The owner of the Portland Thorns apologized on Monday to the players who say they were sexually harassed by former Thorns coach Paul Riley.
Merritt Paulson said in an open letter that he and the team should have been more transparent when they first received the complaints in 2015.
Riley went on to coach for five more years in the National Women’s Soccer League, with the Western New York Flash and the North Carolina Courage, after the Thorns announced the team was not extending his contract. The Thorns made no mention of allegations of abuse against Riley at the time, but in recent days Paulson has affirmed the team had received and investigated a complaint in 2015.
Former Thorns’ teammates Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly have both accused Riley of abuse, including using his position of authority to coerce them into sex.
In his open letter, Paulson laid out the team’s response to a complaint received from Shim:
“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,” Paulson wrote.
Farrelly has also alleged abuse from Riley, dating back to 2011 and including her time with the Thorns. In his letter, Paulson apologized to both players.
“I apologize to Mana, Sinead and everyone else who is hurting as a result. I welcome the investigations that will be forthcoming,” Paulson wrote.
The abuse scandal surrounding Riley has shaken the women’s soccer league since the allegations first surfaced last week based on reporting by The Athletic. The sports website’s original story included specific allegations from Shim and Farrelly of Riley’s sexual coercion. After the story broke, Riley was fired immediately on Sept. 30 by his most recent team, the North Carolina Courage. NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird resigned the next day. The league canceled all games over the weekend as an act of “healing.”
Paulson’s letter acknowledges that team leaders chose not to publicize the abuse allegations when deciding against renewing Riley’s contract in 2015, even as they sent information about the case to the league.
“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. I deeply regret our role in what is clearly a systemic failure across women’s professional soccer,” Paulson wrote.
Before Paulson’s letter on Monday, pressure was building on the organization to take responsibility for its role in allowing Riley to continue as a coach in the NWSL. The Rose City Riveters, the team’s leading support club, demonstrated at Providence Park over the weekend calling for accountability.
“Actions speak a lot louder than words,” said Riveters steering committee member Tina Ettlin, “so the letter that Merritt put out today, through both clubs, doesn’t really change much.”
She said the trust within the organization has eroded and some of the suggestions, like an anonymous tip line for players to report abuse, just aren’t enough.
“If the players don’t already trust the front office, I’m not sure how that would help,” she said.
Ettlin said Paulson’s statement does acknowledge that the team should have handled the allegations better. But she said it doesn’t acknowledge the full scope of the damage done to the players who came forward, or the players who’ve been a part of the team since then.
Paulson’s attempts at explanation and apology in the open letter are also drawing questions on social media.
The owner’s reasoning, that in 2015 the team didn’t publicize allegations in order to protect “player privacy” suggests the team may not have discussed the matter with the player involved, according to a tweet from Washington Post reporter Molly Hensley-Clancy.
In addition, reporter Jayme Fraser with USA Today notes that Thorns’ management made positive statements about Riley’s tenure with the Thorns, rather than disclosing the abuse or simply remaining silent.
Paulson’s letter concludes with several steps the team is taking, including establishing an anonymous complaint system for allegations, the hiring of a “female former federal prosecutor to conduct a comprehensive and deliberate independent investigation of our original 2015 investigation” and a pledge to cooperate with the “related investigations by FIFA, US Soccer and the U.S. Center for SafeSport.”