Thorns coach Rhian Wilkinson resigns after investigation for which she was cleared; players asked her to step down

More tumult hit Portland Thorns FC after Rhian Wilkinson announced Friday that she will resign as head coach.

Wilkinson explained in a statement that her decision came after she and Thorns defender Emily Menges "formed a friendship that turned into more complex emotions" and Thorns players asked Wilkinson to resign following a joint NWSL and NWSL Players Association investigation.

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"During my time as the Thorns coach, a player and I formed a friendship that turned into more complex emotions. In mid-October the player shared her feelings to me, and I reciprocated. While this was a human moment, it went no further than this expression of feelings for one another. In an effort to follow NWSL and NWSLPA processes to protect player safety, and to be as transparent as possible, the player and I immediately stopped spending time outside of training together, and soon after stopped all communication outside of work. In less than a week, I reported myself to human resources to make sure I had not crossed any ethical lines."

Wilkerson and Menges knew each other when they were both players for Portland in 2015. Wilkerson then spent time as an assistant at the University of Tennessee, with the Canadian women's national team and with the English women's national team before being hired as the Thorns' head coach in 2021.

Wilkerson led Portland to a 2022 championship with a 10-3-9 record in her first year.

When other players on the Thorns found out about the investigation and its findings, they reportedly sent a letter to NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman and NWSL chief legal officer Bill Ordower stating that they felt "unsettled and unsafe" about a coach possibly having a relationship with a player after speaking with Thorns interim CEO Heather Davis.

According to the Athletic, the letter read:

"As you know, there are several potential power imbalances that are created when a coach fraternizes with a player, not only due to the impact of the relationship on the player’s professional status, but also because of the potential age difference between coach and player, as well as the coach’s status as an authority figure. And, we also know that these power imbalances exist regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

“We believe that employees of the club are already being threatened with potential retaliation since we have come forward with our concerns."

Although the investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing, Wilkerson told The Athletic that she felt she lost the trust of the locker room, despite her original intentions to stay on as head coach.

“Once you’ve lost the locker room, which I have, there’s no return," Wilkerson said. "So that’s why I recognized my time in Portland couldn’t be salvaged a long time ago, because there were players who just wouldn’t communicate with me. And that part I can live with. When the locker room — whatever reason — is gone, it’s gone.”

Menges, who sits on the board of the NWSLPA, spoke to The Athletic about this investigation and the more pervasive issue of misconduct that has rattled the team and NWSL recently.

“It’s been a painful time,” Menges said. “The players have been through so much in two years, and I do feel like this is a huge consequence of the trauma that has been happening and the reaction. These players have had to clean up the league and they feel responsible for it, and I do get that part.”

Menges is talking about the Yates investigation from October, which found that Thorns owner Merritt Paulson and other club executives did nothing to prevent former Thorns head coach Paul Riley from allegedly sexually assaulting several players. Paulson announced Thursday that he plans to sell the Thorns in the wake of that investigation and its findings.

While Wilkerson and Menges' situation is very different, the results were the same. Menges believes the process with her case, though, could be different to conclude with a different resolution.

“Not only does the process have to be known to coaches and players when something bad is going on, but there has to be a process that is spread and taught to people for when something okay or accidental is going on, or if it is found out that no policies were breached, like in this case, then there is not this massive repercussion," Menges said. "Instead there’s this pathway to kind of resolve the situation without anybody’s reputation [being hurt], without any big disruption. Like in a normal workplace. Happens all the time.”

Rhian Wilkinson resigned as head coach of Portland Thorns FC following an investigation into workplace misconduct. (Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
Rhian Wilkinson resigned as head coach of Portland Thorns FC following an investigation into workplace misconduct. (Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)