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OPINION: Sporting Kansas City betrays fans with hiring of Gavin Wilkinson

Sporting Kansas City chose winning over what’s right. By hiring Gavin Wilkinson, they potentially irreparably betrayed the trust of their fans.



Credit: Thad Bell

No other club.

You see it on the walls of Children’s Mercy Park.

You see it on Sporting Kansas City jerseys.

You see it all around Kansas City.

No other club.

Three words that have defined the relationship between fans and Sporting KC ever since the re-brand from the Kansas City Wizards. They’ve certainly defined mine. This club helped me find a community when I moved here from Los Angeles more than ten years ago. It helped me find a home.

No other club.

No other club has won an MLS Cup with a manager who also won an MLS Cup with that team as a player.

No other club has the Blue Hell as its home environment.

No other club claims its city as “The Soccer Capital of America.”

No other club hired Gavin Wilkinson as Sporting Director after he was named in the Yates report for his role in widespread misconduct in women’s soccer and failed to report a domestic violence incident involving then-Timbers player Andy Polo.

Wait, what?

Sporting Kansas City announced on January 11 that the former Portland Timbers executive had been hired as its newest front office executive. The announcement was curiously made during a mid-day press conference at the exact same time as MLS Media Day in Miami and while the United Soccer Coaches Convention was happening in Anaheim, CA. Interesting.

There was no Zoom link for national or remote media to attend or ask questions as there normally is for major club announcements. Curious.

There was no homepage banner announcing an exciting addition to the front office staff. Odd.

There was no mention of Gavin Wilkinson by name nor his new position with the club in the tweet that announced the hire. Strange.

It’s almost like Sporting KC knew this was a bad idea and did what they could to bury it.

As part of his statement on the hire, Sporting KC co-owner Mike Illig said, “Gavin is a strong principled individual worthy of a second chance that can and will represent the elevated standards and expectations of Sporting Kansas City well into the future.”

Really? So strong and principled that you tried to hide the hire from the light of day as much as possible? Something doesn’t add up.

At the introductory press conference, Peter Vermes and Mike Illig tried to hide behind the fact that a sports executive recruiting firm called Nolan Partners recommended Wilkinson as a finalist. They said they believe “people deserve a second chance, especially if they understand where they can improve and all those other things, and we saw that reflection in him.”

Peter Vermes and Mike Illig were not victims of abuse that Wilkinson ignored. They were not harmed by former Thorns coach Paul Riley because Wilkinson reportedly recommended him for another NWSL job with the Western New York Flash after being fired by the Portland. They were not abused by Andy Polo. Is it really the place of these powerful men to determine the sincerity of reflection and apology from Wilkinson? Or should that be left to women and victims of domestic and sexual abuse?

Daniel Sperry of the Kansas City Star asked a simple, yet important question of Peter Vermes during the press conference: Were any women involved in the hiring process?

“We have owners that are women, so were they consulted? This was a fast process, but it’s part of the ownership group’s vetting process and yeah, that would be it.”

That’s a lot of words just to say, “No.”

As KC Soccer Journal’s Mike Kuhn pointed out on Twitter, Sporting KC does not list any women in the ownership group on their website. It sure is convenient to be able to hide behind all those women owners when you need to justify a hiring like Wilkinson while not listing a single one on your own website.

As I mentioned Thursday on Twitter, I don’t look to my favorite sports teams to be my moral compass. I do, however, expect that they will not actively enable and perpetuate sexual abuse or willfully employ and put people in positions of power who do. That seems like a pretty low bar.

Or so I thought.

Sporting KC’s press conference announcing Wilkinson’s hire only made things worse for me. An “apology” read by Wilkinson that was carefully crafted nearly a year and a half after the Yates report came out only infuriated me more. Does apologizing and trying to take responsibility for mistakes only after you get a new job in an effort to save face really count as an apology?

This is the club whose main supporters’ group has regularly held up signs and tifos stating “All are welcome.” Does hiring someone like Gavin Wilkinson make supporters who are women feel welcome? Victims of domestic abuse? Sexual abuse?

I am not a woman. I have not experienced domestic violence or sexual abuse. And yet I feel uncomfortable and disgusted by this move. Imagine what they are going through after this announcement. Imagine what it feels like Sporting KC said to them today about their importance to the club or value as human beings. Do they feel welcome at a club who clearly chooses winning above morals and ethics?

Vermes did mention how having Wilkinson as part of the technical staff will allow him to re-focus solely on soccer. “I’m actually really excited to get a little bit of my life back,” he said.

I’m glad you are Peter. I’m glad you feel good about this move and will get some peace of mind while many fans sit here and wonder how the club they have loved for so many years could go so far astray.

In my more than a decade of watching, cheering for, and covering this club, I have seen my fair share of controversies and debates among the fan base. Never have I seen a club decision so swiftly and passionately unite the fan base the way this decision has. Only this time the damage may be irreparable. 

Will the anger and disgust from fans turn to action? Will it do anything to change the minds of Peter Vermes, Mike Illig, and Jake Reid? Would Sporting KC actually reverse course, admit their massive mistake, and part ways with Gavin Wilkinson? Only time will tell. My money is on no. If they made this decision knowing his history, I don’t know why they would reverse course now.

No other club.

I will forever be grateful to Sporting KC for making me feel welcome in Kansas City all those years ago. I will forever have fond memories watching the team I loved lift trophies, break records, and win games at Children’s Mercy Park.

But if Gavin Wilkinson remains a part of Sporting Kansas City? As long as that is the case, for me there will be no other club.

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