More turmoil has gripped Portland Thorns FC after Rhian Wilkinson announced on Friday that he is stepping down 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 step down following a joint investigation by the NWSL and the NWSL Players Association.
“During my time as manager of Thorns, a player and I formed a friendship that turned into more complex emotions. In mid-October the player shared her feelings with me and I reciprocated. Although this was a human moment, went no further than this expression of mutual feelings. In an effort to follow the NWSL and NWSLPA processes to protect player safety and to be as transparent as possible, the player and I immediately stopped spending time at the outside of training together and soon after we cut off all communication outside of work. In less than a week, I reported to HR to make sure I hadn’t crossed any ethical lines.”
Wilkerson and Menges knew each other when they were both players at 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 England women’s national team before being hired as Thorns’ head coach in 2021.
Wilkerson led Portland to a 2022 championship with a 10-3-9 record in his freshman year.
When other Thorns players 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 saying they felt “upset and insecure” about a coach that she may be having an affair with a player after speaking with Thorns interim CEO Heather Davis.
According to the Athletic, the letter said:
“As you know, there are several potential power imbalances that arise when a manager fraternizes with a player, not only due to the impact of the relationship on the player’s professional status, but also due to the potential age difference between manager 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 club employees are already under threat of potential retaliation since we came forward with our concerns.”
Although the investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing, Wilkerson told The Athletic he felt he had lost the trust of the dressing room, despite his original intentions to stay on as head coach.
“Once you lose the dressing room, which I have, there’s no going back,” said Wilkerson. don’t communicate with me. And that part I can live with When the locker room – whatever the reason – is gone, it’s gone.
Menges, who sits on the NWSLPA board of directors, spoke to The Athletic about this investigation and the more pervasive issue of misconduct that has rocked the team and the NWSL recently.
“It was a painful time,” Menges said. “The players have been through so much in two years, and I feel like this is a huge consequence of the trauma that has occurred and the reaction. These players have had to clean up the league and feel responsible for it, and I understand that part.”
Menges is speaking about the Yates investigation in October, which found Thorns owner Merritt Paulson and other club officials did nothing to stop former head coach Paul Riley from allegedly sexually assaulting several players. Paulson announced Thursday that he intends to sell the Thorns in the wake of that investigation and its findings.
While the situation of Wilkerson and Menges is very different, the results have been the same. Menges believes that the trial with his case, however, could be different to end with a different resolution.
“Not only must the process be known to coaches and players when something bad is happening, but there must be a process that is disseminated and taught to people for when something normal or accidental is happening, or if it is found out that no policy has been violated, as in this case, then there is not this massive repercussion,” Menges said. “Instead there is this path to resolve the situation without anyone’s reputation [being hurt]without major interruptions. As in a normal workplace. It happens all the time.”