An independent report commissioned by the Vancouver Whitecaps has found the soccer club did not attempt to “cover up” allegations of harassment by a former coach in the women’s program but said it had failed in its communication with players about the incident.
The report was commissioned following explosive allegations that dated back to 2008, which were published on a blog in February by Ciara McCormack, a former Whitecaps women’s team and Canada women’s under-20 (U20) national team player.
It spoke with more than 350 people, and has produced 34 recommendations.
On the blog, McCormack detailed allegations of sexually suggestive text messages and alleged the Whitecaps and the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) did not adequately address or investigate her concerns.
The coach later went on to coach an elite-level soccer club in Surrey, B.C. but was suspended when the allegations surfaced.
In April, the club said it went to police about the allegations.
In May, the Whitecaps retained the Sport Law & Strategy Group (SLSG) to conduct an independent review of the allegations and the Whitecaps’ respectful workplace policies and procedures.
SLSG later expanded the scope of its probe to include two other incidents: the 2013 hiring of a coach amid allegations of racism and a 2017 case of alleged sexual assault at a Whitecaps youth residency program.
The report finds no intentional malfeasance on the part of the Whitecaps and says the club has learned from the incident and improved policies, but it also identifies key areas where breakdowns occurred.
“Is there areas for improvement? Absolutely,” said Whitecaps co-owner Jeff Mallett.
“Primarily around communications, but we we’ll respect the findings of the report and use them as a teaching tool.”
Mallett said the club would make the findings public for clubs across Canada to learn from.
But McCormack said Wednesday she has questions about how independent the report actually is and whether it portrayed the club in an overly-favourable light, noting it was paid for by the Whitecaps.
She said there needs to be an independent public body focused on player safety that is not associated with an individual club.
“It goes outside of the Whitecaps as an organization,” she said.
“A continuing thread through all these stories is the fact that you had to go through the Whitecaps to play for the national team and the amount of power that gives the organization … in most countries if you’re at a club and you’re not happy you just change clubs and you continue on your way.”
She also raised concerns with the fact the coach in question was able to find employment with another high-level club, arguing that a criminal record check isn’t enough.
McCormack said something like B.C.’s Teacher Regulation Branch, which provides a central database of disciplinary findings, open to the public, might be needed.
“That loophole needs to be closed,” she said.
“It does just allow everybody to dance around and say, ‘Oh it wasn’t us’ … it’s not good enough when you’re dealing with the safety of kids.”
2008 harassment allegations
The report found that in May 2008, the Whitecaps were notified a female player had allegedly received inappropriate text messages from a coach, saying the club had investigated and taken corrective action.
According to the report, that same coach was working for the U20 national team in September 2008 when the CSA reportedly got a similar complaint about him.
Following a second investigation, he was let go from both clubs, the report says, though it notes the departure was announced at the time as “a mutual decision.” The report found many players were rankled by that language and believed the women’s team had developed a “toxic” culture under his leadership.
The club retained a lawyer with expertise in workplace issues to conduct a probe after being notified about the text-message allegations and acted on the lawyer’s recommendations, including applying corrective measures to the club, according to the report.
Those measures included requiring the coach to take sensitivity training and sign a code of conduct. The Whitecaps also implemented new conduct and complaint policies, the report said.
According to the report, the coach was allowed continued access to a suite in a shared apartment complex where some players lived in order to hold team meetings. The report found some players believed he was living there, though the club says that if he was doing so, it was without the consent of the team.
But while the Whitecaps shared the investigation’s findings and discipline with the CSA, the report found it did not monitor the coach’s ensuing behaviour “to ensure any of the agreed-upon conditions were adhered to, which would have been a reasonable course of action.”
When the CSA received the second complaint, the report states it notified the Whitecaps and the two commissioned a second investigation, which resulted in the coach’s firing from both programs.
However, the report concludes the Whitecaps failed when it came to communicating with players about the incidents based on its belief confidentially was required.
“It is clear from the information provided by the players that it was this lack of communication that resulted in frustration, mistrust and speculation, which has contributed to the lingering animosity still held by some former players today,” the report said.
The report also found the Whitecaps had not taken sufficient steps to inform players the club had implemented its new code of conduct and complaint policies in the wake of the alleged incident.
The report concluded the club had insufficient oversight of its coaches, noting that players were fearful of speaking out given the perception the coach in question was the gatekeeper to Canada’s national women’s team.
The report also said that there was no way for the club to stop the coach from working elsewhere in the soccer world, as a ban on future work was outside of its jurisdiction.
2017 alleged sexual assault
The report also touched on a 2017 alleged sexual assault in the Whitecaps’ U15 youth residency program that was first reported by Global News.
The boy’s mother alleged the club tried to downplay the incident and convince the family not to go to the police.
However, the SLSG report — which spoke only to Whitecaps staff about the matter — concludes “the Whitecaps handled this incident reasonably and in accordance with expected practices.”
Once staff were aware of the seriousness of the alleged sexual assault, the club told the family to contact police and also notified the RCMP, the report found.
“Nevertheless, Whitecaps staff should not have attempted to act as counsel to the family and, if it was suspected that there may have been a criminal incident, should have contacted police immediately themselves,” states the report.
It also called a 48-hour delay in notifying police “not ideal” but said the team had otherwise acted appropriately, notifying parents immediately, suspending the accused player to ensure a safe environment for players, arranging counselling and keeping parents informed.
It found the club also appeared to have learned from the incident, strengthening policies to avoid future incidents of unsupervised behaviour.
2013 hiring of coach
In September 2013, the Whitecaps hired a regional head coach for its Kootenay Academy Centre who later turned out to have faced accusations of racism in April of that year.
The report found the coach had been previously interviewed by the club in January 2013, at which point the Whitecaps had conducted a full background check.
When the coach was hired in September, the club relied on the January vetting, according to the report.
“The Whitecaps acknowledged that they made an error in their hiring process,” the report reads.
The report concludes the club has since taken steps to ensure no staff are hired without an up-to-date screening.
The report concludes that overall, the club has continuously worked to improve its policies and practices, particularly regarding safe sport.
However, it goes on to make 34 recommendations for the club to improve safety and complaint management.
Those include appointing an independent third party to act as the first point of contact for complaints and proactively communicating safe sport resources, including victim support services and hotlines, to club members.
It recommends making clear to players and staff that the club will have zero tolerance for retaliation against people who report complaints and requiring coaches to prove they have completed respect-in-sport programs.
It also recommends creating a process for players and families to anonymously evaluate coaches and staff and create an arm’s-length parent/guardian committee.
Mallett said the club was reviewing the recommendations, and on its website, the Whitecaps said it will be assembling a task force to lead their implementation “and will prioritize the most pressing ones.”