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Canzano: Merritt Paulson selling Portland Thorns franchise
Owner speaks out in a 1-on-1 interview.
Merritt Paulson blew it. He failed the women on his professional soccer team in a multitude of ways. The owner of the Portland Thorns told me on Wednesday in a 1-on-1 interview that he can no longer effectively govern the franchise he built.
Paulson is selling the Thorns.
What would he say to the women he left at the mercy of ex-coach Paul Riley, who allegedly groomed and sexually abused his players?
“I don’t know if I’d be able to start with anything but ‘I’m sorry.’” Paulson said. “There’s no excuse for that coach ever working another day. He shouldn’t have been working to begin with and certainly never should have worn a Portland Thorns badge.
“We could have done more and we could have done better and they were failed by institutions and people.”
We? Institutions? People?
Were the women failed by Paulson himself?
“Yeah,” he said. “… to say I regret that would be an understatement.”
I spoke with Paulson in a 20-minute interview. It will air today at 3 p.m. on my statewide radio show (750-AM in Portland). It’s worth your time. We sorted through the wreckage of his mistakes, poor judgment, the NWSL’s systemic issues, and in the end, it looked like a pile of betrayal.
The conversation with Paulson got me thinking about one I had with him a few years before Paul Allen’s death. Paulson, who held hopes of one day owning the Trail Blazers, flew to Seattle to meet with Portland’s billionaire NBA owner.
“Buying an NBA franchise,” Paulson told me at the time, “isn’t like buying a house. Paul has to want to sell me the team.”
At the time, Paulson was the city’s biggest hope, wasn’t he?
He worked under Commissioner David Stern in the NBA league office. He still considers Adam Silver, Stern’s successor, a friend. Paulson’s father — Henry — was on the dollar bill in our pocket, for cryin’ out loud. He served as the former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury under President Bush and ran Goldman Sachs.
Merritt Paulson may have been born on third base, but he was going to turn it into a home run. He wasn’t just going to be the guy who brought Major League Soccer to Portland. He wasn’t just going to be the owner who launched the Thorns and turned them into the greatest success story in women’s professional sports. He was going to buy the Trail Blazers and make them a small-market power.
That dream died, too, didn’t it?
“I don’t know,” he said on Wednesday. “I’ve been so focused on soccer and passionate about soccer. This has been a tumultuous year for so many people and us. Certainly, it’s been a painful year and a growing year. I’ve never been more challenged than I have over this last year. I’ve just got my hands full focused on making sure we do the right things.”
Paulson said he’s donating $1 million to found the NWSL’s “player safety” office. He’s already poured $120 million of private money into Portland’s publicly owned stadium. Paulson removed himself as CEO of the Timbers, but said he’ll make sure the Thorns new ownership group gets favorable lease terms and remains in the stadium.
Paul Riley was a bad actor.
He had some help, though.
Broken NWSL culture. Paulson and his management team. Bad legal advice.
Paulson fired Riley just eight days after the franchise learned of the sex-abuse allegations. But then swept the reasons for the coach’s dismissal under the rug. Paulson said he regrets the lack of transparency and wishes he’d handled it differently.
“We knew he was a bad guy and never should have said anything positive publicly or privately — me or anybody else,” Paulson said.
He’s selling the team now.
“I truly believe it’s what’s best for the Thorns,” he said.
Is selling the Thorns enough? Admitting he was wrong? Telling the world that he’s learned and will do better? I’m always interested in whether one human will give another a chance to exit the road to perdition.
Holding onto the Timbers is a signal that Paulson wants to stay relevant. MLS Commissioner Don Garber is backing him, too. Garber said in a statement on Thursday morning: “I am confident the Timbers will continue to be a successful MLS club in the years ahead.”
For some, it won’t be enough that Merritt Paulson isn’t letting go of the Timbers, too. For the survivors, I don’t know if there’s anything he could do to unwind the damage. Paulson didn’t want to focus Wednesday on whether there’s a path back for him.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
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