British Columbia

Vancouver Whitecaps release report into complaints against coach by female players

A report commissioned by the Vancouver Whitecaps appears to downplay any wrongdoing by the club relating to complaints of harassment and abuse made by former players. 

Former players alleged they witnessed abuse, manipulation and inappropriate behaviour by a former coach

The Vancouver Whitecaps have released a report into the allegations made against a former club coach by female players. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

A report commissioned by the Vancouver Whitecaps downplays any wrongdoing by the club relating to complaints made by members of its women's team and the Under-20 Women's National Team against their former head coach Bob Birarda. 

But the report also found the club failed to ensure Birarda was adhering to a code of conduct imposed after it was found he had sent inappropriate text messages to players, and was also not transparent with players about the reasons why Birarda left the teams in 2008.

Earlier this year, a group of former players issued a public statement saying each had witnessed "incidents of abuse, manipulation, or inappropriate behaviour" by Birarda in 2007 and 2008.

Players also raised concerns that after Birarda was fired by the Whitecaps and Canadian Soccer Association in 2008, he continued to coach girls and young women at clubs in the Vancouver region.

The allegations gained even more prominence when Whitecaps supporters began staging mass walkouts during home games in support of the women and their demands for accountability from Whitecaps executives.

In May, the Whitecaps issued a public apology to the women and hired Sport Law and Strategy Group Ltd. (SLSG) to conduct an investigation.

Club couldn't stop coach working elsewhere

In 2008, the Whitecaps women's team served as a training platform and pathway for players hoping to be selected to the U-20 national team.

In addition to being head coach of both those teams, Birarda was an assistant coach with the 2008 Canadian Women's Olympic team, making him very influential in the lives of young players hoping to move up the elite soccer ladder.

The SLSG report says the Whitecaps couldn't have prevented Birarda from coaching after he was fired because the club doesn't have the authority or jurisdiction to issue or revoke coaching licences.

"That is something that is done at both the provincial and national level," said Whitecaps co-owner Jeff Mallett in a phone interview. "The Canadian Soccer Association, they are the granter of soccer licences."

"We were never called for references, it's outside of our thing to take something and, just because of our judgment, restrict people's employment."

Bob Birarda was head coach of the Canadian U-20 Women's National Team and Whitecaps women's team in 2007 and 2008. He was also an assistant coach with the 2008 Canadian Women's Olympic team. (Canada Soccer)

The report cites two instances where Birarda sent inappropriate text messages to players in 2008. The first was in May while he was working for the Whitecaps.

The report claims when club executives became aware of the texts, they hired a lawyer to investigate and instigate corrective measures, which included sending Birarda to "sensitivity training" and having him sign a code of conduct document.

The report says in the aftermath, the Whitecaps and CSA failed to ensure the corrective measures were being adhered to.

A second complaint of inappropriate texts was brought to the CSA in September of 2008, after the Whitecaps season was over, according to the report, which says that both organizations followed the directions of the same lawyer and "terminated the coach from both programs."

Players told CBC that they never received an explanation from the Whitecaps or CSA as to why Birarda had left the teams. The 2008 press release announcing his departure described it as a "mutual parting of ways." Within months he had a new position coaching girls at a local club team. 

The report says the Whitecaps lacked effective communication with the players in 2008, which resulted in "frustration, mistrust and speculation that has contributed to the lingering animosity still held by some former players today."

Coach lived in suite intended for meetings

The report also appears to exonerates the Whitecaps on another situation players had raised as problematic.

In the summer of 2008, after Whitecaps were aware he had sent inappropriate texts to players, Birarda moved into the apartment complex where out-of-town players were living. The apartments were in a building owned by Whitecaps billionaire co-owner Greg Kerfoot.

The report says the apartment Birarda was living in was only intended to be used for meetings.

"The suite was not provided to the coaching staff as a residence. If [Birarda] was living in that suite he was doing so without the consent of the leadership team."

The former player who spearheaded the complaints said she felt the report was soft on the Whitecaps.

"I feel [the players] have dragged them to this point kicking and screaming the whole way," said Ciara McCormack . "The whole report has as much to do with them trying to backtrack on how they handled the situation as it has to do with a genuine effort to get to the bottom of what happened."

The report says the Whitecaps did not attempt to cover up the incidents. It says many of the recommendations as to what the Whitecaps could or should have done differently in 2008 have already been addressed.

The Canadian Soccer Association told CBC it could not comment because it was taking the necessary time to review the report.