Association sport

Review finds Canadian Soccer Association put vulnerable young players at risk in 2008

A scathing independent review by the Canadian Soccer Association found national women’s under-20 head coach Bob Birarda was operating unsupervised and wielding too much power.

A scathing independent review by the Canadian Soccer Association found national women’s under-20 head coach Bob Birarda was operating unsupervised and wielding too much power.

Birarda, 55, is awaiting the end of his sentence in Provincial Court after pleading guilty to three counts of sexually assaulting players and one count of touching a youth for sexual purposes. In June, a Crown attorney asked a judge for two years less a day.

In the 125-page report released July 28, Richard McLaren, a world-renowned sports law professor at the University of Western Ontario, said unilateral control of part-time CSA employee Birarda was described by several players from the 2008 team as “divine”.

“With no one to direct or supervise him, and given his expansive personality, power, influence and control over the U-20 Women’s National Team and its players, Birarda ran the team as he saw fit, moved players as he pleased, and engaged in what should have been identified by the ASC as highly questionable, if not outright proscribed, relationships, communications and activities with his players (e.g., sexting, flirting, discussing personal relationships, making sexual overtures, going out at night with players, complete disregard for the rule of two and blurring of other professional boundaries).

In a blog post in early 2019, former player Ciara McCormack denounced Birarda’s return to youth football coaching, which led to Birarda being criminally investigated and scrutinized by McLaren . McLaren is best known for investigating widespread, government-sanctioned Russian doping at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.

“Quite damning for the conduct of Canada Soccer’s leadership in 2008,” said McCormack. “And, honestly, it’s sickening on a human level that so many people can cover up and downplay such egregious behavior for so many years despite being repeatedly warned.”

At the time, Birarda was also an assistant for the Beijing 2008 Olympic team and the head coach of the Vancouver Whitecaps W-League team. McLaren found that senior ASC officials in 2008 had a complete lack of familiarity with the ASC harassment policy. They also gave players no training or education to identify or report harassment.

McLaren said there was no written operating agreement between the Whitecaps and the ASC women’s team program that year, as the association went through a management shake-up. Governance was characterized by a “dangerous lack of attention to issues of planning and accountability”.

The CSA was in the final stages of a three-year agreement entered into in 2006 with the Greg Kerfoot Family Trust to provide financial support for the Women’s National Team program. Kerfoot was paying players $20,000 a year, which was increased from $38,000 to $40,000 with Sport Canada funding.

“The strength of the relationship between the Whitecaps and the CSA was not simply based on a financial arrangement. It also benefited from CSA moving the WNT program from Toronto to Vancouver,” McLaren wrote.

Senior team head coach Even Pellerud and his wife rented a West Vancouver mansion owned by Kerfoot. The Whitecaps and CSA were located on the same floor of an office building owned by Kerfoot in 2007. As many as 25 players on the 2008 Whitecaps roster were affiliated with the U-20 team and many of them they lived in an apartment building in Vancouver called the Monteray. The Whitecaps also provided a unit for team and coaching meetings, in which Birarda lived temporarily.

A player from both teams complained in May 2008 that Birarda was sending inappropriate emails with a sexual connotation. The CSA general secretary told Pellerud to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Attorney Anne Chopra was retained to conduct an investigation from late August 2008 to early October 2008. Chopra did not cooperate with McLaren’s investigation. McLaren found that its review took place over 11 days and many former players from the Under-20 team were not asked to participate and others claimed a lack of follow-up.

The CSA and the Whitecaps jointly suspended Birarda on October 3, 2008, but McLaren could find no written record of the CSA’s board decisions regarding Birarda.

Chopra verbally recommended that Birarda no longer be allowed to coach teams “based on a continuing pattern of harassing behavior and power imbalance.” Five days later, Birarda sent in a written resignation on October 8, 2008, and the parties agreed to mutually part ways, rather than fire.

“The generic public statement released by the CSA after Birarda’s departure did not acknowledge Birarda’s harassment or the ombudsperson’s recommendations,” McLaren wrote. “The ASC Executive Committee’s intention to terminate Birarda was communicated as a ‘mutual parting of ways’ which was misinterpreted. if not glossed over, the actual circumstances surrounding his departure.

Little information was shared with the players, although some attended a meeting where new coach Ian Bridge read a ‘selfish statement’ written by Birarda which referred to family and health issues, but not to the real reason for his departure. Players were left angry and surprised by Chopra’s investigation process and results, McLaren wrote.

McLaren made 38 recommendations, including a whistleblower policy, better regulation, better oversight and discipline of coaches, and governance reform, including better record keeping and “complete transparency, and therefore accountability, decisions of the Executive Committee and the Board of Directors and the Judiciary Committee in all safe sports. Questions.”

In a July 28 statement, Earl Cochrane, newly appointed ASC General Secretary, issued an unequivocal apology for letting players down in 2008.

“We accept the findings outlined in the McLaren report and, more importantly, we accept all recommendations and publicly commit to reviewing, adopting and improving these recommendations,” Cochrane said in its statement.