Think Out Loud

Report calls abuse in NWSL systemic, says Portland Thorns leaders actively interfered with investigation

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
Oct. 4, 2022 5:20 p.m. Updated: Oct. 7, 2022 10:19 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, Oct. 4

A pair of Portland Thorns fans hold signs that say "Protect the players" during the first half of the team's NWSL soccer match against the Houston Dash in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021.

Portland Thorns fans hold signs during the first half of the team's NWSL soccer match against the Houston Dash in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021. An independent investigation into the scandals that erupted in the National Women's Soccer League last season found emotional abuse and sexual misconduct were systemic in the sport, impacting multiple teams, coaches and players, according to a report released Monday, Oct. 3, 2022.

Steve Dipaola / AP


An independent report released Monday found that abuse and misconduct are systemic within the National Women’s Soccer League. The report specifically addresses allegations against the Portland Thorns. It notes that investigators “had no power to compel compliance from third parties, including teams or coaches, whether for the purpose of collecting documents or conducting interviews.” And that the Thorns “interfered with our access to relevant witnesses and raised specious legal arguments in an attempt to impede our use of relevant documents.” The investigation follows a report published by The Athletic last year that detailed allegations of harassment within the league. Gabby Rosas is the president of the 107IST, the nonprofit organization that supports the Rose City Riveters and the Timbers Army. The groups released a joint statement detailing their thoughts on the report’s release. She joins us with more on what this means for Portland soccer fans.

Editor’s note, updated: As of October 7, 2022, Mike Golub has resigned from OPB’s board of directors.

Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: We turn now to the independent report commissioned by the U.S. Soccer Federation into three teams in the National Women’s Soccer League including the Portland Thorns. The report was led by former acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates. It found a league in which verbal and emotional abuse and sexual misconduct had become systemic spanning multiple teams, coaches and victims. The investigation also specifically calls out the management and ownership of the Portland Thorns saying that the team refused to produce documents and prevented interviews.

In the last hour, Thorns owner Merritt Paulson released a statement. It read in part, “We have promised the National Women’s Soccer League that we will not do media or make any public statements related to the investigations until the joint investigation from the Soccer League and the Players Association is released in November, which is tremendously difficult. I cannot apologize enough for our role in a gross systemic failure to protect player safety and the missteps we made in 2015. I am truly sorry given that the Thorns are about to enter the NWSL playoffs. I’ve told the League that I’ll be removing myself effective today from all Thorns related decision making until the joint investigation, which we are fully cooperating with, is released. Gavin Wilkinson and Mike Golub will do the same again.”

That statement came out just a few minutes ago, but earlier this morning, we actually called up Gabby Rosas. She is the chair of the Rose City Riveters and the president of the 107IST (Independent Supporters’ Trust)  that supports both the Rose City Riveters and the Timbers Army. I started by asking her what went through her mind when she read the new report.

Gabby Rosas: I was devastated. I was seething a lot of anger and hurt and frustration and sadness for the players who have really grown up in a system like this, a system that silences them and doesn’t give them autonomy, doesn’t listen to them. And there’s just so much proof in this report irrefutable proof that shows that this is a systemic issue and I know that Yates even called that out specifically saying this is something that starts in youth soccer. So I felt a lot of sadness and empathy for the players who have grown up in the system and may not even realize how toxic it is.

Miller: Can you remind us what had already been public, say after reporting by the athletic and other places specifically with respect to the management of the Thorns and Timbers?

Rosas: Sure. So about a year ago, you and I were talking and at that time The Athletic had published an article that really called out or brought into light the complaint that Mana Shim had made to the Portland Timbers and Thorns front office about Paul Riley. And that article had been a coach at the time, back in the mid 2010′s, who was a coach from 2014 to 2015. So for two seasons he was here in Portland and ultimately the Portland Thorns organization let him go. They say now it was as a result of that complaint. But at the time, one year ago today, Merritt Paulson put an open letter out to everyone stating that it was a mistake to make it seem like they were just letting him go and letting his contract expire when really he was being fired for cause or something similar to that. And I think that that was the first lie that was uncovered through The Athletic article.

And I think The Athletic article also highlighted that there were other players that Paul Riley had taken advantage of and groomed but also started to showcase the systemic issues with regard to reporting this behavior to other teams across the League. Paul Riley was able to get another job immediately following being let go from Portland’s with Western New York and at the time, and since then at open houses and in other communications, Gavin Wilkinson has said that he essentially did not give glowing reviews or glowing recommendations. He only asked or was able to tell Western New York about Paul Riley’s on-the-field experience and his abilities as a coach. And, we’re finding out from the Sally Yates report that they are actually communicating about how they were victim blaming and talking through if you can hire Paul Riley, that would be such a good hire, things like that.

Miller: You’re getting into the sort of crossover between what had already been made public in the initial reporting by the athletic and then what is new in terms of what came out yesterday from this 170 something page report by the former acting U.S. Attorney General. What did you learn that you think is most important in the new report?

Rosas: I think there are a lot of important elements in this report and it is very thorough for these three situations.

Miller: Meaning it just focused on three different clubs, not the entirety of the league, let alone really a focus on youth soccer, which is mentioned, but only in passing.

Rosas: Correct. I think that might have been one of the larger takeaways for me is that this is just scratching the surface. U.S. soccer in this investigation really only focused on the Portland Thorns, the Chicago Red Stars and the Racing Louisville teams and those three coaches and their tenure with those clubs. So it is really scratching the surface of what is, probably, and I know the report speaks to a larger institutional failing within youth soccer, within other leagues, certainly within NWSL. Again, it’s just scratching the surface of what are going to be, I’m sure, larger issues. And I think it’s really important for everyone to be aware that this is just the first investigation that has been published. There is another investigation that the League, NWSL and the players’ association

are really partnered on to dive into each club; and, the issues that players have raised and are being very thoroughly looked at including everything that’s happened over the last 10 seasons. This is the 10th season of the NWSL and, and I think for a lot of reasons it should be celebrated that the league has lasted this long, but as we look at the damning evidence, it really calls into question at what cost.


Miller: In a joint statement released late last night with 107IST,  the Rose City Riveters and the Timbers Army, you all wrote as a leadership group, ‘We were lied to.’ Who lied to you?

Rosas: The front office. The Portland timbers and Thorns front office has been lying to us as a leadership team, to fans, to season ticket holders. There have been many meetings and conversations with them since March of this year. That was when we started meeting with them again. And we, historically, over the last 11 or 12 years, have been meeting as a leadership team with their team. We talk about things such as game day operations, games that are coming up and scheduling issues. They give us updates about the team or league. We try to give them updates about our organization and it has been a pretty consistent engagement over time.

And last year there was a break; they delayed meeting with us and then come March, we started meeting again. And we have been trying to push them for truth and for transparency and to be public with supporters, with fans, with season ticket holders, with the general public about what is going on, what has happened, because to our knowledge and what’s out there publicly, nobody has been issued to fine nobody has lost a day’s wage, nobody has been suspended. We really feel like there needs to be accountability for all of these things that have happened within the club over time and then subsequent cover ups. In those meetings, we have been pushing for truth. We have been pushing for honest answers and reading the report yesterday, it just becomes blatant that we’ve been told lies about certain details. We’ve been told lies about how engaging they are and participating there with the investigation. I think it’s really important that Sally Yates called out the Timbers and Thorns front office for delaying the investigation.

Miller: Let me actually read that part. It’s a striking part because the report starts by saying essentially there’s a huge discrepancy between the team’s public pronouncements and their willingness to participate with the investigation. This is the relevant paragraph. “Merritt Paulson published an open letter on October 4, 2021 in which he quote, ‘disavowed the culture of silence that may have allowed for additional victimization by a predatory coach,’ that he pledged to be quote transparent going forward, welcomed our investigation and committed to ‘fully cooperate so that our inquiry might shed much needed light on the facts.’” Yet, the report goes on to say that, “The Thorns refused to produce relevant documents, causing months of delay and impeded interviews of key witnesses including the team’s former human resources director and the president of the club, Mike Golub.”  I should note that Mike Golub is an OPB Board member. What do you want to see from the Thorns and timbers leadership right now?

Rosas: Right now is the time for them to actually take responsibility. They have had many opportunities over the last 12 months to take ownership, take responsibility as The Athletic article came out as the incident with Andy Polo became public as their own internal culture review study became public through the Oregonian and called out the behaviors of Mike Golub. We’ve only seen deflection and defensiveness and this is a time for them to actually take responsibility to actually hold individuals accountable to let people go who are damaging this club.

Miller: In the release last night, you were very clear, you want Mike Golub and Gavin Wilkinson to be fired, and you want Merritt Paulson to sell the team.

Rosas: Correct. Yes. We think that leadership needs to change and that starts at the top of this culture. It cascades down. We’ve seen it cascade to other employees. We’ve heard stories of employees being impacted. So we absolutely think that Gavin Wilkinson and Mike Golub should not have a future with this club. They need to be let go. They need to either resign or be fired and that Merritt Paulson needs to sell the club. Peregrine Sports should not be the majority owners of this club anymore.

Miller: What happens if that doesn’t happen? You’ve been calling in various ways for accountability and transparency for a year now and so far neither of those has really happened. We have a clearer picture of the ways in which certainly transparency hasn’t happened because of the Sally Yates report. So let’s say this continues. Where does that leave you as a fan base?

Rosas: That is the question that we’ve been grappling with for 12 months. I think there are a lot of people within our organization who have wanted to give the benefit of the doubt or who have tried to go into conversations with good faith, but we are seeing now that that this is becoming something untenable and this is becoming something that another other organization probably needs to step in and force a sale or force those resignations. I think something that was pretty disheartening about the U.S. Soccer report is that they don’t feel like they have that oversight anymore. They don’t have that governance anymore. And they actually do. There are ways that they could go about to protect the team, protect the clubs, and I’m not fully versed on how that would work, but we’ve seen it happen before.

And I think this is also where NWSL comes into play, and NWSl as an organization now, that stands on its own and is not governed by U.S. soccer anymore. This is a big reason why I think their investigation is going to be extremely telling because they’re not just going to write recommendations. I’m really hopeful that they’re going to force the hand of some of these really powerful  organizations to actually change. And hopefully, over time, we can see the systemic issues start to get addressed because again. This isn’t just a problem in Portland. We’ve seen now – because of this reporting or this investigation – that two other clubs have had very, very horrible issues of abuse. If the league does not step in here, I don’t know how there is a future.

Miller: You’re the chair of the Road City Riveters and also the president of the 107IST, which supports both the Rose City Riveters and the Timbers Army. The playoffs are around the corner; next season’s coming up after that. Will you go to games officially as a member of these supporters groups?

Rosas: So we’ve tried to let people make their own decisions about how to do that. And so my own decision right now is I will probably go to the playoff match to support the players. I think it’s really, really important right now that we don’t  pull away from the players, but we find new ways to support them.

Miller:  And what does that look like? This to me is such a difficult personal moral question and it’s something we talked about last year because last year too, you said you want to support the players, especially players who had been in some cases victims of the exact abuse that is at the heart of this issue. But going forward, how do you support players without supporting the front office and the ownership?

Rosas: Yep. So last year we talked about the cost of season tickets. And so I do think that the playoff match was an opt out yesterday was the last day to opt out. So some people opted out yesterday and some people still have tickets for it. What we’re trying to figure out by not only working with the NWSL Players Association, but with the players directly, is how can we support them? In meetings that we’ve had with them this year, they want, they need for, for there to continue to be positive energy towards them. So we are trying to figure out how to continue to uplift and center them while also doing exactly a shoe said not supporting the front office.

I do think that inside the stadium certainly gives us a stage, gives us a platform, but there are plenty of other ways and ideas that are being tossed around about how, how do we raise more awareness around this problem? Because ultimately, the stadium holds 25,000 people when it’s full. And the North End has about 8000 people and our organization represents a subset of those 25,000 people. So how do we communicate out to everyone, let them know that this is a problem and let them know ways that they can take action to call for change and, and to try to help influence that change.  And for some people, it’s not renewing their season tickets. I personally did not renew my tickets for next season so I will not be a season ticket holder for next year for either club.

At this point, I was really hoping that this investigation would not be as damaging as it is. I was really hoping that that there would be some a glimmer of hope that I would feel comfortable renewing my tickets, but I haven’t and I don’t know if that means I’m not going to the matches next year or if I’m just buying tickets from somebody else, but these are all the questions that we’re asking and trying to figure out how does change actually happen.

Miller: Gabby Roses, thanks very much for joining us.

Rosas: No problem. Thank you.

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