The evidence is damning.
Not only did Timbers and Thorns owner Merritt Paulson and General Manager Gavin Wilkinson know about and enable a system of sexual harassment and exploitation with the Thorns, they actively worked to conceal it and hinder investigations into the environment they created at every turn.
In the wake of the announcement, Paulson went into classic damage control mode: Blame everyone else and start punting underlings over the side.
To every person with something resembling a heart or soul, the report and Paulson’s reaction to it make one thing clear: It’s time to burn the whole rotten thing to the ground.
When confronted with the evidence in a withering report by former Attorney General Sally Yates, Paulson initially hid behind the continuation of a separate league investigation and announced that he would remove himself, Wilkinson, and executive Mike Golub from any direct decision-making with the Thorns. In a statement, Paulson announced that the team’s head counsel would instead be inserted as the direct decision maker for the Thorns. Keep in mind, that didn’t mean that Paulson, Wilkinson, and Golub, who, according to the report, sexually harassed former Thorns coach Cindy Barlow-Cone, will not be making decisions regarding the Thorns, they are just adding a layer of insulation and deniability between them and any decisions that are made.
When that didn’t quell the outcry, the Timbers fired Paulson and Golub. Shortly after that, the wheels came off the Timbers season, and despite just needing a draw in their final two games to make the playoffs, they failed to do so and crashed out with an embarrassing 3-1 defeat at Salt Lake City. Following the Timbers loss, the Timbers announced that Paulson was stepping down as the club CEO.
Even with Paulson not directly in charge, it doesn’t seem the Timbers have learned the right lesson from all of this. They sent out an open letter to supporters following Paulson’s stepping, with the second paragraph reading:
“The issue of sexual misconduct and abuse is not unique to our organization – it is a leaguewide problem. As demonstrated by our actions, the Portland Thorns organization has shown that it is working to be a part of the solution, and we call on the entire soccer community to unite to address these issues in our sport.”
If your first response to do something very bad boils down to “other people did bad things, too,” and “everyone else should take care of this problem,” you are obviously not taking things seriously. As far as the people of Portland are concerned, and the players, coaches, and staffers who were victimized while working for the Thorns and Timbers, it doesn’t matter where else these awful crimes were committed – these took place in Portland, and responsibility for that must be taken.
Further, while Paulson removed himself from the direct decision-making process of the club, he still owns the team.
Paulson didn’t budge last year when fans demanded he should sell the team when the allegations first came to light, thanks to The Athletic. He didn’t budge throughout this season, and there is little indication he will budge now. And this is the key problem to trying to force out the owner of a major North American sports franchise: Most have very little shame and lots and lots of money.
It’s been witnessed in the NFL, where Washington Commanders owner Dan Snyder continues to own the team despite several lawsuits alleging sexual harassment, a hostile work environment, and a generally terrible on-field product. It’s been witnessed in the NBA, where the league found Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sawyer to have repeatedly used racist and demeaning language in conversations with team employees. Sawyer received a one-year suspension from the team. Meaning that instead of sitting in his courtside seats while raking in massive sums of money from his professional sports franchise, he suffers the terrible punishment of paying a punitive fine and sitting at home … while raking in vast sums of money from his professional sports franchise.
And thus, the biggest problem when trying to remove a professional sports owner in the United States becomes apparent. To punish them, you must make them get rid of the team. To get rid of the team, they must sell the team, and if they sell the team, their punishment is escaping a bunch of angry people by walking away with a few billion dollars.
Now, you could argue that they will make less money from the sale than they would under normal circumstances because, hopefully, attendance is suffering, sponsors are bailing left and right, and every day they hold out, the potential sales price goes down, but how much of a discount is that really forcing? With sales like these, 100 million here and 100 million there, and eventually, you’re talking about real money.
It’s a double-edged sword for Timbers fans. To support the players, particularly the Thorns, they must show up to Providence Park. However, if they show up at Providence Park, they must pay for a ticket, and if they pay for a ticket, they keep funding Paulson. There is no easy answer to that situation., but if the man isn’t going to sell anyway, it makes more sense to show up to support the players and to take every minute to shame and embarrass Merritt Paulson. Maybe then his rich dad will demand he stops embarrassing his family name and go home.
Maybe then he’ll finally go away.
Only then can the bonfire of righteous fury start to die down.