The soccer player who first publicly accused a women’s national team coach of inappropriate behaviour says Canada Soccer’s weekend response to her complaints is better late than never.
Ciara McCormack first brought the allegations against against former women’s under-20 coach Bob Birarda to public attention with a blog post in February 2019. Canada Soccer said on Saturday that it has agreed to a “transparent, independent review of the investigation of allegations” against Birarda during the time when he was employed by the association.
“I think it’s been a long two and a half years for those of us who stood up in 2019,” McCormack told The Canadian Press on Sunday.
Birarda, a former coach for the Vancouver Whitecaps and Canada Soccer’s women’s teams, has been charged with sexual offences involving four people. He’s facing six counts of sexual exploitation, two counts of sexual assault and one count of child luring.
The alleged offences occurred between January 1988 and March 25, 2008. The allegations have not yet been tested in court.
Canada’s women’s soccer team won Olympic gold at the Tokyo Games earlier this summer. They are participating in a two-game Celebration Tour of that triumph in Ottawa and Montreal this week, but the Canadian Soccer Players’ Association only agreed to the exhibition matches under three conditions, including having an independent review of the Birarda investigation.
The list of requirements was unveiled by the federation before Saturday’s friendly exhibition game against New Zealand in Ottawa.
“It shouldn’t take winning a gold medal for players to be taken seriously,” said McCormack.
“It was a hard couple years where there was no acknowledgment. So I think it’s important to recognize that in terms of being able to move forward from it.”
In its statement, Canada Soccer said it supports and commends the national team players “on their willingness to effect positive change in Canada.” Under the headings of “commitment,” “accountability” and “safe sport for all,” the federation said it agreed to the players’ association’s requirements.
Those demands also included a call for the full implementation of the Independent Safe Sport Mechanism. Players also called for the federation, its board of directors, executives and coaches to continue to build a safe environment for athletes, with Canada Soccer to apologize “to those who have been victimized and abused while playing the sport they love.”
The accountability requirement involving the review into the Birarda allegations would be initiated at a mutually agreed time to “understand fully what occurred and to develop recommendations and best practices to better protect our athletes,” the statement said.
“This is really the first actual acknowledgment of any kind of action or anything really to do with the situation that happened two and a half years ago,” McCormack said from Phuket, Thailand. “I just think, again, the under-20 players in 2019 demanded exactly what happened (Saturday).”
There was no immediate word on who would conduct the review, what its scope might be, and whether findings would be made public. It also wasn’t clear why Canada Soccer did not move forward with a review in 2019.
A federation spokesman, reached by phone on Sunday, was unable to provide additional details.
After McCormack’s blog post, more than a dozen women who played for the Whitecaps and were part of Canada’s U20 talent pool around 2008 came forward to allege Birarda acted inappropriately with members of the team.
The allegations include rubbing a player’s thigh, sending players sexual text messages, making lewd comments and bullying young women who ignored or spoke out against his behaviour.
Birarda made a court appearance last December and was released from custody under strict conditions. His case is scheduled to be back in a North Vancouver court on Thursday.
Birarda was dismissed by both the Whitecaps and Canada Soccer in October 2008.
In her blog post, McCormack said neither the club nor the federation adequately investigated her initial complaints. She said she’s trying to look at the weekend developments in a positive light and is grateful the issue is getting “the attention it deserves.”
“Everybody – whether they were a gold medallist or they were someone who quit the team in 2008 because they couldn’t handle the environment anymore – I’m glad that everyone is finally having their experiences validated. Because what has gone on to this point has not been right at all,” McCormack said.
“It’s a shame that the (federation) leadership wouldn’t immediately have empathized and wanted to do right by the situation,” she added. “But I also think a lot of the same people are in charge now that were in charge in 2008, so I think that’s a huge part of the problem as well.”
McCormack said she has never heard from anyone at Canada Soccer “in any official capacity,” but a women’s national team player recently reached out to her privately.
“It really means a lot,” she said of that interaction.
Whitecaps co-owner Jeff Mallett issued an apology in 2019 to the women involved and thanked them for coming forward. A third-party review of how the club handled the complaints noted there was a “lack of effective communication with the players.”
Before Saturday’s game at TD Place, a 5-1 Canada win, players from both teams linked arms at midfield. A minute of silence was observed to show solidarity with the victims in soccer and sport, and a shared commitment to safe sport for all.
Earlier in the week, the National Women’s Soccer League announced an agreement with its players’ association to address demands made in the wake of abuse and harassment scandals that have shaken that league.
Two former players accused former North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley of harassment and sexual coercion. Amid the fallout, Riley was fired and NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird resigned.
Other allegations of harassment have come to light involving former Washington Spirit coach Richie Burke, who was also fired. OL Reign coach Farid Benstiti was dismissed this summer for inappropriate behaviour during practice.
Following those reports, the NWSLPA made a series of demands aimed at accountability. In agreeing to meet those demands, interim CEO Marla Messing said she is committed to transparency when it comes to working with the union.
“I’m just grateful that (it) finally feels like everybody is on the same page and we’re all in this together and that we’re all trying to push forward towards the goal that this kind of thing never happens again,” McCormack said. “(It’s important that) athletes do have a voice and they do have a safe place to play the game and that we do take the power back.
“Because I think for so long there was so much silence and so much fear around opportunities being taken if people did the right thing and spoke up. It’s really heartening to see that there seems to be this change in things. I am grateful for the stand that the players took (Saturday) because they do have the platform to do it. It’s just good to see everyone finally together and on the same page with it.”
Canada and New Zealand were scheduled to play another friendly match Tuesday at Montreal’s Saputo Stadium.
— With files from The Associated Press.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 24, 2021.