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Thorns owner Merritt Paulson apologizes for team’s role in NWSL scandal


Portland Thorns’ owner Merritt Paulson has broken his silence in a letter released by the Thorns on Monday in response to recent allegations regarding former Thorns coach Paul Riley in The Athletic.

In the letter, Paulson said that the entire organization is “reeling and devastated” by the abuse that Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly endured while playing for the Thorns under Riley.

“The safety and wellbeing of our players – physically, emotionally and psychologically – always has been and will continue to be our top priority,” he wrote.

“We applaud not only their bravery in coming forward, but their determination to be heard. It should not have been this hard, nor taken this long, at great personal and professional toll to the survivors.”

He then outlined how the Thorns have “zero tolerance for harassment or discrimination of any kind.”

Paulson, who was owner of the team in 2015 when Shim brought forth allegations against Riley, addressed the team’s actions following the report.

“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,” he continued.

“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 note is the first time the Thorns have said they terminated Riley. Last week, the team told The Athletic that they had not renewed the coach’s contract after finishing their investigation. Controversially, the team said nothing about the investigation in 2015 when it announced that Riley would not be retained.

Paulson said he “deeply regrets” the Thorns’ role in “what is clearly a systemic failure across women’s professional soccer.”

He added that the Thorns could have done more and apologized to Shim, Farrelly and all those who are hurting as a result.

“I welcome the investigations that will be forthcoming,” he wrote. “I welcome this moment for positive change in both our own organization and the NWSL, and fully intend to help drive it. It should have come sooner, but come it must.”

Paulson finished the letter by outlining what the organization is doing now, including creating opportunities for open dialogue among players and staff as well as welcome fan and community feedback.

The letter comes as the NWSL has announced an independent investigation into the league. FIFA and US Soccer have also opened up investigations of their own.

NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird resigned on Friday alongside general counsel Lisa Levine as a result of the resounding backlash following The Athletic’s report. Riley was also fired by the North Carolina Courage and his coaching license was suspended.

According to sources, NWSL players are honing in on Portland following Baird’s resignation, with many players wanting GM Gavin Wilkinson to be fired and several hoping that Paulson sells the team.