Bill Oram: Merritt Paulson is delaying the inevitable with incremental gestures


One wonders what Merritt Paulson’s next concession will be as he shuffles along the path to the inevitable.

Only going to the office on Tuesdays, Thursdays and every other Friday? Turning over his parking pass and paying at the meter? Writing “I will take accountability for my actions” on a chalkboard until his hand gets a little sore?

Tuesday’s announcement that he will step down as CEO of the Portland Timbers and Thorns is another empty gesture from an owner unaccustomed to being told he can’t have what he wants exactly the way he wants it.

He sent himself to his room but is still in the house.

Paulson may have thought this would quiet the calls for him to sell the clubs, but it has only amplified them.

“As long as Merritt Paulson is an owner with a financial stake in the club, he is still in a position of power and control,” the Timbers Army and Rose City Riveters said Tuesday in a joint statement. “We continue to call for the sale of both teams.”

It is the only option.

My job as a columnist is to find a fresh perspective on this. I hate that I am repeating my past columns by calling for Paulson to sell. But then I think of the victims, and how relentless they had to be as they pleaded for accountability for nearly a decade. And the supporters, who showed up to every match to cheer and to protest even when it felt like nobody was listening.

They are listening now. But has Paulson truly heard it?

Resigning as CEO is an effective illusion, giving the impression of meaningful progress when nothing is actually changing. Paulson once again hopes you don’t look too closely or aren’t paying careful attention.

Under the new arrangement, Paulson will walk the same halls as when he was CEO, work among the same employees as when he was CEO, and retain ultimate say on team matters — just like when he was CEO.

The new CEO will report to the former CEO, so you tell me: Who is really the chief executive?

That job will belong to Paulson, no matter what he calls it, until he calls it quits.

It would be impossible for him not to have influence. He exerts it with his mere presence, casting a long, chilling shadow over both clubs.

The statement announcing that he would be “removing” himself as CEO fell painfully short because it did not include these obvious words: “… while I begin the process of identifying a local buyer who will continue to invest in and carry forward the vision of the Portland Timbers and Thorns.”

That needs to be Paulson’s only task going forward.

He can’t possibly believe it is best for Portland soccer that he owns the teams. But he can use his remaining days to find an owner who will love the clubs as much as he claims to. An owner who will not let that love blind him or her to the need for real leadership and accountability.

I am sure Paulson would love to undo the damage that has been done under his watch. To go back in time and fix his mistakes. Tuesday’s mea culpa was a direct and unmitigated apology from a wounded man coming to understand his own role in a tragedy.

“Our organization’s failures and mistakes were ultimately my responsibility,” Paulson wrote, “and my responsibility alone.”

It was just too late. There is no going back.

Where was this level of accountability when Mana Shim reported the abhorrent behavior of Paul Riley to the organization? Where was it when Riley was being considered for new coaching jobs? Where was it when the allegations against Riley became public last year? Where was it when Andy Polo was first accused of domestic assault and when former employees spoke out against the workplace behavior of Mike Golub?

Since the Sally Yates report was released last week, Paulson has incrementally upped his offer to the clubs’ fans and the city of Portland as he has searched for forgiveness.

Like a stingy shopper bartering at the Saturday Market: “What if I give you this? Is that enough? How about now?”

Just a week ago he thought leaving himself, Golub and Gavin Wilkinson in charge of the Timbers while awaiting a report from the NWSL would be an adequate response to the years’ worth of missteps. Then he thought firing Wilkinson and Golub was enough.

Now, another tepid step forward, hoping to find himself on solid ground.

But it won’t be as long as he is still signing the checks.

How can anyone believe Paulson is investing in the process of healing when he was present for the infliction of so many wounds?

I’ve said it before and will again and again and again: He must sell.

It is the only acceptable conclusion to this sad saga.

This would hardly be some punishment for Paulson, who will clear hundreds of millions of dollars in any deal, which must include both clubs.

Selling the Thorns separately should be a non-starter. The partnership between the two clubs has been Paulson’s greatest gift to women’s soccer. If he is focused on the long-term health of the Thorns, then he would not dare untether them from the Timbers.

Paulson understands how vital the Thorns and the city of Portland are to the viability of women’s soccer. He fought to keep the league afloat in 2017.

He said on Tuesday his goal for the Thorns was “creating the shining example of what a women’s sports team could be.”

The club can still be that.

But it never will be with Paulson at the top.

Bill Oram | boram@oregonian.com | Twitter: @billoram





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