I am convinced that we are ready for professional women’s soccer in Canada. But barriers keep getting put up in its way.
Like everyone in the North American soccer community I am still trying to come to grips with the revelations in the independent report by Sally Q. Yates in the United States. The levels of abuse, the specific examples, and the missed opportunities to act on the courageous reporting of female athletes – are all difficult to digest. And just as I manage to wade through the majority of the seemingly endless pages, we get hit with another sucker punch. This one much closer to home.
Both Bob and Dan Lenarduzzi are back with the Vancouver Whitecaps Football Club.
There may be many casual soccer fans in this country who wonder why this is a big deal. For those who watch the women’s game closely, it is a slap in the face. Just peruse VWFC Twitter to see the supporters’ comments. Many are stating they won’t be back as season seat holders (SSH). This is the same fan base that saw their Supporters Groups stand up and walk out on the team in the original protest that got us here. Something has got to change. But I have to go back to make sure we are all on board with what is happening.
In 2019 Ciara McCormack, a Canadian professional soccer player and member of Ireland’s international team wrote a courageous blog about the Vancouver Whitecaps and Canada Soccer’s open secret. She gave the wider soccer public a view behind the curtain, and it was ugly. And what was perhaps ugliest, was how many men in positions to protect girls and young women knew and minimized the abuse, or worse facilitated it. Or maybe it was that many women took steps to end it, but instead ended up outside of soccer, their pleas stonewalled, and their dreams dashed.
McCormack understood her privilege. She was older than some of the young women and girls facing the abuse directly at the time of her revelation. And she had the opportunity to play for Ireland in her back pocket, meaning one of the principal levers in the power imbalance, The Canadian National Team, couldn’t be leveraged against her as easily.
Basically, at least one abusive coach was using his power to abuse younger female athletes. Young women that were working tirelessly to reach the goal of being Canadian Internationals. And he held the keys to those dreams.
And the usual questions pop up from outsiders, and for the most part they are understandable. “Why not report him to the team?” “Why not just switch teams?” or “Why not take this to Soccer Federation or an Abuse Hotline?”
And the answers are almost too strange to believe. In some situations when abuse was reported, at great risk to the players involved, the team provided the accused with the information. This allows abusers to “get their stories straight” or worse, intimidate would be whistleblowers.
Switching teams was not a possibility. Canada Soccer had a single stream to the Women’s National Team, and it ran through VWFC. Leaving meant giving up on your dreams. All those hours. All those sacrifices. Players who resisted this set-up found themselves outside the National Team discussion. In one such case, a legendary starter for the CanWNT and successful pro player, refused to travel across the country to the west coast set up and never played national team soccer again. The situation was not simple nor straightforward, and there were nuances undoubtedly, but the result was chilling. If a star could be removed, what chance did up-and-comers have? Why rock the boat?
So, then the last step was to take it high up to the Federation. And here is where it truly surreal. The abusers we know of in the VWFC/Canada Soccer system were known to those in power through complaints. But both the recently convicted Bob Birarda, and a second coach accused of abuse, Hubert Busby, Jr., were released from their positions by VWFC. But a press release stated it was “mutual agreement” in Birarda’s case and Busby is on record as saying that “They wanted to go another direction” according to a Guardian article. And members high up in VWFC at the time of these reports of abuse included Dan and Bob Lenarduzzi. Maybe worse, at Canada Soccer at the time of the abuse was Victor Montagliani, now President of Concacaf and VP of FIFA. If these men were in positions to protect athletes at some of the highest levels, and didn’t, how can we maintain faith in these institutions now? How can the Vancouver Whitecaps fight for change to the system if these men are still in high positions in the women’s game? (Even if now, it is youth elite programs instead of the disbanded Women’s team).
I remember thinking how happy I was when I learned that a Canadian was head of CONCACAF, and a FIFA VP. Wow! We had hit the big time. And Canadian soccer was about to take off. We were getting our own league, the CPL. We were going to play in continental matches. We were going to host a World Cup. Our Men’s team was finally going to become relevant. It took me way too long to recognize what I wasn’t seeing.
Canada had been consistently on the world soccer map for years. Hosted a senior World Cup. Gathered Olympic medals. Created household names. It just so happened that it was women carrying the program through these accomplishments. And when Mr. Montagliani made it to the top, what was missing was the announcement of a women’s pro league, or at least the steps to one. Concacaf continental games for club teams. New exciting ways to grow the game further and reward the standard bearers. And most importantly, conclusive ways to make the game safer for women and girls and add transparency and accountability to the high offices of elite women’s soccer in Canada. Instead, I see deflections and toothless investigations that absolve names like Montagliani, Lenarduzzi and more.
And I know that this is where the usual arguments are made. We can barely afford a men’s pro league; how can we start a women’s league? No one watches women’s sports. Where will the money come from?
S. 2 Ep. 17 – Can Canada Hold Herdman – FC13 Podcast
And for me it is this lack of vision that demands a change in leadership in the current soccer climate in Canada. It is a different kind of abuse to my way of thinking. It is a paternalistic pat on the head. “Thanks gals, we got it from here.”
I am not saying these changes will be easy. But that doesn’t make them undeserved. We have experience on the pitch in Canada. We now have women plying their trade at some of the world’s biggest clubs. We have Canadian women coaches in professional leagues. We have ex-players with business degrees, and front office experience. We have players representing each other in player’s unions. There are female sports media talents and sports agents. There are even current female executives in roles at Canadian men’s professional leagues.
In my opinion, what we need to do now is avoid placing these capable and available women in new positions within the machinery of the status quo. We need to support new ways of approaching the game that are outside of the box. Abuse reporting mechanisms designed by player, parent and community input. Meaningful Player Association representation that guarantees player remuneration for all work – including clinics, photo ops and other behind the scenes duties. And we need to open sport up to new diverse voices and sponsorship opportunities.
I will be honest that I hope that the words of the new CPL commissioner Mark Noonan are as sincere as I believe they are when he says that he sees Women’s Soccer as a business opportunity. This is because of the numbers at the Euros or at the big US professional teams in San Diego and L.A. (Though the numbers at the 2015 World Cup should do the talking here). But I always worry that women’s teams attached to men’s teams in Canada will always be an afterthought. A team destined to play schedules penciled in after the men’s games are inked, or in stadiums covered in the Men’s teams advertising and so on. But if we can make it work, having places for young athletes to develop before making national teams, or transferring overseas professionally, would be amazing. And the more options our women have, the less opportunity power imbalance and abuse has to fester.
I know there is a long road ahead for the women in soccer in Canada. But it is one they have been travelling alone. Hopefully the light shed on these abuses recently will continue until more solutions are adopted. That is going to take soccer media, supporters, fans, families and business to play an active part. So, let’s get started. “Lenarduzzi’s Out” ain’t a bad place to start.
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