Whitecaps abuse whistleblower dismisses MLS investigation as a ‘whitewash’

An independent review into how the Vancouver Whitecaps handled abuse allegations against former coaches Bob Birarda and Hubert Busby Jr. in 2008 and 2011 is being dismissed as a “whitewash” by the former player who initially brought the issue to the public’s attention.

While the report for Major League Soccer found the Whitecaps’ response was “appropriate,” that isn’t the experience of former player Ciara McCormack.

“It’s becoming more and more apparent that these sorts of investigations are PR jobs,” McCormack told CityNews in an interview. “It just needs to be acknowledged that it’s very harmful for victims, basically, to have their experiences whitewashed.”

The report was carried out by Janice Rubin and Melody Jahanzadeh of Rubin Thomlinson LLP. It found that while the investigations were “superficial and lacking in depth”, the Whitecaps’ actions “indicate that they took the allegations seriously, and through the use of an external investigator, addressed them at the time.”

But in terms of superficiality, McCormack has a few things to say about this report, which comprises just 18 pages. It’s a stark contrast to a recent report by McLaren Global Sport Solutions on behalf of Canada Soccer, which looked into events around that same time period.

“We have the benefit of a very thorough report,” McCormack said in reference to the deep dive by McLaren Global Sport Solutions. “Professionally, organizations like Rubin Thomlinson are not doing a service to their credibility, their ethics, to send out an 18-page report and say that that’s ample to describe what’s gone on. Especially when you juxtapose that with a 125-page report.”

The latest review found no evidence of a “cover-up” or an attempt to dismiss the allegations.

With respect to the investigations themselves, Rubin and Jahanzadeh said they had “significant concerns”, adding “they appeared to have been rushed.”

“Of particular concern was the lack of an examination of the phone allegedly used by Mr. Birarda to send text to the players in 2008,” the report reads.

“Most problematically, the investigator did not prepare written investigation reports for any of the investigations, and as a result, we did not have a complete record of the allegations themselves, the investigative process followed, the evidence that was gathered, the investigator’s analysis, and the basis for their recommendations. In our opinion, this fell well outside the recommended practice for workplace investigators.”

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Some of the investigator’s findings “seemed overly generous to Mr. Birarda and Mr. Busby Jr., despite the evidence about their misconduct towards players,” the report said.

“Moreover, the investigator’s recommendation at the conclusion of the May 2008 investigation, that Mr. Birarda receive one-on-one coaching and sign a commitment letter, appears disproportionate to the severity of the matter – namely, that Mr. Birarda as a coach in a position of power had sent sexualized messages to a young female player. We query whether this was an appropriate recommendation.”

However, Rubin and Jahanzadeh did not link these concerns with the Whitecaps, noting the club “heavily relied” on the investigator for direction.

“We note that, at the time, the Whitecaps did not have a sophisticated human resources infrastructure, and did not have experience dealing with these types of allegations. Given the investigator’s apparent expertise and the Whitecaps’ lack of it on these matters, it was our view that the Whitecaps’ reliance on the investigator was reasonable in the circumstances.”

However, the review notes when allegations were first raised in May 2008, Birarda’s access to an apartment complex, where some players lived, was not removed. While acknowledging the Whitecaps explicitly raised this with the investigator, who did not recommend that his access be revoked, Rubin and Jahanzadeh said they “consider this to have been an oversight.”

The report adds after Birarda left the club, the Whitecaps seemed to focus mostly on the needs of the club and the former coach.

“We believe more could have been done to support the players.”

But after the 2011 investigation, Rubin and Jahanzadeh say the Whitecaps “adopted a more player-centred response.”

Claims against Birarda were first brought forward by now-retired Whitecaps women’s team player Ciara McCormack, who detailed the allegations in a February 2019 blog post.

Birarda was charged with several offences against four people in December 2020, and pleaded guilty in February of this year to three counts of sexual assault and one count of sexual touching. He’s set to be sentenced in September.

The incidents date back to between January 1988 and March 2008. While he was a coach with both the women’s Whitecaps squad and Canada’s women’s under-20 team for the tail end of that period, some of the charges against him pre-date that period.

More than a dozen women involved in the teams came forward to accuse Birarda of acting inappropriately. Allegations included rubbing a player’s thigh, sending players sexual text messages, making lewd comments, and bullying young women who ignored or spoke out against his behaviour.

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In November, Busby Jr. was suspended from his role as the women’s head coach for the Jamaica Football Federation (JFF)

The JFF had written to FIFA requesting an investigation.

“We will await the results of this FIFA investigation. We do not want to make permanent decisions until we have the facts. At the same time, we have to ensure that our women and girls are protected by those who lead them,” Micheal Ricketts, president of the JFF, said in a statement at the time.

Whitecaps’ response

In a club statement, Whitecaps chief executive Axel Schuster wrote:

“We commend the brave women who have spoken up and been fierce advocates for change both publicly and behind closed doors. We look forward to working hand in hand with our players and the soccer community to move the club forward and ensure respect and dignity are embedded into the DNA of our organization.”

Schuster also acknowledged club failings that were made at the time.

“We have supported this investigation from the outset and are driven by our commitment to fostering a culture of zero tolerance for any form of harassment or bullying,” Schuster wrote.

“While Rubin Thomlinson’s report found that our organization took the allegations seriously and acted on the expert advice of an external investigator, it’s clear that we could have done better, especially in how we supported and communicated with our players. To the women who were affected, our staff, players, and community, we are truly sorry.”

For their independent report into the Whitecaps’ handling of the allegations, Rubin and Jahanzadeh said in the report they wanted to interview 30 people, including former players and coaches, as well as current and former Whitecaps employees, and an external investigator who was hired to look into the allegations against Birarda and Busby Jr.

“While all current Whitecaps employees agreed to be interviewed, regrettably, most of the other people who we had identified did not respond to our request to participate. Some told us explicitly that they did not wish to participate in this review. We made numerous attempts to contact the external investigator and were unsuccessful.”

Ultimately, the pair interviewed four current Whitecaps employees and one former worker, “who had varying degrees of involvement with the 2008 and 2011 investigations”; as well as nine others, including three former players, “with respect to historical concerns and/or current Whitecaps policies, procedures, and training.”

“We did not interview as many former players as we would have liked. Their voices, which we very much wanted to hear, are largely missing from this review.”

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