VANCOUVER – A group of female soccer players is calling for change amidst allegations of harassment and bullying by a former coach for the Vancouver Whitecaps and Canada Soccer.
Twelve players released a joint statement on Monday alleging they witnessed or experienced incidents of “abuse, manipulation or inappropriate behaviour” by Bob Birarda when he was the head coach of the Whitecaps women’s team and the women’s under-20 national talent pool in 2007 and 2008.
Allegations include Birarda rubbing a player’s thigh, sending players sexual text messages, making lewd comments about a player’s wet jersey and ignoring a player at practices, games and team meetings after she stopped replying to his personal messages.
Ciara McCormack was on the team in 2007 and made similar allegations in a blog post in February, saying Canada Soccer and the Whitecaps did not adequately address or investigate her concerns.
Birarda did not respond to a request for comment and the allegations have not been proven in court.
The Whitecaps and Canada Soccer issued separate statements on Monday saying that concerns about behaviour within their programs in 2008 were investigated and after the investigation was complete, the organizations parted ways with the coach.
The Whitecaps statement goes on to say the club is concerned that details in the athletes’ statement did not come forward in 2008 and that the Whitecaps have since contacted police in Vancouver to see if further action is required.
Andrea Neil, one of Canada’a most decorated soccer stars, issued a statement last week saying that she began hearing “rumours and stories” about trouble within the 2008 U20 squad shortly after her time with the national team ended.
“What happened in 2008 was not right. People got emotionally hurt, and all of us have a responsibility to do something about that,” she said.
Eden Hingwing is one of the 12 players behind the statement released on Monday. She said the group decided to speak out about their experiences to help push for change.
“My reason for participating is because I believe silence allows unacceptable behaviour to continue,” she said in an email.
The group said that some of the women decided to come forward more than 10 years later because they didn’t know Birarda was still coaching.
Coastal FC, a B.C.-based club which had Birarda as a coach since 2008, issued a statement in March saying that a coach had been suspended pending a review of “specific allegations.”
The athletes’ statement also says most of the players were not interviewed for an investigation or given a platform to talk about Birarda’s alleged behaviour.
“No third-party organization, nor the authorities, stepped in to provide an outlet for these conversations,” the statement says. “There was never any follow-up to ensure the health and safety of the athletes on our team.”
The athletes are calling on Canada Soccer and the Whitecaps to address what happened in 2008 through a full, independent investigation and they want the findings to be made public.
The women have also requested that Canada Soccer and the Whitecaps implement new policies around the bullying, harassment and abuse of athletes.
“Coaches who have behaved inappropriately with players or who demonstrate a pattern of abusive behaviour should not be allowed to retain their coaching licenses,” the statement says.
But McCormack, who wrote the February blog post alleging wrongdoing by Birarda, the Whitecaps and Canada Soccer, wants change to go beyond new policies. “The fact is, if no one’s being held accountable and making sure they’re enforced then it’s just words on a piece of paper or words on a website,” she said by phone from Nova Scotia on Monday.
Since posting her blog, McCormack said she’s heard a barrage of similar stories about sports officials other than Birarda from various athletes across the country.
“It just feels like it’s a really broken system. It’s not just a soccer problem or a West Coast problem,” she said. “A lot of bullying, a lot of harassment stuff.”
An independent body should be created to deal with such complaints and act as a watchdog for athletes, she said.
The federal government unveiled plans last month for an investigation unit and confidential help line to help athletes who’ve experienced harassment, abuse or discrimination.
Something tangible needs to come out of the current discussion around abuse in sport, McCormack said.
“It’s time for real change and not just more policies or lip service or declarations,” she said. “As a society, I think we genuinely need to do better for the youth of this country in sport because there’s just too many stories. One story is too many stories and there’s far more than one story.”