of public statements

Several Oregon officials and Thorns and Portland Timbers sponsors released or provided statements to media on Monday and Tuesday, many expressing outrage over the findings or in some cases hinting that they might reconsider their relationship with the teams.

Charles Boyle, deputy communications director for Governor Kate Brown, released a statement saying that Brown thanks the players for their courage in stepping forward, and calling for systemic change and "an examination of leadership" at NWSL, the Thorns and other soccer teams.

"The charges outlined in the National Women’s Soccer League report are devastating," Sen. Ron Wyden said in a statement. "Management in every workplace has a responsibility to set a no-tolerance standard for sexual misconduct. These allegations leave Oregonians demanding answers immediately because the Thorns players, staff and fans across the state deserve far better than the pattern of abuse outlined in this report."

Providence Oregon, a sponsor of the Timbers and Thorns, sent a letter to staff from chief executive William Olson in which he called the Yates report "deeply disturbing" and said Providence would be "following the situation closely."

Another sponsor, Laurelwood Brewing Co., released a statement condemning the findings in the report and said the business would "wait to see what happens with team ownership and management" before making any decisions about its relationship with the team next season.

Alaska Airlines released a statement saying that its priority would be "supporting the players and ensuring any action we take contributes to positive systemic change."

Paulson's full statement is below:

Yesterday’s Yates report unveiling was the darkest day I have experienced, and I know the same is true for everyone else who loves our team and our league. I would imagine that it was even harder and darker for those whose stories were shared publicly. We have promised the NWSL that we will not do media or make any public statements related to the investigations until the joint NWSL/NWSLPA Investigation is released in November, which is tremendously difficult. I cannot apologize enough for our role in a gross systemic failure to protect player safety and the missteps we made in 2015. I am truly sorry.

Given the Thorns are about to enter the NWSL Playoffs, I have told the NWSL that I will be removing myself effective today from all Thorns-related decision making until the joint investigation, which we are fully cooperating with, is released. Gavin Wilkinson and Mike Golub will do the same. All Thorns related decisions until that time that any of us would have made will now be handled by Heather Davis, our General Counsel.

I very much appreciate your patience and believe it’s critical that the process play out with the Joint Investigation.

I love the Portland Thorns and women’s soccer, and am taking these steps with those interests in mind.

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