One year after going public about abuse, manipulation, and inappropriate behavior by a Canada national team coach, former player Ciara McCormack’s fire is still burning even if the country’s governing body continues to ignore the issue.
A blog post by McCormack 12 months ago shined a light on how Canada Soccer – the governing body of the sport in the country – and Major League Soccer club Vancouver Whitecaps had failed to adequately address decade-long allegations by 14 high-level players of abuse by an elite coach working for both their organizations.
Although the coach left Canada Soccer and the Whitecaps by “mutual consent” after a flawed internal enquiry at the time, he was still allowed to continue working with female youth players in Canada.
Following poor publicity and protests by fans at the club’s apparent inaction, the Whitecaps released a report to the public in December last year that effectively absolved the club of any wrongdoing in how it had addressed the allegations of abuse.
“At the end of the day no one was held accountable for anything and a national team coach who was fired for sexually harassing players went right back into the community to coach for another 10 years,” McCormack told the Guardian. “You can do the most atrocious things and not be held accountable.”
McCormack, a Canadian-born former Ireland international, had an extensive professional career in Canada, Denmark, Norway, the United States and Australia, and played for the Vancouver Whitecaps Women until the team folded in 2012.
As reported by the Guardian, McCormack and 13 former Under-20 Canada internationals detailed events that took place in 2008 while Bob Birarda was coach of both the U-20 national team and Vancouver Whitecaps Women side.
Their allegations ranged from rubbing a player’s thigh in a car, sending sexually suggestive text messages to players, demanding one-on-one meetings with players he had cut from his team in his hotel room, and telling a player during a half-time talk how he thought her body looked in a wet white team jersey.
The Guardian’s report prompted more players and team administrators to speak out about their experience. Eden Hingwing, who played under Birarda for both the Canada women’s Under-20 international team and the Vancouver Whitecaps in 2008 said: “I watched what was a very professional environment created by the previous coach change into something extremely toxic and confusing.”
Birarda left Canada Soccer and Vancouver Whitecaps in late 2008 by “mutual consent” but was still able to coach female youth soccer teams in British Columbia without any sanctions. No criminal charges have been laid against him.
“The most valuable thing to come out of this whole experience is that it created a case study for how the system is set up to not hold anyone accountable,” McCormack said.
McCormack said that a December 2019 third-party review into the 2008 events commissioned by the Whitecaps left many questions unresolved. The review by Canadian organization Sports Law and Strategy Group cleared the Whitecaps of a “cover-up” and even though Vancouver Whitecaps is one of the largest and well-known soccer clubs in North America it only had “authority to prevent [Birarda] from coaching with the Whitecaps organization”. The report said any further sanctions on Birarda lay at the feet of Canada Soccer.
Concacaf president Victor Montagliani – president of Canada Soccer from 2012 to 2017 and vice president at the time of the 2008 allegations with specific responsibility for national teams – told the Guardian last year that national organizations do not deal with coach registrations and responsibility for Birarda lay with regional governing bodies or local clubs.
“There can be all the evidence in the world right in front of everybody and [coaches like Birarda] are not forced to answer to anybody,” McCormack said. “People quit the national team because they couldn’t cope with the sexualized environment that [Birarda] created. No one has been able to explain why [Birarda] was able to go unchecked even when his new club’s executive director worked in the Whitecaps office in 2008. Canada Soccer has never met with us. No has been forced to answer to any of this.”
“I feel good that everybody knows what happened and that this big nasty secret is out and that the spotlight has been shone on people who were operating in what they thought were dark corners,” McCormack said. “But this is a case study for how unbelievably corrupt it all is. It is not about athlete health and wellbeing. It is all just words with no substance behind it.”
McCormack said the experience of the Whitecaps and Canada U-20 team echoed that of Megan Brown, a potential Olympic-level runner who has alleged her decades-older coach at a prestigious running program at the University of Guelph groomed her for a sexual relationship. Her former coach, Dave Scott-Thomas, was suddenly fired from the university in January more than 10 years after Brown first told her story.
Speaking to Canada’s Globe and Mail, Brown said: “This is how abuse of power works … the victim has too much to lose in speaking the truth. The victim is the one who suffers, who is ostracized, who is labelled, who is forced to rebuild their life, while the person in power continues to reap the benefits of their power.”
Adds McCormack: “You can swap Canada Soccer and the Whitecaps for the University of Guelph and it is the same thing. These stories will continue. Until something significant changes, I am grateful for the experience to know that the whole system and these people don’t care. To feel silenced and squished down and made to feel so little. … I wanted to see if the report would make a difference but of course it didn’t.”
Now coaching youth soccer in Los Angeles, McCormack said that, while the Whitecaps and Canada Soccer offered no support for the 2008 players, she was overwhelmed by the response from Vancouver’s wider soccer community to their experiences.
Whitecaps fans staged protests during MLS home games last year at their club’s perceived inaction on the issue. Fans coordinated stadium walk outs mid-match joined by visiting supporters of Portland Timbers and Los Angeles FC in a show of solidarity.
“The gift this gave us was being heard and that helped healing,” McCormack said. “The community in Vancouver showed that they do care, it valued us and they were willing to take a stand. They realized people did wrong. I hated Vancouver. It was so full of bad memories but the walkouts changed things for me. It meant that I got my city back. I’m grateful for that.”