The Gavin Wilkinson era is over at Sporting Kansas City, an eight-day period that sparked fan backlash like few MLS hires have elicited. On Friday, club principal owner Michael Illig announced that the club had “mutually agreed with Gavin Wilkinson to release him from his recently announced role.”
Wilkinson’s hire was met with criticism by the team’s fan base following his tenure as general manager and president of the Portland Timbers and Thorns. Portland fired Wilkinson near the end of the 2022 season following separate investigations into the organizations’ handling of player or coach misconduct.
Fans expressed their dissent in the week following the news of Sporting Kansas City hiring Wilkinson, rallying behind the social media hashtag #GWOut with several canceling their season tickets.
“In making this difficult decision, we want to first acknowledge the passion of our fans, our community of supporters, our partners and our stakeholders,” Illig’s statement continued. “Together, they comprise our deeply valued Sporting family. Our action today demonstrates our longstanding, unequivocal respect for their voices, and the belief that we are all stronger when we listen to one another.
“We ran a diligent and exhaustive process to identify our new sporting director. It was grounded in the deeply held principles and standards we have adhered to since the day we acquired the team.
“That said, the impassioned response from our fans reinforced to us a fundamental philosophy that has driven us since day one: to honor and protect our valued relationships. It is in that spirit that we take this action today, reflective of our abiding appreciation for our unrivaled SKC fans and our Kansas City community.”
Serving as the Portland clubs’ president of soccer after joining the organization in 2001, Wilkinson had recommended former Thorns coach Paul Riley for a position with the Western New York Flash despite being aware of sexual coercion allegations made by multiple Thorns players. Years later, he and the Timbers organization failed to report a citation issued to winger Andy Polo after police were called to handle a domestic violence incident. Although Wilkinson stayed in that role following an MLS-commissioned investigation, he was later dismissed in the wake of the Sally Yates report.
Wilkinson spoke to Timbers fans as part of a town hall event on April 22, 2022, in the period between the league-commissioned investigation and the findings of the Yates report. After half an hour of fielding on-field questions, he was asked by a fan about “a perception that there’s been a lot of cover-up” by Portland’s hierarchy. Wilkinson’s response centered on his involvement in both the coercion allegations and the failure to report the domestic violence citation.
Contextualizing the Timbers’ optics battle in the Andy Polo saga
“Allegations are one thing, and at some stage, for me personally, facts have to matter,” Wilkinson said. “So if we’re gonna take what we believe to be a story and blow it out of proportion and then that’s gonna get momentum — and then social media and an echo chamber — if we’re gonna identify what we think the flaws are rather than listening to the facts, it’s gonna create issues. It’s ruined my experience. It’s ruined my family’s life in Portland. So I sympathize and I’ve lived it.”
In announcing Wilkinson last week, Sporting stated that they worked with sports search firm Nolan Partners to fill the sporting director role. On Thursday morning, The Athletic contacted Nolan Partners for comment on what their process found regarding Wilkinson’s time in Portland and if this sort of reaction was expected. Nolan Partners did not return this inquiry before the club parted ways with Wilkinson.
In a news conference after his Sporting KC hire, Wilkinson said there was an “error of judgment” in Portland and “I should have done more.”
“I think I’ve learned I’m not perfect, but I’ve never met a perfect person,” he said. “And you know, with me being in a very public spotlight, obviously, everyone can have an opinion, everyone can pass judgment and I’m just hopeful that fans will look at the facts and I will have plenty of opportunity with town hall and other initiatives to relate to folks and answer questions as well.
“And then it’s up to them to make their mind up.”
The loudest supporter backlash came from the Ladies of SKC, a group of women and men with a stated goal “to grow the game, to build community and to support our SKC family however we can.” Since Wilkinson’s appointment, they’ve been visible in local television news reports and interviews with local written outlets. They had scheduled a protest to take place Saturday at the Sporting KC warehouse sale.
Just before Illig’s statement, the group was interviewed by the independent Kansas City Soccer Journal, where they described Wilkinson’s hiring as “a slap in the face” from a club they’ve done so much to support.
“This hiring has made us decide that we’re gonna get out there and fight the good fight,” Ladies of SKC member Brandy Peed said on the Shades of Blue podcast, “because we don’t think that he should be part of the Sporting community.
“For me, personally, I feel like it’s a slap in the face. This man had many chances to protect the players and he didn’t. Even in his press conference with Sporting, he mentioned that he should’ve done better and he deserves a second chance, but he had many chances to protect these women — and he chose not to, and he continued to do it.”
Sporting Kansas City declined to add further comment beyond Friday’s statement. The club is expected to make a replacement hire to fortify its backroom sporting staff.
MLS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
(Photo: Diego Diaz / Icon Sportswire via AP)
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