The Portland Timbers and Thorns have fired president of soccer Gavin Wilkinson and president of business Mike Golub after both men were named in Monday’s U.S. Soccer-commissioned investigative report on abuse in women’s soccer, the club announced Wednesday.
Wilkinson played a key role in concealing 2015 allegations of sexual harassment against then-head coach Paul Riley, allowing Riley to continue coaching in the league for six more years, the report found.
Golub created “an atmosphere of disrespect and intimidation towards women and working mothers employed at the club over a span of 11 years,” per an Oregonian report this summer.
Team owner Merritt Paulson also helped conceal the allegations against Riley, and contributed to the “toxic” atmosphere. He said in a statement Tuesday that he would remove himself from all Thorns-related decision making until a separate investigation commissioned by the NWSL and its players association is complete. But he remains the owner of the Timbers, and did not say that he would sell the team.
The firings come one day after Thorns and U.S. women’s national team captain Becky Sauerbrunn told reporters that “every owner and executive and U.S. Soccer official who has repeatedly failed the players and failed to protect the players, who have hidden behind legalities, and have not participated fully in these investigations, should be gone.”
Fans of both the Thorns and Timbers — who play in the National Women’s Soccer League and Major League Soccer, respectively — have also repeatedly called on the club to fire Wilkinson, and on Paulson to sell. Early Tuesday morning, after reading the Yates report, a coalition of Thorns and Timbers supporters groups said they’d be “suspending relations” with both teams as long as Paulson, Wilkinson and Golub remained in charge.
Sponsors were also reportedly re-evaluating their partnerships with the club in the wake of the report, which detailed new allegations of verbal, emotional and sexual misconduct at the highest levels of women’s soccer, and revealed that coaches, executives and NWSL team owners — including Paulson — “failed” countless players.
Gavin Wilkinson fired after covering up sexual harassment
Wilkinson featured prominently in one section of the report. He and Paulson were direct recipients of a Sept. 16, 2015 email from then-Thorns player Mana Shim, in which she detailed Riley’s persistent and unwanted advances, his retaliation against her when she asked him to stop, and a specific night when he brought Shim and another player, Sinead Farrelly, back to his apartment and pressured them to kiss each other.
Seven days later, the Thorns fired Riley, but publicly stated that they’d simply chosen not to renew his contract. That winter, when the Western New York Flash began considering Riley as a coaching candidate, Wilkinson spoke with Flash vice president Aaran Lines. The Flash told Yates’ investigative team that “the only negative reference made during the conversation was a comment from Mr. Wilkenson [sic] that Mr. Riley did not mesh well with all of the personalities in the locker room.”
Wilkinson confirmed that he told Lines that Riley was a good coach, and that he’d hire him again. According to then-NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush, Wilkinson merely brought up the “human resource issue” and told Lines that Riley had been “put in a bad position by the player.”
Riley went on to coach for the Flash and the North Carolina Courage until Shim and Farrelly went public with the 2015 allegations and more in an Athletic story last fall.
In the aftermath of the Athletic story, Wilkinson was placed on administrative leave from his role with the Thorns, and soon replaced by Karina LeBlanc as GM. But he continued to run soccer operations for the Timbers, and was reinstated as Thorns president of soccer in January.
With Wilkinson now ousted, Ned Grabavoy will take over soccer operations on the Timbers side, and LeBlanc will lead on the Thorns side, the club said.
Mike Golub’s toxicity
Golub had been accused by former employees of overseeing and contributing to a workplace environment that left many female staffers feeling uncomfortable or unwelcome, and that drove many to leave the club.
The Yates report detailed one specific incident: In 2013, when now-U.S. Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone was coaching the Thorns, Golub allegedly asked her, “what’s on your bucket list besides sleeping with me?”
An internal Thorns/Timbers review unearthed some concerns related to Golub; the August 2022 Oregonian report unearthed more. Paulson said that Golub was undergoing remediation. But he remained the club’s president of business until Wednesday.
Golub, the Yates report confirmed, was also aware that Riley had been investigated in 2015 — though the internal investigative report that he, along with Wilkinson and Paulson, was emailed did not use the words “sexual” or “harassment,” and instead described Riley’s conduct as “inappropriate behavior.”
With Paulson having temporarily stepped aside and Golub fired, general counsel Heather Davis will oversee business operations for both teams, the club said.
UPDATE: Also on Wednesday, the Chicago Red Stars board of directors voted to oust club owner and founder Arnim Whisler as its chairman, as pressure continued to mount on enablers of abuse across the NWSL — including in Portland.