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

In the 125-page report, University of Western Ontario sports law professor Richard McLaren said former Canada U-20 women's soccer coach Bob Birarda’s unilateral control was described by several players on the 2008 squad as being “God-like.” | Caroline Purser, the Image Bank, Getty Images Plus

A scathing independent review of the Canadian Soccer Association found national women’s under-20 head coach Bob Birarda operated without oversight and had too much power.

Birarda, 55, awaits the completion of his Provincial Court sentencing after pleading guilty to three counts of sexually assault players and one count of touching a young person for sexual purpose. In June, a Crown lawyer asked a judge for two years less a day.

In the 125-page report released July 28, world-renowned University of Western Ontario sports law professor Richard McLaren said part-time CSA employee Birarda’s unilateral control was described by several players on the 2008 squad as being “God-like.”

“With no one directing or overseeing 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 around at his whim, and engaged in what should have been identified by CSA as highly questionable if not flatly proscribed relationships, communications, and activities with his female players (e.g. sexting, flirting, discussing personal relationships, making sexual overtures, going out at night with players, total disregard for the rule of two, and blurring of other professional boundaries).”

In an early 2019 blog report, former player Ciara McCormack blew the whistle on Birarda’s return to coaching youth soccer, which led to the criminal investigation of Birarda and the review by McLaren. McLaren is best-known for investigating widespread, government-sanctioned Russian doping at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.

“Quite damning on the conduct of those in leadership in Canada Soccer in 2008,” McCormack said. “And, honestly, sickening on a human level that so many could cover up and minimize such egregious behaviour for so many years despite being warned many times.”

At the time, Birarda was also an assistant on the Beijing 2008 Olympics team and the head coach of the Vancouver Whitecaps W-League team. McLaren found senior CSA officials in 2008 had a complete lack of familiarity with the CSA 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 CSA women’s team program that year while the association was going through executive leadership upheaval. Governance was characterized by a “dangerous lack of attention to planning and accountability matters.”

The CSA was in the late stages of a three-year agreement made in 2006 with the Greg Kerfoot Family Trust to provide financial support to the women’s national team program. Kerfoot paid players $20,000 a year, which was topped up to $38,000 to $40,000 with Sport Canada funding.

“The strength of the relationship between the Whitecaps and the CSA was not simply predicated on a financial arrangement. It also benefitted from the 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 listed on the 2008 Whitecaps roster were affiliated with the U-20 team and many of them lived in a Vancouver apartment building called the Monteray. The Whitecaps also provided a unit for team and coach meetings, in which Birarda temporarily lived.

A player on both teams complained in May 2008 that Birarda was sending inappropriate, sexually-charged emails. The CSA’s general secretary told Pellerud to make sure it didn’t happen again.

Lawyer 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 her review took place over 11 days and many former players on the under-20 team were not invited to participate and others claimed a lack of followup.

The CSA and Whitecaps jointly suspended Birarda on Oct. 3, 2008, but McLaren found no written minutes of CSA board decisions about Birarda.

Chopra verbally recommended Birarda no longer be allowed to coach the teams “based on a continuing pattern of harassing behaviour and power imbalance.” Five days later, Birarda sent a written resignation on Oct. 8, 2008 and the parties agreed to a mutual parting of ways, rather than firing.

“The generic public statement issued by the CSA following Birarda’s departure did not acknowledge Birarda’s harassment or the recommendations of the Ombudswoman,” McLaren wrote. “The CSA Executive Committee’s intent to terminate Birarda was communicated as a ‘mutual parting of ways’ which mischaracterised,. if not glossed over, the real circumstances surrounding his departure.”

Little information was shared with players, though some went to a meeting where new coach Ian Bridge read a Birarda-drafted “self-serving statement” that referred to family and health challenges, but not the real reason for his departure. Players were left angry and taken aback as to Chopra’s investigation process and outcomes, McLaren wrote.

McLaren made 38 recommendations, including a whistleblower policy, better regulation, oversight and discipline of coaches, and governance reform, including better record-keeping and “complete transparency, and thus accountability, of Executive Committee and Board and Judicial Committee decisions in all Safe Sport matters.”

In a July 28 statement, recently appointed CSA general secretary Earl Cochrane unequivocally apologized for letting players down in 2008.

“We accept the findings outlined in the McLaren Report, and more importantly, we accept all recommendations and commit publicly to review, adopt, and enhance those recommendations,” said Cochrane’s statement.