Since February, MLS’s Vancouver Whitecaps have been mired in a scandal centered around their handling of allegations of abuse made against former girls youth coach Bob Birarda. Fans have protested, and after the team issued an apology, the Whitecaps community criticized it for a lack of transparency.
Former Whitecaps and Ireland national team player Ciara McCormack published a post on Feb. 25 accusing the then-unnamed former coach of the Whitecaps women’s team, as well as the Canadian U-20 national team, of a pattern of abusive behavior, which included inappropriate touching, sending players sexually explicit text messages, bullying, and using his power to make sexual advances. The alleged incidents took place in 2007 and 2008, and Birarda, who left the Whitecaps and the Canadian program in 2008, was not charged with any crime.
One month ago, a dozen other former players released a collective statement that publicly named Birarda. Their statement echoed many of McCormack’s accusations, and detailed several instances of “abuse, manipulation, or inappropriate behavior.” The club released a statement of their own in the wake of the growing accusations against Birarda, clarifying that they agreed to part ways with Birarda in 2008 after conducting an investigation. They also said they had talked to the Vancouver PD so police could “assess if further action or review is required.” Still, Birarda continued to coach young girls for 11 years, and the Whitecaps have faced criticism from supporters groups and former players for the way they handled the allegations and waited to speak up publicly. Complaints about the club’s vetting process were compounded last month, when a reporter revealed that the team hired an assistant coach in 2013 who was fired from his previous job in England for throwing a banana at a black player.
The Southsiders supporters group organized two walkouts last month in solidarity with the women. As Southsiders vice president Peter Czimmermann said, “What we’re trying to do is support what these women are asking for: to have safe policies for young girls and boys in sports and make sure coaches who behave inappropriately are not allowed to coach again.”
Earlier this week, the club’s co-owners finally apologized for “the harm that has clearly come to many women who participated in our program.” They also released a timeline of events in an effort to clarify how they handled the allegations.
That apology wasn’t sufficient. The team’s timeline doesn’t include a meeting McCormack says she had with team president Bob Lenarduzzi, and Lenarduzzi has remained silent throughout the last few months. McCormack criticized the statement and pointed out that the Whitecaps mutually parting ways with Birarda rather than terminating him allowed him to continue coaching young girls for over a decade at the Tsawwassen Soccer Club and Coastal FC.
Reporters who have been covering the scandal say the team also selectively excluded them from Wednesday’s session with co-owner Jeff Mallett.
McCormack called on the Whitecaps to more fully collaborate with the players who say they were abused:
If the Whitecaps are genuine, I challenge them to allow us, the players to choose the group that investigates this, who reports the findings to us, and have the Whitecaps executive cooperate fully and truthfully with that person. There is understandably every reason based on the past, for us not to trust the Whitecaps investigative procedures and abilities.