Whitecaps supporters groups continue protests over abuse, harassment allegations

VANCOUVER — Some soccer fans say an apology from the Vancouver Whitecaps is a step forward, but are still calling for the club to further address allegations of bullying and harassment by a former coach.

Two of the team’s supporters groups are planning to stage another in-game protest during Friday’s match against the Portland Timbers, leaving their seats in the 35th minute to show solidarity with female players impacted by the alleged abuse.

They’ll be joined by members of Portland’s supporters group, Timbers Army, who issued a statement on Wednesday saying the issue is bigger than a rivalry.

“We support human rights, and we support our Cascadian rivals in their fight for safe environments for athletes,” the statement said.

Protests at two previous Vancouver home games were effective in drawing the attention of the Whitecaps organization, said Paul Sabourin-Hertzog, vice president of the Vancouver Southsiders.

“We are providing feedback that the club is definitely acting on,” he said. “But we all on the supporters side want to see more openness, more accountability, more answers to the various questions that we have.”

Sabourin-Hertzog said the groups saw some of their concerns addressed in a statement released by the club last week. Co-signed by club owners Jeff Mallett and Greg Kerfoot, the statement apologized for pain and suffering experienced by women who were involved with the team around 2008.

More than a dozen women who played for the Whitecaps and were part of Canada’s under-20 talent pool around 2008 have come forward to allege Bob Birarda, a former coach for both squads, 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.

None of the allegations have been proven in court. Birarda has not responded to a request for comment on the allegations.

Both the Whitecaps and Canada Soccer parted ways with the coach in October 2008.

Supporters groups met with Whitecaps executives and Mallett on Tuesday, looking to talk about some key issues and ask some questions that lingered after last week’s apology.

Sabourin-Hertzog said the groups wanted to move forward with setting up a meeting between the former players and Whitecaps ownership, but without the club’s executives present.

Some of the executives currently with the Whitecaps are the same people the former players brought their concerns to more than a decade ago, so those individuals have become “synonymous with the abuse and harassment that they suffered,” he said.

The club did not seem willing to set up such a meeting on Tuesday, Sabourin-Hertzog said.

Whitecaps spokesman Tom Plasteras said on Thursday that the club is open to a meeting with former players and has not mandated that any specific people must be in attendance.

The supporters groups also want to see a report done by an ombudswoman in 2008 released to the former players.

Plasteras said recommendations in the report and actions taken by the club were released last week. He added that the Whitecaps are hiring an independent group to review the actions taken in 2008, and results of that review will be made public.

“We are 100 per cent focused on our commitment to safe sport and the work we have already begun doing around this. I believe we all want the same thing — safe sport for all where there is zero tolerance for bullying and harassment,” Plasteras said in an email on Thursday.

Still, Sabourin-Hertzog said there’s a disconnect between what the supporters groups are calling for and what the Whitecaps are willing to provide.

“We understand each other’s positions clearly and there’s things that we don’t agree on,” he said. “So we need to now focus on what can be done moving forward.”

Balancing support for the former players with support for the team on the field isn’t always easy, he added, but the goal is to make sports safer for all athletes.

“There’s a problem with sport and the value that we place on success compared to the value that we place on having healthy and safe athletes,” he said.

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