The sports news site “The Athletic” published a bombshell article last week about the National Women’s Soccer League and the Portland Thorns.
It included the accounts of two former Thorns players, Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim. They brought allegations of sexual coercion and harassment by their former coach, Paul Riley.
This was the first time the allegations were made public, but league and team leaders were alerted back in 2015. The Thorns chose not to renew Riley’s contract at the time, but within months he was coaching for another team.
“They actually more or less patted him on the back on his way out,” said Gabby Rosas, chair of the Rose City Riveters, and the president of the 107ist, the nonprofit organization that supports both the Rose City Riveters and the Timbers Army.
After the article came out, Riley was fired from his latest coaching job, and the National Women’s Soccer League commissioner resigned a day later.
This is one of many cases where documented sexual misconduct allegations didn’t lead someone to lose their job. It was the misconduct becoming public that made the difference.
Players and fans like Rosas say the reckoning must be deeper. Describing her feelings upon reading the reporting in The Athletic, Rosas said she was, “deeply heartbroken, embarrassed, just gutted.”
The Rose City Riveters and the Timbers Army are calling on the team’s owner to fire Gavin Wilkinson, who serves as the general manager for the Thorns and the Timbers, and they have a list of other specific demands. The fan groups are calling for a boycott of team merchandise and concessions at Providence Park until the demands are met. Wilkinson is currently on administrative leave from his position with the Thorns but continues as GM of the Timbers.
Wilkinson was GM at the time that the players first brought up their allegations against Riley. Asked why the fans are focused on Wilkinson and not team owner Merritt Paulson, Rosas said, “For right now, the focus is on Gavin because we know that as an employee, he could be let go. It gets a little more complicated with an owner.”
At Wednesday’s game, players from the Thorns and the Houston Dash joined with all the other teams in the league in a show of solidarity on the field. They formed a circle, linking arms in the sixth minute of play to mark the six years of silence Shim and Farrelly endured. Rosas, who was at the game, said the moment gave her chills.
“I just think it was a powerful showing and a start to a powerful movement and I’m really looking forward to what comes next out of this,” she said.
The transcript below was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: The sports news site, The Athletic, published a bombshell article last week about the National Women’s Soccer League and the Portland Thorns. It included accounts from two former Thorns players, Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim. They brought allegations of sexual coercion and harassment by their former coach, Paul Riley. This was the first time these allegations were made public, but league and team leaders were alerted back in 2015. The Thorns chose not to renew Riley’s contract, but within months he was coaching for another team.
After the article came out, Riley was fired from his latest coaching job and the National Women’s Soccer League commissioner resigned a day later. This is really one of many cases where documented sexual misconduct did not lead to someone losing their job. It was the misconduct becoming public that made the difference.
Players and fans say the reckoning must be deeper. Gabby Rosas is one of those fans. She is a chair of the Rose City Riveters and the president of the 107ist, the nonprofit organization that supports both the Rose City Riveters and the Timbers Army.
How were you affected by the news when it broke last week?
Gabby Rosas: Deeply heartbroken, embarrassed. Just gutted by what I read in The Athletic. I think it was some amazing reporting and bravery from players stepping up and coming out and telling their stories and I just personally felt the wind was taken out of my sails. All of the empathy in the world to the current players for the Portland Thorns. But just a lot of anger and frustration at the Thorns leadership team and the folks who helped sweep this under the rug.
Miller: There’s so much to talk about, but I think it might be helpful just to back up one big step first. The group that you’re a part of, the Rose City Riveters and the Timbers Army, in terms of other American sports, they seem unique to me. People might be fans of the Blazers or the Seahawks or the Ducks or the Beavers, but that fandom doesn’t really have the same kind of social structure or organization that you have with the Rose City Riveters or the Timbers Army. What do you think about your connection to the Thorns?
Rosas: It’s all about community. I think soccer-supporting is really unique. I heard postings about this segment earlier on a previous show [calling us] a booster club and I think that’s not categorizing it correctly. When we come together, we’re doing it because we love the club, but we’re completely independent from the club. [We are] basically a group that comes together to form a community that says, this is our soccer club, we’re a football club, and we’re going to do everything we can to make it the best club in the world; the most successful. [We’re going to] make sure that our players are being taken care of, make sure that we’re constantly growing.
I think the mission of the 107ist really comes into play here as well, where we’re supporting soccer in and around the Portland community from the grassroots to the highest level. So it’s really our organization. Our community is for anybody who identifies in those ways. Either they want to financially contribute to help grow soccer in the area and join us with their membership dollars, or they want to join us in the stands. They want to join us in the north end and help cheer the team on to victory.
I think it’s also important to note that we have what we call Regional Supporter Groups all across the country who support the Portland Timbers and the Portland Thorns from their hometowns. These may be [in] markets that have other MLS or NWSL clubs or USL clubs or maybe a market where people just get together to watch games at a local pub.
I think what brings soccer fans together is that we all identify as being part of this community. And so when something like this horrific event happens in our community, you really see the community come together and say, “What are we gonna do about this?” and “What impact, what influence can we have to ensure that things like this don’t happen again?” We’re creating opportunities for people to get involved, to use that energy that may be negative and maybe angry, and convert that into something positive or productive.
Miller: So let’s turn to that as an organization. It seems that the Rose City Riveters went from shock and anger to demands, which is what you’re getting at here. Can you outline the basics of what you have been asking for?
Rosas: Sure. So the basics are really player rights and trying to advocate for the players. We feel like this is a situation where the players were silenced for six years. They tried to come out, they tried to do, I don’t even want to say ‘the right thing’ because they are the victims, but they tried to blow the whistle on this coach, Paul Reilly, who was manipulative and abusive towards players. They tried to blow the whistle on it and they weren’t given the pathways to be able to do that.
In The Athletic article, it talks about how difficult it was to even find a way to report this. There was no such thing as an anonymous tip line at the time or anything like that. I think a lot of what supporters are taking away is, how can there be better structure so that these players aren’t just viewed as athletes who show up, kick a ball for 90 minutes and then are expected to shut up and sit in a corner? I think that’s one of the big takeaways from just the way Gavin Wilkinson talked to Mana Shim, trying to tell her not to be out, not to be public about being queer, [conveying to her that she is] just a soccer player. It’s the same tone as ‘shut up and dribble.’
As supporters, we’re frustrated and tired of that because we want to support people. We believe in human rights. We believe that employees should have rights, and we believe in collective bargaining agreements. We believe that there should be equal pay and all of these different factors. So when we were developing our demands to the front office, we really wanted to make sure that we were centering player rights and structures around what is going to help the Timbers and Thorns organizations stop this from happening in the future. We just didn’t feel Merritt Paulson’s open letter that he posted on Monday was sufficient. We think that there’s more tangible action, more targeted action, that needs to be taken.
So that’s how we developed our list, which includes transparency. [It includes] adding a diversity officer to their executive level within the organization to give the players a seat at the table when decisions are getting made, like hiring a new coach, which is something that the Thorns should be doing right now. This is the last season for their current [head] coach, Mark Parsons. There’s a lot of structural things within the organization that we’re looking for the Timbers and Thorns front office to do.
Miller: One thing they did do yesterday, they announced (and this was after a unified sort of tweet storm by players asking for this among other things), the GM, Gavin Wilkinson, has been put on administrative leave from the Thorns, although not from the Timbers. These two teams, the women’s team and the men’s team, have the same ownership and a lot of the same personnel. What was your response to that announcement?
Rosas: It’s not enough. I think it didn’t follow through with what the players asked. They asked for him to be put on administrative leave, they didn’t say just from [the Thorns]. While there are investigations going on, it raises additional questions about what’s the scope of the investigations? Are the investigations clearly drawing a line at just the Thorn side of the organization? A lot of what happens within the Timbers/Thorns front office is shared. It shares responsibility for both clubs. They like to tout this phrase, “One Club” which, seven days ago, I also believed. This action that the front office took putting Gavin on leave from one club, doesn’t mean that together they are P. T. F. C. It’s showing separation here.
Miller: Well let me put it this way then, do you trust this team right now?
Rosas: I would like to see more transparency. I think they should be more transparent. I know that there are several investigations going on right now and I’m hopeful that we start to see some of the reporting from that. I’ve been meeting with the front office team for about four years now as a member of the 107ist board and I do have a certain amount of trust in them.
But I think this incident, this situation we’re in right now, really calls into question a lot of the trust [I had in them.] The fact that they didn’t disclose why Paul Reilly’s contract wasn’t renewed at the time, when they’re real quick to make comments about why players are being let go, even if it’s not for a specific reason. It could be some sort of vague reasoning, but there was no vague reasoning for why they let Paul Riley go. They actually, more or less, patted him on the back on his way out and they congratulated him on his successes throughout his career, both at Western New York Flash and the North Carolina Courage. So, I don’t trust [them]. It’s obvious they weren’t honest with us about that. And it really makes me question what else is being pushed aside or justified for various reasons right now.
Miller: Why focus on Gavin Wilkinson but not the owner, Merritt Paulson? From the reporting we’ve been reading, it’s clear that he, too, was aware of these allegations back in 2015. He also made numerous positive statements about Paul Reilly, including tweets that he recently deleted. So why not focus on Merritt Paulson as well?
Rosas: We’re trying to create focus on these things. It’s about what actions we think can actually happen. Over time these protests or these boycotts, these movements, grow and change. So I think for right now the focus is on Gavin because we know that as an employee he could be let go. It gets a little bit more complicated with an owner like Merritt Paulson and his influence and impact on the league. So, we are trying to be very direct.
Miller: My understanding is that you were at the game last night, the first one since this broke because games were canceled over the weekend. What was it like for you?
Rosas: It was really great to be with my community, to be with my friends. We held a rally outside the stadium on Saturday and that was also great to get people together and to feel everyone else’s emotions and the whole spectrum that folks are going through. It was fantastic to see the team come out knowing that the players wanted to play, knowing that they wanted to come together. It was great to come out and show them support, to really show them that Portland is behind them. Portland believes in protecting our players and we believe in player rights.
Miller: Can you describe the moment, at the 6th minute, when players from both teams, interspersed with referees, met at the center of the field; something that happened all across the league. What was it like to watch that?
Rosas: Chills. I had chills and dry mouth. I think it’s powerful what these players are doing and how these players are coordinating and communicating and trying to come together as a collective to say no more silence, and to make sure that, whatever the league looks like after this, everybody feels safe to play and safe to participate. So I just think it was a powerful showing and started a powerful movement.
I’m really looking forward to what comes next out of this because I do think that the players have the league’s attention. I don’t think the league is acting as quickly as the players would like, just like I don’t think the Portland Thorns and Timbers front office is acting as quickly as players and supporters would like. I do think we have everyone’s attention right now and it really is about making sure that this doesn’t become just part of the news cycle.
Miller: You’ve made it clear earlier and also in this conversation that your key point here is to support the players. It is one of the reasons that you showed up along with many other people at the game yesterday and the boycott of concessions or merchandise at Providence Park or online. That is a way to send an economic message to leadership and ownership of the team. But what about not buying tickets? I mean, wouldn’t that be the most dramatic message of all?
Rosas: It would be except most of the tickets that are sold are actually sold as part of a season ticket package. So a lot of the supporters who are showing up have sunk costs. We’ve already bought those tickets and those tickets cannot get refunded.
Miller: But you have to make a decision for the next season about buying season tickets, right? This is a yearly question, I guess. I’m wondering, at what point would you say, “Even though I want to support the players, I can’t support this company, this franchise”?
Rosas: I think that’s a decision point that we’re going to come to. I do think that there is action happening behind the scenes and this is where we’re calling for transparency. We’re calling for additional insight. But I think every supporter is going to get to that decision point. They’re going to need to say, “Do I renew and give this organization $500, $1,000, $1,500?” whatever ticket they end up buying. (I think my tickets are about $450 a year just for one team so I probably spend $600 a year to watch both). I think people are going to need to get to a spot where they are seeing accountability. They need to see things come out of this organization that is starting to rebuild trust or starting to show them positive progress in the direction that we’re pushing.
Miller: I’m wondering how you reconcile everything we’re talking about, including the deep sense of community and the emotional connection you have to this team, with the fact that this team is a business, the league is a business. What do you think about those two things together?
Rosas: That’s a really polarizing dichotomy of being on the 107ist Board--trying to figure out how we help support this club so it can grow and become the best club in the world. That’s our goal. We want to be supporting the best club, but that takes buying into the capitalist world that we live in. Sometimes it’s providing feedback about what sponsors are coming in. For example, a couple years ago Chick fil A joined as an MLS sponsor and we made a pretty poignant [argument to] our front office saying we don’t want them anywhere near our stadium.
Miller: Is it because of their stance on LGBTQ issues?
Rosas: Yes, it absolutely is. Sometimes it’s keeping an eye on the sponsors, what the business side is doing. It’s also trying to understand that certain decisions need to be made in order for this club to continue to grow, continue to be able to sign high-profile players and things like that. So it is interesting that we are a small, little community club, which sometimes is being pitted against tv sponsors and national sponsors. We have to find that middle ground because, if we love the club and we want to support it, we need to draw lines in the sand to say up to a point.
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