Why anthem singer for Portland Timbers challenged the club
Madison Shanley has been singing the national anthem at Portland Timbers games since 2009. She’s done the same for the Portland Thorns since the team’s inaugural season in 2013, estimating she’s sung the anthem at games 15-20 times a season. But Sunday’s rendition prior to the matchup between the Timbers and the LA Galaxy was like no other performance.
Shanley, 27, wore a red shirt emblazoned with the words “You Knew,” and instead of a run-of-the-mill anthem performance, it became a day Shanley describes as filled with confrontation, anxiety and what she feels was the Timbers organization’s attempt to silence her.
The phrase “You Knew” has become a rallying cry for fans of both the Timbers and the NWSL’s Portland Thorns in the wake of two instances where the Timbers/Thorns organization was criticized for mishandling allegations that employees engaged in the abuse of women. Last September, The Athletic reported that Paul Riley, the manager of the Thorns in 2015, engaged in the sexual coercion of two players. After one of the players reported what took place to the Thorns front office, Riley’s contract wasn’t renewed, but the circumstances were kept quiet, and he went on to coach elsewhere in the NWSL.
The words have gained increasing resonance this year after it emerged that in May of 2021, then-Timbers midfielder Andy Polo was cited by the Washington County Sheriff’s Department “for harassment after grabbing” the wrist of his estranged wife, Génessis Alarcón. The citation is classified as a B misdemeanor, but the Timbers never reported the incident to MLS, as is required by the league’s constitution. Polo was ultimately released by Portland, but that was only after Alarcón had gone public with her accusations. She later alleged that the Timbers tried to get her to drop the charges in exchange for financial compensation. Neither Alarcón nor the Washington County District Attorney’s office decided to pursue charges against Polo, with the DA citing lack of evidence, but the damage had been done.
The two incidents had become personal for Shanley given that she is a survivor of sexual assault and domestic violence from an incident that took place in 2015.
“I have really strong feelings about perpetuation of behaviors and lack of consequences and accountability when it comes to inappropriate actions,” Shanley told ESPN in reference to the two incidents involving the Portland organization.
When the Riley incident was first reported last October, Shanley wore a black shirt with the “You Knew” phrase in white lettering to a Thorns game on Oct. 6, 2021, in which she performed the anthem. “I got a little bit of involvement on social media, but just insane support from all over,” she said. “But no backlash from the organization itself, which I was grateful for, but also prepared for.”
The Timbers’ subsequent handling of the Polo situation hit closer to home and resonated with Shanley’s own personal experience, one in which she went through the court system. “It causes you to relive the trauma of facing your abuser on a public level,” she said. “I can’t even imagine the experience that someone goes through and then to continue seeing that person’s face and seeing that person you know, play the sport and not have the organization that they work for not make any statements in support of this person. It just all seems so difficult.”
MLS launched an investigation into the Timbers’ handling of Polo incident. The investigation was conducted by the firm Proskauer Rose, which has a longstanding business relationship with MLS. The investigation’s report concluded that the Timbers did not induce or pressure Alarcón to forego charges against Polo, as she had alleged. This was despite the fact that a lawyer retained by the Timbers to represent Polo, Christine Mascal, met with Alarcón, and according to an audio recording of the meeting not only discussed the amount of financial support from Polo to Alarcón and her children, but Mascal said she hoped Alarcón wouldn’t press charges.
The investigation into the Timbers also concluded that the reason the organization failed to report the Polo incident to the league was due to a lack of knowledge of league rules and wasn’t intended as a cover-up. The league fined the Timbers $25,000.
Ahead of Sunday’s game, Shanley ordered a new version of the “You Knew” shirt that was set to benefit the Rose Haven Day Center for women and children, and felt clarity on what she needed to do. “I received my shirt and I thought, ‘You know what? I need to wear this on the pitch.” But the reaction from the organization was different. Shanley arrived at Providence Park about an hour before kickoff, where she was greeted by staff. They asked how she was doing, and Shanley admitted she was feeling some anxiety because of the shirt.
“Then it quickly escalated,” she said. Shanley said she was about 20 minutes away from performing when she got a frantic voicemail and texts from her father, Terry.
Terry Shanley and Timbers President of Business Mike Golub are friends from having served together on what was then known as the Oregon Sports Authority. Madison was told by her father that Golub called the wearing of the shirt “a middle finger to the organization.”
Madison recalled how her father expressed his concern and told her that Golub was asking her to not wear the shirt. The pressure, she felt, began to rise. “It hit me really hard, because I didn’t want to disappoint him,” she said of her father. “I didn’t want to put him in a position where he was risking a relationship with Mike Golub and he had developed some friendship with him.” But Madison said she was prepared to move forward. Terry Shanley then relayed to Golub that his daughter is a grown woman and that if he needed to speak to her, Golub should do so. “I don’t need to go through my dad to make a decision,” Madison Shanley said with a laugh. She added, “It felt really backwards that they spoke to [my dad] before they spoke to me.”
Golub told ESPN that he didn’t have Shanley’s number and figured her father was with her at the stadium, as is normally the case, which is why he chose to call him first.
Golub added, “When we learned just prior to the game that Madison, who’s a longtime on-field representative of the club, was intending to wear something that we perceived as inaccurate and harmful to the organization, we felt it was warranted to have a conversation with her and share our feelings. And subsequent to the conversation into her choosing to wear the shirt, she’s been invited back to sing for the Timbers and/or Thorns.”
That meeting with Golub took place about 10 minutes before she was to perform. Golub asked if she read the results of an investigation MLS had commissioned via the law firm Proskauer Rose. Had she listened to the recordings made by the victim of a meeting with Timbers representatives? Was she aware of the initiatives the Timbers announced in the investigation’s aftermath? She said she was comfortable with the amount of information she had accumulated, including having read MLS’s report, and listening to excerpts of the recordings.
“I was firm in my decision, and I told him that I was willing to risk my relationship with the organization, if that’s the consequence of my action,” she said.
Golub then said he would like to meet with her at a later time so the Timbers could present their side, which she accepted. She was able to perform as scheduled, but the exchange left her with one overriding thought.
“If the organization were to apply the energy they’re using to silence their followers — including me — [to instead] hold people accountable, I think that would be the better option for the greater good,” she said. “It seems that they’re applying a lot of energy to denying claims. It seems really counterintuitive that the organization put out their initiatives, which is clear about presenting an opportunity for people to use their voice and get their feedback, but when I use my platform, and try to give my feedback, I’m urged not to.
“It’s a really confusing message. It’s counterintuitive to their initiatives that they’re presenting to the public.”
All of this did little to help Shanley’s preparation. A song she had performed in public countless times before was fraught with anxiety over making a public statement and being confronted by Golub.
As she sang the anthem, Shanley said she had difficulty keeping things together.
“There were a couple moments where I almost lost it,” she said. “And I just kept telling myself, ‘Madison, just get through this, 90 seconds, 90 seconds. It’s almost over. It’ll be okay. You’re fine.’ And then after I hit the last note, I walked off the field.” At which point, Shanley said she burst into tears, and rather than stay to watch the game, she left immediately. One of the Timbers ticket reps asked if she was coming back, but more in the sense of whether or not she’d need to get back inside the stadium that day. She said she didn’t know if she would be back.
“It was kind of a bigger question than what he was asking,” she said.
Shanley says she’s still in the team’s rotation for anthem singers, something she’s “shocked” by. She is scheduled to perform the anthem again in two weeks.
“My plan was to continue wearing this shirt until real change is enacted. As long as I’m allowed on the pitch, and until real accountability is taken, I’ll be wearing this.”
When asked if she’s concerned the Timbers will change their mind, she says, “I wouldn’t say I’m concerned. But if they have a change of heart, I’m prepared.”