A Vancouver Whitecaps fan group is taking a stand in response to abuse allegations concerning the organization dating back more than a decade that have now drawn international media attention.
After meeting with former Whitecaps women’s players Ciara McCormack and Eden Hingwing on Monday night, the Southsiders supporters group has announced that they are planning a “limited walk-out” during the team’s next match Wednesday at BC Place.
“As a result of hearing directly from [McCormack and Hingwing], we feel compelled to express ourselves to show a visible sign of our anger and disgust at how these women were treated, and the continued silence from the same Whitecaps executives responsible for the original insufficient actions of the club,” Southsiders vice president Paul Sabourin-Hertzog told Daily Hive.
The Southsiders will leave their seats during the 35th minute as a protest, and invite other fans to follow suit, as the supporters plan to watch the final 10 minutes of the first half from the concourse.
The protest is in response to abuse allegations first raised publicly by McCormack in a February 25 blog post, which alleges misconduct and inappropriate behaviour by a former coach.
“In 2005-2008, if you were female and wanted to play for Canada, you essentially had to play for the Vancouver Whitecaps,” McCormack explained in the blog. “This gave the coaches and the organization an unhealthy amount of power.”
She outlined some of the alleged behaviour by the coach which included witnessing him “bully a friend into hysterical sobbing,” and said he would make “inappropriate sexually charged comments to players.”
McCormack alleged that some of the players had meetings in their bikinis sitting on his bed at the CONCACAF qualifiers in Mexico in June 2008, and that he would allegedly send “sexual innuendo-filled text messages” to their teammates.
The coach, later confirmed by McCormack to be Bob Birarda, was suspended by Coastal FC pending an investigation launched after the blog post became public.
Of paramount concern is not only the alleged abusive behaviour by Birarda or any other coaches at the time, but also a perceived lack of response by people in power.
Birarda was eventually let go from both the Vancouver Whitecaps and Canadian Soccer Association after a 2008 investigation, but the move was announced publicly as a “mutual decision.”
The coach was also allowed to return to coaching elite girl’s teams.
Longtime former Canadian national team member Andrea Neil backed McCormack’s allegations in a statement posted on her website on March 26.
“As someone who experienced some of what happened with the investigation, I feel I need to add my voice to Ciara’s as she continues to challenge some of the systemic issues within the world of youth sport here in BC and beyond,” said Neil. “I do not believe that the system supported Ciara and her teammates back then and, although I hope I’m wrong, I do not believe the system functions any better today.
“So, like Ciara, I have some questions.”
On April 1, 13 women from the 2007-2008 U20 Canadian national team pool released a joint statement outlining specific damning allegations concerning Birarda.
“We come forward 10 years later because: some of us didn’t know he was still coaching, and we all look back at our experience with Canada Soccer and the Vancouver Whitecaps and think the situation should have been handled differently,” read the statement.
“During our time as part of the U20’s, we each witnessed incidents of abuse, manipulation, or inappropriate behaviour toward players.”
The women gave five examples of the alleged behaviour, outlined below:
Example 1: On the way to training, Player witnessed Bob rubbing a teammate’s thigh while in the car.
Example 2: Player was not in the starting 11 for the U20 pool. Near the end of camp Bob invited her into his hotel room for a meeting (one-on-one) and shut the door behind them. He acknowledged she was not a starter, then asked her “what are you going to do about it?” She dismissed herself from the team soon after.
Example 3: Player was shown text messages that her teammate received from Bob, which included sexual connotation in regards to driving close behind her.
Example 4: Bob held meetings one-on-one with Player in coffee shop. The meetings consisted of “small talk” and Bob wanting validation about his appearance and personality. Bob later requested meetings to be held in his apartment, Player thought it was inappropriate. Player began ignoring the messages. He implied that she had to be a “team player.” Once Player stopped replying to text messages, he ignored her in team meetings, at practices, and games. When the internal investigation began, Bob asked Player to meet in the coffee shop, where he became emotional and asked the her not to tell anyone about their previous conversations.
Example 5: Bob started communicating with Player extensively over text message. Conversations became more and more inappropriate (sexual in nature). Bob blamed Player for “putting a spell” on him with her looks, maturity, and talent. At half time during a game, Bob told Player how good her body looked in the wet, white jersey – and that he chose for the team to wear white on a rainy day for this reason. Conversations became more lewd. Player eventually asked Bob to stop this communication. Player was overcome with anxiety and depression from having to “manage” his emotions thereafter, and eventually the residual trauma led to her quitting soccer.
This story has now grabbed the attention of The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom, and isn’t going away anytime soon.
*Update: The Vancouver Whitecaps have since responded with a public letter.
With files from Eric Zimmer