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NWSL players want accountability in Portland after Lisa Baird’s resignation

Portland Thorns and Timbers owner Merritt Paulson talks with Thorns/Timbers general manager Gavin Wilkinson in 2018. (Diego Diaz/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images).

With Lisa Baird having resigned as NWSL commissioner last Friday, attention among players is now turning to the Portland Thorns organization and their role in the Paul Riley scandal. 

The North Carolina Courage fired Riley on Thursday, hours after a report in The Athletic detailed allegations of sexual coercion and emotional abuse against him.

On Thursday night, after Riley had been fired but before Baird resigned on Friday afternoon, a majority of NWSL players participated in a call to discuss The Athletic’s report, the situation within the league and whether they would play in the weekend’s games. (Players eventually asked the league to postpone the weekend’s slate of games, which they did.) 

Sources tell Just Women’s Sports that several players on the call said they wanted Portland Thorns GM Gavin Wilkinson to be fired, with some even arguing that owner Merritt Paulson should sell the team. Players 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. 

Thorns players refrained from voicing an opinion on the matter, according to sources.

Sources also tell Just Women’s Sports that while several players on the call voiced the opinion that Baird should resign, there was no consensus coming out of the meeting, and Baird’s eventual resignation was not a result of pressure from either individual players or the Players Association.

Riley served as the Thorns coach from 2014 to 2015, after which his contract was not renewed by the team. At the time, the Thorns only said that Riley would not be retained as the team’s head coach for the 2016 season.

“On behalf of Thorns FC, I would like to thank Paul for his services to the club these past two seasons,” Wilkinson said then.

“Thanks to everyone at the Thorns for the amazing opportunity and to the fans who truly make Portland Soccer City, USA,” said Riley in the same release.

Public perception was that Riley’s contract had simply not been renewed due to poor on-field performance in 2015. Last week, however, the Thorns told The Athletic that Riley’s contract had not been renewed due to an internal investigation into sexual harassment. 

Mana Shim, who played for the Thorns from 2013-2017, told The Athletic that she’d reported Riley’s behavior to the Thorns, who then conducted an internal investigation. According to a statement released last Thursday, the Thorns’ investigation did not uncover “unlawful activity,” but the organization did find “clear violations of our company policies.” 

“Based on this, we chose to sever ties with Riley,” the Thorns said. 

The findings of the club’s investigation were also shared with the NWSL at the time. 

On Monday, Thorns owner Merritt Paulson released a statement which acknowledged that the organization had made a mistake in not being forthright about Riley’s departure. 

“Within hours of receiving a complaint against our then coach six years ago from Mana – the first and only we have ever received from anyone – we: (1) placed Coach Riley on immediate suspension; (2) conducted an investigation of the claims that, within a matter of days, led to his termination; and (3) shared everything we learned in the investigation with the NWSL.

“But we then made an opaque announcement about not renewing Riley’s contract as opposed to explicitly announcing his termination, guided by what we, at the time, thought was the right thing to do out of respect for player privacy.”

Paulson’s statement is the first time the Thorns have said they terminated Riley, days after telling The Athletic the club chose not to renew his contract.

“I deeply regret our role in what is clearly a systemic failure across women’s professional soccer,” Paulson wrote. 

While Paulson may be apologizing, the fact that no member of the Thorns organization has either resigned or been fired in the wake of last Thursday’s report has rankled players within the NWSL. The lack of clarity in the Thorns’ subsequent statements has done little to quell the matter, and sources tell Just Women’s Sports that public calls for Wilkinson’s dismissal may be coming this week. 

On Sunday, the NWSL announced the formation of an executive committee to manage oversight of the league’s front office operations following Baird’s resignation. This committee will oversee the launch of multiple investigative and reform initiatives aimed at protecting NWSL players and staff. 

The league has retained Covington & Burling to oversee these investigations, led by Amanda Kramer, former Assistant United States Attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. 

Before those investigations begin, however, the players may have their own recommendations, particularly for the Thorns.

John Murray is the Editor-in-Chief of Just Women’s Sports. You can find him on Twitter @heymynameisjohn