While the recent successes of Canada’s men’s and women’s national soccer teams have captivated many fans, the behaviour of the country’s governing soccer federation has left some scratching their heads.
Canada Soccer announced last Friday that it has initiated a third-party investigation concerning the 2008 dismissal of a former coach with the women’s under-20 team, Bob Birarda, after allegations of sexual misconduct.
However, the statement makes no mention of the demands issued earlier last week by the Professional Footballers Association Canada (PFACan) on behalf of former players with the Canadian under-20 team and the Vancouver Whitecaps women’s program.
“We were pretty profoundly disappointed,” Paul Champ, general counsel for PFACan, told TSN on Monday. “We were hopeful that Canada Soccer would go along with our requests.”
The requests from PFACan concern Birarda and the Whitecaps’ and Canada Soccer’s handling of his dismissal. Birarda was also the head coach of Vancouver’s now-defunct women’s team and is currently facing nine sex-related charges in British Columbia provincial court.
The Whitecaps are also dealing with allegations of sexual misconduct against another previous coach, Hubert Busby Jr., in 2011. A former player, Malloree Enoch, told The Guardian last month that Busby had attempted to solicit sex from her during a recruiting process.
Earlier this month, Major League Soccer (MLS) announced it had engaged Rubin Thomlinson LLP, a Toronto-based legal firm that specializes in workplace abuse, to conduct an independent investigation into how the Whitecaps handled the allegations against both Birarda and Busby.
As part of its demands, PFACan asked that the scope of Rubin Thomlinson’s investigation be expanded to include Canada Soccer. Instead, the federation decided to initiate a separate third-party investigation.
When asked why Canada Soccer chose to engage in a parallel investigation, a spokesperson for the organization sent this statement to TSN on Wednesday:
“As previously announced, Canada Soccer agreed to an independent third-party investigation in response to the October 23, 2021 request from the Canadian Women’s National Team Players Association with three firms and a recommendation approved by the Canada Soccer Board of Directors on November 12, 2021, to engage McLaren Global Sport Solutions. The appointment of McLaren Global Sports Solutions was announced the same day that the decision was taken.
“The mandate for the investigation is to deliver a comprehensive review of the prior investigation related to the 2008 departure of Bob Birarda as Head Coach of Canada Soccer’s U-20 National Team as well as a detailed assessment of Canada Soccer’s current policies and programs to further strengthen the Canada Soccer Safe Sport Roster which includes our club licensing regulations to better protect all who play, coach and work in the sport from coast to coast.”
One of the major issues former players have with Canada Soccer’s decision is the toll it will take on those who will be asked to participate in multiple investigations.
“You're asking people to relive trauma every time you have to sit down and go through the whole story with investigators,” Ciara McCormack, a former Whitecaps player who was the first to publicly come forward with accusations against Birarda, told TSN earlier this week. “I just don't think that that's taken into account when these organizations talk about investigations, because obviously, you need players to participate and victims to participate in order for these investigations to be as transparent as everybody is saying that they are.”
“There are times that are harder than others to talk about it. It's just reliving it,” Enoch told TSN on Monday. “It resurfaces every now and again, but it has been really intense this time around because people are finally listening.”
McCormack points out that many players already took part in an investigation by Sport Law & Strategy Group in 2019, which the Whitecaps commissioned to look into the handling of the Birarda situation.
While the final report exonerated the Whitecaps of any wrongdoing, McCormack and other players have taken issue with the conclusions, pointing out the fact that the Whitecaps were the ones paying for the investigation.
“A lot of us went through lengthy interviews in 2019 that amounted into nothing,” she said. “I don't think it's spoken about enough in terms of the toll that all this stuff takes on victims.”
One of the demands from PFACan was for both the Whitecaps and Canada Soccer to consent to providing mental health services for at least a year to any former player that may require them. Whitecaps CEO Axel Schuster has publicly agreed to all of PFACan’s demands.
A spokesperson for Canada Soccer told TSN that the organization is “committed to support those individuals involved with the U-20 National Team Program.” Champ confirmed on Wednesday that Canada Soccer has agreed to PFACan’s demand involving private counselling.
Despite Canada Soccer’s commitment to mental health services, Champ says there are still “grave concerns” about the decision to have separate investigations.
“Maybe [Canada Soccer] can explain to me why they think it's better to have two parallel investigations. I just don't see the logic in it,” said Champ. “I don't think that it's fair to the victims who may have to speak to those investigators, and quite frankly, I don't know if they will. I don't know if you're going to get the buy-in from all the victims.
“We think that's been part of the problem in the past – Canada Soccer really, from what we've seen, hasn't taken a player-centred approach to this issue. They certainly haven't asked for input from players on these issues before. We were hopeful that this would be a real moment or an opportunity for Canada Soccer to really demonstrate that they're getting the message and they know that this is a time for change.”
A spokesperson for Canada Soccer said in an email to TSN that the organization “has committed to supporting all ongoing investigations including those being conducted by NWSL [National Women’s Soccer League], US Soccer, FIFA and MLS.”
Champ said that privately, Canada Soccer immediately acknowledged the demands from PFACan and that the two sides had ongoing conversations. He was scheduled to have a call with “top decision makers” with the organization last Friday morning, but Canada Soccer asked to reschedule at the last minute. The federation then released its statement Friday night, which blindsided PFACan.
“They didn't give us any heads up that this was coming, and it's just really disappointing,” Champ said. “When you're surprising your stakeholders, that's also not a plus…. We obviously want to maintain our underlying good relationship with Canada Soccer, but having a good relationship also means being honest with each other.”
“I think their response from 2008 all the way to now has been absolutely atrocious,” said McCormack. “I just think that they forget that they're actually representing all the kids playing soccer in Canada – they're working for the soccer players in the country, and it's not the other way around.”
Another contentious issue was the timing of Canada Soccer’s statement, which was released after 7 p.m. ET, less than two hours before the men’s national team was set to kick off in Edmonton for a crucial World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica.
“I think you don't have to be in the business in media or PR or anything like that to know that when you release a statement late on a Friday night, or after five o'clock on a Friday night, that you're trying to bury the statement,” said Champ. “I don't know why Canada Soccer would be trying to bury a statement about Safe Sport and about how they plan to investigate or look into these issues from 2008. I don't think that's consistent with transparency.”
In Canada Soccer’s statement, it promises a transparent investigation, but also states that “key findings” of the report will be made public.
“No, we want it all released, every bit of it, and we want it to be unbiased,” Enoch said.
“We don't know what that means. We would like a little bit of clarity for that,” said Champ. “We’d like to have a discussion with [Canada Soccer] to find out what their plans are and why they feel they can't make the findings completely transparent, because at the end of the day, here we are, over 10 years later, and I can tell you a lot of the affected women feel very concerned.
“There are trust issues, and I think there's a belief by many – an understandable one, and one I agree with – that Canada Soccer has ran away from this issue.”
When asked if Canada Soccer would make the full final report public, a spokesperson for the organization again used the term “key findings.”
Another important issue that PFACan addressed in its demands is for Canada Soccer and the Whitecaps to agree to provide all relevant documentation to the investigators, including any non-disclosure or departure agreements concerning Birarda and Busby.
“I think if they really are truly about transparency and accountability, that they make a public commitment to release everybody from any kind of NDAs [non-disclosure agreements], [allow] all board members to speak freely,” said McCormack.
A spokesperson for Canada Soccer told TSN that the organization has granted McLaren Global Sports Solutions “full independence,” but wouldn’t give specifics about whether this included release from NDAs.
The other demands issued by PFACan include:
- Canada Soccer and MLS to agree to consult PFACan on the scope and mandate of the proposed joint investigation
- Canada Soccer and MLS to provide PFACan with the preliminary findings of the investigation and allow them to make representations on the final report’s findings and recommendations
- Whitecaps, MLS, and Canada Soccer to commit to taking appropriate action against anyone currently connected to the organizations who are found to be complicit or failed to take effective steps to stop the behaviour of Birarda and Busby
- CONCACAF and FIFA to confirm that Victor Montagliani – current head of CONCACAF, a vice-president with FIFA and former vice-president and president of Canada Soccer – will fully cooperate with the investigation
Champ said MLS has been very responsive to PFACan and the two sides have been working together. CONCACAF also reached out and committed to Montagliani participating in any investigation.
Champ confirmed that he had a discussion with Canada Soccer on Wednesday and that while conversations are ongoing, the two sides still disagree on many issues.
“I think, unfortunately, it reflects a little bit of how they've been handling this issue right from the beginning, which is, with all due respect, I think being a bit more concerned about the reputation of Canada Soccer than doing the right thing,” said Champ earlier in the week.
“I feel like Canada Soccer is continuing the same path that they have in the past,” Enoch said. “I don't feel like there's any change. I think they're saying what they believe is politically correct. But I don't feel or see a change. I'm hoping once the investigation takes place that I'm proven wrong.”