PORTLAND, Ore. — Merritt Paulson has removed himself as CEO of Portland Timbers and Thorns FC, effective immediately, following a report released earlier this month detailing an investigation into the Women's National Soccer League.
Paulson made the announcement in a statement Tuesday morning, saying that he was "holding myself accountable for not doing enough."
"I apologize to our players, the organization, and the Portland community for the mistakes we made, including not being transparent about Paul Riley's termination," Paulson wrote. "Our organization's failures and mistakes were ultimately my responsibility, and my responsibility alone."
The announcement comes one week after Paulson said he would step back from "all Thorns-related decision making" and turn the role over to Thorns general counsel Heather Davis.
Paulson said Davis will remain interim president and interim CEO. Sarah Keane, who Davis appointed as interim COO, will lead the search for a new permanent CEO.
U.S. Soccer commissioned the investigation after former National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) and Portland Thorns players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shin came forward with allegations of harassment and sexual coercion going back a decade involving former coach Paul Riley. Their allegations were published in an article by The Athletic in September 2021.
"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 wrote in his statement.
Soccer fans are reacting to the news, including Tina Ettlin, a member of the Rose City Riveters steering committee.
"I honestly feel at this point in where we're at, it's a little too late. I'm glad he's stepping away. We'll take a moment to celebrate, but there's still a lot more that needs to be done," said Ettlin.
John Canzano, a sports columnist and radio show host, also weighed in.
"I think it's the appropriate move to remove himself from operations,
Canzano said. "You need to restore trust in the product, trust in the franchise and with him out of the picture and not running things, people can feel better about going to the stadium and rooting for the players who are caught in the middle of this thing."
Last week, the Timbers and Thorns said the club fired president of soccer Gavin Wilkinson and president of business Mike Golub.
In the wake of the report, Alaska Airlines, a primary sponsor of the teams, announced it will redirect sponsorship funds this quarter. The funds will go to the NWSL Players Association "Support the Players Emergency Trust" and to youth sports in the Portland area.
Read the full statement from Merritt Paulson:
The Portland Thorns were created to be a beacon of what is possible in women’s sports. A successful team is built on trust, equality and accountability, and today I am holding myself accountable for not doing enough.
I owe Sinead and Mana, the Thorns players and the NWSL my tireless effort to actively make sure what happened in 2015 never happens again.
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. 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.
Part of me holding myself accountable is recognizing that someone else needs to take the reins of the organization and operational decision-making.
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. 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.
Heather Davis will remain interim president and interim CEO. Sarah Keane, who Heather appointed interim COO, will lead the search for a permanent CEO. I know Heather and Sarah plan on having players meet final candidates so their voices can be heard. Through this process, I have committed to them that I will provide the organization with all necessary resources to ensure both clubs are not only a model of player safety, but the standard by which other organizations are measured.
Looking ahead, our organization is at a crossroads, and the future is not necessarily a clear path. No matter what happens, ensuring the long-term health and success of the Portland Thorns is critical to me, as I know it is for our players and the community.
Given the complexities involved on several levels, finalizing the correct path forward will take time. I love this organization as if it was part of my family, and to me, what is most important is getting it right.