This week the Portland Timbers attempted to atone for a very bad, very stupid thing the club did. No, they didn’t blow a late lead, or cough up an Open Cup game to a team of amateurs. In this case, the very bad, very stupid thing was much worse. The team allegedly covered up domestic abuse by former player Andy Polo during his time with the club, with the allegations only coming to light after his former partner spoke out to a Peruvian television program in February. Only when the allegations became public did the Timbers cut Polo from the team.
However, that was not the end of the story.
It soon became clear the Timbers had known about the situation for much longer. The team sent a pair of employees to Polo’s house after the police arrived following a 911 call, and they promised to take care of the situation.
The team managed to keep everything under wraps for over six months, with Polo playing his regular role with the team right up until he became a PR liability. Then he was cut. This week reports emerged that he then received his entire season salary.
MLS, the same league that paid Polo to go away, commissioned an investigation into how the Timbers conducted themselves. The report found that the Timbers were not at fault because they didn’t understand the league’s rules on domestic violence reporting. To be fair, MLS rules are incredibly opaque on many matters, but one would think that a team would hire enough lawyers to make sure they were doing the right thing. In any event, the league fined the Timbers $25,000, and the Timbers have promised numerous initiatives to “be better.”
Those include hiring a vice president of Community and Social Engagement, additional efforts to increase “diversity, equity and engagement,” and bulking up its human resources and legal team, as well as numerous other training efforts. Most of their attempts to work through yet another scandal could be viewed as boilerplate buzzword speak. Which, to be frank, they probably are. None of the initiatives mean anything if the people hired to run them are not empowered and if the club doesn’t put its money where its mouth is, none of it matters.
Notably absent was any sort of accountability for a team that has now, at least twice that we know of in the cases of former Thorns coach Paul Riley and now the case of Polo, chosen to try to sweep incidents under the rug and protect abusers instead of standing up for what is right.
That sort of disconnect, the “We are only sorry because we are got caught” that exists among the professional sports ownership class, can undoubtedly make it difficult for one to support a team. Last week I wrote about the Seattle Mariners and how their refusal to spend money at the right time and on the right players had cost the team a chance to win time and time again. Yet I still support the team’s players—ditto for the Timbers. Merritt Paulson has failed to do the right thing, to either be held accountable or to hold those he bears responsibility for accountable, time and time again. The struggle Timbers fans face is on full display at Providence Park every home game, where the seats are noticeably more empty than usual.
Here’s the thing, though, and it’s something team ownership has never seemed to realize-no one, and I mean literally no one, goes to a professional sporting event to cheer on or actively support the team owner. They are there to cheer on the players on the field, to revel in the experience. People have not come to root for the owner, the officials, or the front office staff. They are there to have a good time and cheer on the team. That presents a catch-22 for both fans and owners who repeatedly do bad things.
On the one hand, the owner can hope the fans just don’t care and continue to pay for tickets, food, and merchandise. On the other hand, the fans just want to show up and cheer on the team while contributing as little benefit to the owner as possible. If showing up to support the team and benefit the owner in any way makes a fan emotionally miserable, so they decide to stay away, I don’t think anyone can blame them. However, I think many want to find a way to express their support for their club or the players. The Timbers Army certainly has the voice for it and the ability to voice their dissatisfaction with the path Merrit Paulson has taken. But what about more casual fans such as myself? I admit I don’t fully know the answer.
On the one hand, this is probably the youngest and most exciting team the Timbers have fielded in years. On the other hand, the club’s ownership has repeatedly covered up incidents of sexual misconduct and domestic violence. Trying to support one with supporting the other is a tricky proposition. It’s certainly one that I’ve struggled with and will continue to struggle with.
I hope I can find a way to balance it because this young and hungry Timbers team deserves the support, even if the team owner does not.