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THE WOMEN OF THE VANCOUVER WHITECAPS RECLAIM THE GAME

TW – mention of abuse, sexual assault. 

Coaches, referees, supporters groups, grassroots leaders and industry changemakers are coming together to show what #ReclaimTheGame means for them. This week, we’re spotlighting players’ stories that demonstrate how we can work together as an industry to uphold safety for players and the wider soccer community. 

THE WOMEN OF THE VANCOUVER WHITECAPS

Since 2008, fearless members of the soccer community have continually come forward to condemn systemic abuse of power in the Vancouver Whitecaps that occurred between 2008 to 2019. In breaking news, former coach Bob Birarda has pled guilty to sexual assault charges and is awaiting sentencing. Of this outcome, Ciara McCormack, an outspoken survivor and safe sports advocate said, “The truth we have known since 2008 has been validated, and those that tried to silence us now have to face the full weight of the truth.” Read Ciara’s full personal testimony here. The actions of former players of the Vancouver Whitecaps have led directly to this outcome as well as a reckoning in the club and the hope of a safer future for players. This spotlight highlights exactly how they reclaimed the game.

ACT: 

WHAT ACTIONS CAN BE TAKEN?

Speaking up can have a life-changing impact on others and the future of the game. The women of the Vancouver Whitecaps have set a trailblazing example that players have agency and can come forward to tell their own stories.

If you ever need to discuss any instances of abuse of power, know that you have a safe space to talk at Women in Soccer and our team can be reached at hello@womeninsoccer.org. Or, you can contact Matthew Hall, a renowned journalist with The Guardian who specializes in advocating for player safety. Matt can be reached at matthewsrhall@protonmail.com and all messages sent to Matt or the WIS team will be treated with the utmost respect and deemed highly confidential. In addition, you can access mental health resources and trauma-informed support here.

“We have now experienced how crucial media attention is to getting these cases taken seriously and I want to say how grateful I am to Matthew Hall and The Guardian for publishing our stories and advocating for us.” – Malloree Enoch, former Whitecaps Player.  

The women of the Vancouver Whitecaps have demonstrated how our soccer community does have power in the face of institutional corruption. Their stories have fueled the club’s supporters to come to their aid on and off the pitch. In 2019, during a televised match between the Vancouver Whitecaps and Los Angeles FC, the Whitecaps’ supporters group walked out of the game to protest the club’s ineffective response to the abuse allegations.

The Southsiders supporters group walks out of the match between the Vancouver Whitecaps and Los Angeles FC in April 2019.

The news coverage of this protest added more pressure to the club to take the investigation and allegations seriously and served as a reminder that everyone in the soccer community can play a part in pushing for a culture that protects and believes women.

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WHAT STORIES NEED TO BE HEARD?

In 2009, former Whitecaps players raised allegations against then-coach Bob Birada, resulting in his departure from the team. In 2011, former Whitecaps player Malloree Enoch contacted the club’s management to shed light on a history of abuse in the club that was repeating itself. In an email, Enoch detailed the coercion, misconduct and sexual advances she had experienced at the hands of Hubert Busby Jr., the then Whitecaps head coach and until recently, the head coach of the Jamaica women’s national team. In the note seen by The Guardian, she stated: “I know that in the past there has been history with inappropriate coach/player relationships. I want the club to be aware that it is happening once again and something needs to be done this time. My biggest concern is, this will be swept under the carpet.”

This persistent push by former players of the Vancouver Whitecaps to hold the clubs’ systemic abuse of power accountable has led to them being represented by attorney John Manly in a current case investigating the club’s history of abuse. Manly is the attorney who won the $500m case against Larry Nassar as lead counsel for victims of the US Olympic women’s gymnastics team in the watershed 2018 trial. The relentless bravery and commitment to speaking out by former players of the Vancouver Whitecaps have resulted in the following events:

  • In 2021, Birarda was arrested and charged with six counts of sexual exploitation, two counts of sexual assault, and one count of child luring between 1988 and 2008. In February 2022, he pled guilty to one count of sexual exploitation and three counts of sexual assault and is currently awaiting sentencing.

  • In November 2021 Busby was suspended as head coach of the Jamaica women’s national team.

  • As allegations of sexual misconduct mount within professional soccer leagues, this high-profile case brings into question how effectively sporting organizations can investigate themselves.

The Vancouver Whitecaps case has sparked momentum for industry leaders to critique the validity of soccer organizations dealing with player safety themselves. Kim Shore, a WIS Expert Member and former board member of Gymnastics Canada, is currently involved in the creation of an independent taskforce that will work to establish a culture of sports organization governance that protects players first and the industry second. Of internal investigations, Kim says, “There are so many complex relationships, so many vested interests, and people invested in their own rise. It is also not up to FIFA to say when a victim finds their voice. Many victims are just finding their voice now, especially if you are talking about someone growing from being a child into an adult. It’s not up to the sports organization to decide that someone should have come forward sooner.”

REFLECT

HOW DO WE KEEP GOING?

This timeline of abuse highlights that player safety is a GLOBAL issue and that large institutions have continually let our soccer community down. Last year was a particularly difficult year in women’s soccer, and we want you to know that our squad is committed to pushing for change that safeguards ALL of our players.💜 As a community, it’s time to create a new timeline of accountability, support, and change.

  • Ask questions: does my own club, team, or organization prioritize player safety?

  • What can you learn and take from this story to apply to your own local team, club, or organization to improve player safety and institutional accountability?

NWSL players pause mid-game to protest abuse in the sport.

The beautiful game is OURS. If we demand player safety in all clubs at all levels the industry will have to listen.

LET’S KEEP RECLAIMING THE GAME!

#ReclaimTheGame

WIS member spotlights are created and written by our content producer Pip Penman.