VANCOUVER — Months after she spoke out about alleged harassment and bullying by a former coach for the Vancouver Whitecaps, a former player says she's optimistic about the potential for change.
Ciara McCormack and three of her former teammates met with Whitecaps owners Greg Kerfoot and Jeff Mallett for about four hours last week to discuss the allegations and how the club could move forward.
The meeting was intense and emotional but respectful, McCormack said.
"It felt good to finally just feel like we'd been heard," she said.
"I think the end goal for all of us is to move things forward in a productive way to make sure it never happens again and to make sure that, moving forward, players have a safe place to play."
McCormack published a blog post in February, alleging inappropriate behaviour by Bob Birarda when he was the head coach of the Whitecaps women's team and Canada Soccer's women's under-20 talent pool in 2007 and 2008. The post said neither Canada Soccer nor the Whitecaps adequately addressed or investigated her concerns.
More than a dozen other former players later came forward alleging they also witnessed or experienced abuse, harassment or bullying by the coach. The alleged incidents included rubbing a player's thigh, sending players sexual text messages, making lewd comments about a player's wet jersey and ignoring a player at practices, games and team meetings after she stopped replying to his personal messages.
Birarda did not respond to a request for comment and the allegations have not been proven in court. He was dismissed by the Whitecaps and Canada Soccer in October 2008.
News of the allegations prompted anger from soccer fans in Vancouver. Two Whitecaps supporters groups stagged mass in-game walkouts at four consecutive home games to protest the club's perceived inaction over the allegations.
The demonstrations of support helped McCormack feel as if she and the other former players were being heard.
"We would not have gotten to this point without the weight of the public stepping forward," she said. "I still get emotional thinking about the things that everybody did. It's honestly because of what everybody did that we were allowed to be heard."
The Whitecaps issued an apology to the former players earlier this month.
The club also said an investigation will be conducted into actions taken in 2008 and it was announced on Monday that Sport Law & Strategy Group has been hired to conduct the review.
"Our primary objective throughout the club is to provide a safe and supportive environment for athletes to practice, learn, compete, and achieve their best," Mallett said in a statement. "Our commitment to athlete safety is at the heart of what we do. By engaging the Sport Law & Strategy Group to do this important work, we welcome experienced insights, best practices, and recommended deliverables to ensure we are recognized as a leader in safe sport practices throughout Canada."
The review is slated to be complete by the end of August. The Whitecaps said recommendations made by the company will be made public, as will any steps the club plans to take going forward.
McCormack said she's optimistic about what the club is doing and wants to see Canada Soccer take similar steps.
"I think the Whitecaps have set a good example in terms of taking responsibility and stepping up," she said. "So hopefully the Canadian Soccer Association follows their lead and does the same."
The Whitecaps story has shone a "massive spotlight" on the issue of athlete abuse and harassment not only in Vancouver soccer but in sports across the country, McCormack said.
In recent months, she's heard stories from all sorts of athletes about their experiences and she's looking forward to creating lasting change.
"I don't think there'll be the same ability to brush things under the rug as there were before," McCormack said. "And I think people will be more empowered, just sort of knowing that organizations aren't going to take care of them and they really need to make sure they take care of themselves."
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press