Portland is not the shining city upon the hill I thought it was

11/24/2021 6:53 AM | 107ist Admin (Administrator)

The following is a post by Sarah Gehrke.

I moved to Portland, Oregon, three years ago. As an avid supporter of women’s soccer, I was in awe to finally be in the city I considered to be the home of the pinnacle of women’s professional soccer. After spending five years supporting the Washington Spirit, I was finally in a place I thought gave women’s soccer the environment it deserves. I thought Portland had it all — a gorgeous downtown stadium that regularly boasts tens of thousands of fans, a large and passionate supporters group, significant brand awareness throughout the city, and much more.

However, Portland is not the shining beacon of women’s soccer I thought it was. One month ago, we learned that Paul Riley was accused of sexually coercing multiple players, while the Thorns Front Office quietly placed Riley on leave and then declined to renew his contract without any mention of the investigation or administrative leave. Both Gavin Wilkinson and Merritt Paulson publicly continued cordial interactions with Riley. On top of that, Wilkinson allegedly dissuaded Mana Shim from speaking openly about her sexual orientation. 

An environment where players aren’t protected, where they are made to fear speaking openly, and where a known abuser is allowed to move on without consequence is not acceptable. Despite the extensive reporting and follow-up stories, the Front Office has done little more than pay lip service to the calls for accountability, including only placing Wilkinson on administrative leave from the Thorns while allowing him to continue in his capacity as GM of the Timbers. This decision stands in contrast to a recent sexual abuse scandal in men’s hockey, where the GM who mishandled sexual assault allegations stepped down from his role. While we need to wait until the results of the investigation before terminating Wilkinson, he should be placed on administrative leave from the team — full stop.

Closure and moving forward doesn’t happen wIthout accountability and consequences for the people in positions of power in the Thorns Front Office that 1) fostered an environment where this type of abuse could occur and 2) allowed an abuser to move on from the team without acknowledgement of the circumstances of his departure.

I am cautiously optimistic about the recent hiring of Karina LeBlanc as Thorns GM and rumored hiring of Rhian Wilkinson as the next head coach. I’m thrilled to see women who played the game in Portland coming back to the organization; however, it is also true that both lack experience for their future roles. If one of the goals of bringing R. Wilkinson and LeBlanc into the organization is to improve treatment of players and culture within the club, then there needs to be clear policies in place to give that power to both of them. Without explicit empowerment and guardrails, I believe existing, powerful members of the Front Office — including Paulson, G. Wilkinson, and Mike Golub — will control the real levers of power within the organization, which is part of what has created an environment of silence and disempowerment of players.

I love this city. I love my community of supporters. I love to support the players of Thorns FC. I will not back down, and I will not give up until we’ve seen the safety and environment for players of Thorns FC protected (as outlined by the demands published by both Thorns players and the Rose City Riveters). 

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