Our Opinion: Thorns' fans deserve real change
The soccer world celebrates Portland's love of the Thorns.
Women's teams across the globe eagerly anticipate trips to Soccer City where they can compete before thousands of fans — even when it's the home team's fans, led by the incomparable Rose City Riveters.
In 2019, the last pre-pandemic regular National Women's Soccer League season, the Thorns averaged 20,098 fans at their home matches at Providence Park — tops in the league. The next nearest club, the Utah Royals, averaged 10,774. The remaining teams drew, on average, a fourth of the crowd that showed up, clad in red and white, in the Rose City.
It's a safe bet that within the first few minutes of a Thorns home contest broadcast, the commentator will mention the loyal fan base that brings support not only to the players but also to team owners.
As that nine-year relationship faces its first big test, we think one answer is to lead the league with a Portland version of the NFL's "Rooney Rule," making certain women are among final coaching candidates for the popular squad. We encourage the Thorns ownership to show it's serious about change and take that step. Perhaps the league will follow.
Superb investigative work by reporters Meg Linehan and Katie Strang of The Athletic led the North Carolina Courage to fire coach Paul Riley last week after several former players provided detailed accounts of his sexual harassment and coercion. The trail of transgressions wound through two decades and three leagues, but at the epicenter was Portland, where Riley coached from 2013-15.
Thanks to The Athletic's Sept. 30 article, we know why the Thorns severed ties with Riley six years ago. According to the article, former players Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly came to owner Merritt Paulson and General Manager Gavin Wilkinson in 2015, outlining Riley's pattern of sexual abuse. Riley told The Athletic that most serious allegations, including pressuring Farrelly to have sex, are untrue.
In early October, the Thorns issued a statement saying they investigated the complaints and found no "unlawful" activity but passed their report on to the NWSL and announced they would not renew Riley's contract. Five months later, he was hired to coach the Western New York Flash (which relocated to North Carolina as the Courage).
In an "open letter" published on Monday, Oct. 4, Paulson applauded Shim and Farrelly for speaking out about "the abuse … they endured while playing for the Thorns." Paulsen said the team did not go public with the allegations in 2015 due to "respect for player privacy"— a decision he regrets, as it helped foster a "culture of silence that may have allowed for additional victimization by a predatory coach, whose actions we forcefully condemn."
Paulson, however, failed to adequately address Shim's allegation that Wilkinson pressured her in 2015 to keep quiet about matters unrelated to soccer. Wilkinson denied the allegations to The Athletic, but later apologized for not being more sensitive to Shim's concerns, raising questions about whether the Timbers' sensitivity to "player privacy" came from conviction or mere convenience.
On Wednesday, Oct. 6, the Thorns put Wilkinson on administrative leave, pending results of an internal investigation.
This is a big problem for the Thorns, but it goes beyond one team.
Farrelly has said Riley's predatory behavior started in 2011 when she played for Riley with the Philadelphia Independence in Women's Professional Soccer, a precursor of the NWSL. And he's not the only coach to face misconduct allegations this year.
• The Washington Spirit dismissed Richie Burke last month after players complained of abusive behavior. • A month earlier, Racing Louisville fired Christy Holly for "cause" without providing details about what some players have described as a"toxic"work environment.
• A day after Riley was fired in North Carolina, the OL Reign confirmed that Farid Bensiti's sudden resignation in July was linked to his longstanding practice of commenting on the weight of his players — including Thorns star Lindsey Horan, who played for him in France and spoke out on her experience this spring.
It's infuriating to players and fans that a league dedicated to promoting women's soccer cannot protect its women athletes. We've seen that having women in top jobs is not enough, as both league Commissioner Lisa Baird and General Counsel Lisa Levine were forced to quit in the wake of the Riley scandal. More women head coaches (there are just three in the 10-team league that has more than three-dozen coaching jobs) would help.
With Mark Parsons leaving at the end of the season to coach in Europe, the Thorns will be looking for a new head coach. There will be a lot of pressure for Paulson to replace him with a woman. We encourage Paulson to apply his version of the NFL's "Rooney Rule" and demand that at least one woman is among the final candidates considered.
Remember the Thorns' first coach, Cindy Parlow Cone? She led the team to the inaugural NWSL championship in August 2013.
In the meantime, Paulson, who also owns the Portland Timbers, has already announced some good first steps, including cooperating with a league investigation, hiring outside lawyers to review how the team handled the players' complaints in 2015, and releasing a summary of those findings. He also vowed to set up a system for players to report misconduct anonymously, and for fans to chime in with their ideas and criticism.
It will take some time to see whether the Timbers are serious about cleaning up their mess. To be sure, this is a moment of reckoning for the entire league, but it's also a defining moment for Paulson and the Thorns. They've shown that they can lead the league in fan support. Now it's time for them to lead the way on fixing a broken system so that once again, soccer fans will be talking about Portland's love of the sport, not its mishandling of player complaints.
What is the Rooney Rule?
The National Football League's Rooney Rule requires teams to interview at least one ethnic-minority candidate for head coaching and senior operations jobs in the league. The rule is named after Dan Rooney, the former owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and former chairman of the league's diversity committee.
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