The Gavin Wilkinson era is over at Sporting Kansas City, an eight-day stretch that sparked a fan backlash like few MLS signings have seen. On Friday, the club's principal owner, Michael Illig, announced that the club had “mutually agreed with Gavin Wilkinson to relieve him of his recently announced role.”
After his tenure as general manager and president of the Portland Timbers and Thorns, Wilkinson's hiring was met with criticism from the team's fan base. Portland fired Wilkinson near the end of the 2022 season after separate investigations into the organizations' handling of misconduct by players or coaches.
Fans expressed their displeasure in the week following news that Sporting Kansas City was hiring Wilkinson, rallying behind the social media hashtag #GWOut, with several canceling their season tickets.
“In making this difficult decision, we would first like to recognize the passion of our fans, our support community, our partners and our stakeholders,” Illig’s statement continued. “Together they form our esteemed Sporting family. Our actions today demonstrate our longstanding, unequivocal respect for their voices and the belief that we are all stronger when we listen to each other.
“We conducted a thorough and comprehensive process to determine our new athletic director. It was based on the deep-rooted principles and standards that we have adhered to since taking over the team.
“Nevertheless, the passionate response from our fans affirmed a fundamental philosophy that has driven us since day one: honoring and protecting our valued relationships. With that in mind, we are taking this action today reflecting our enduring appreciation for our unmatched SKC fans and our Kansas City community.”
Wilkinson served as the Portland clubs' football president after joining the organization in 2001 and recommended former Thorns coach Paul Riley for a position with the Western New York Flash, despite being aware of allegations of sexual assault by several Thorns players had. Years later, he and the Timbers organization failed to report a citation against winger Andy Polo after police were called about a domestic violence incident. Although Wilkinson remained in the role following an MLS-commissioned investigation, he was later fired in the wake of the Sally Yates report.
Wilkinson spoke to Timbers fans at a town hall event on April 22, 2022, in the period between the league-commissioned investigation and the results of the Yates report. After half an hour of answering questions on the field, he was asked by a fan if the Portland hierarchy “felt there was a lot of cover-up.” Wilkinson's response focused on his involvement in the coercion allegations and failure to report the domestic violence allegation.
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“Allegations are one thing, and at some point facts have to matter to me personally,” Wilkinson said. “So when we blow what we think is a story out of proportion and then that gets momentum – and then social media and an echo chamber – when we want to figure out what we think the flaws are,” rather than the facts to hear it will create problems. It ruined my experience. It ruined my family's life in Portland. So I have compassion and lived it.”
In announcing Wilkinson last week, Sporting said it had worked with sports consultancy Nolan Partners to fill the role of sporting director. On Thursday morning, The Athletic reached out to Nolan Partners for comment on what their process found regarding Wilkinson's time in Portland and whether such a response was to be expected. Nolan Partners did not respond to this request before the club parted ways with Wilkinson.
In a press conference after his hiring at Sporting KC, Wilkinson said there was a “lapse in judgment” in Portland and “I should have done more.”
“I think I've learned that I'm not perfect, but I've never met a perfect person,” he said. “And you know, being in a very public spotlight, of course everyone can have an opinion, everyone can make a judgment, and I just hope that the fans look at the facts and I have plenty of opportunity to do that at City Hall and City Hall other initiatives to get in touch with people and also answer questions.
“And then it’s up to them to decide.”
The loudest backlash from fans has come from the Ladies of SKC, a group of women and men with the stated goal of “growing the game, building community and supporting our SKC family as best we can” since Wilkinson's appointment seeing her on local television news and interviews with local media. They had planned a protest for Saturday at the Sporting KC warehouse sale.
Shortly before Illig's statement, the group was interviewed by the independent Kansas City Soccer Journal, in which they called Wilkinson's hiring “a slap in the face” to a club they have done so much for.
“That attitude made us decide that we’re going to go out and fight the good fight,” Ladies of SKC member Brandy Peed said on the “Shades of Blue” podcast, “because we don’t think he should be a part of it .” Sporting community.
“For me personally, I see this as a slap in the face. This man had many chances to protect the players, but he didn't. Even in his press conference with Sporting he mentioned that he should have done better and that he deserves a second chance, but he had many chances to protect these women – and he chose not to and continued to do so.”
Sporting Kansas City declined to comment further beyond Friday's statement. The club is expected to bring in a replacement to strengthen its backroom sports team.
An MLS spokesman also declined to comment on the situation between Wilkinson and Sporting Kansas City.
(Photo: Diego Diaz / Icon Sportswire via AP)