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A Game of Two Halves

Updated: Oct 13, 2022

September 20th, 2007, was the last time I dressed for the Women's National Team. I didn't officially retire until a few months later, but I knew it was my final match. I remember sitting on the field afterwards, cleats off, a thousand-mile stare on my face. My entire adult life, I had been trying to fight my way through the physical, emotional and mental challenges that make up a woman's life in professional sport. Now my career was over, and those challenges were behind me; I had to try to understand what it all meant.

More than a decade later, I realize I could not have been more wrong. My life with the WNT was anything but over. The challenges have just kept rolling, and I'm still trying to understand what it was about.

The first of the challenges came much sooner than expected. In 2008, scarcely out of my uniform, I began to hear many rumours and stories about troubles within the Women's Whitecaps and U20 Women's National Team from athletes closely related to the two heavily connected programs. Concerned about the seriousness of the allegations, I contacted a high-performance coach within Canada Soccer and alerted him to the issue. As a result of my coming forward to help, I played a small intermediary role in investigating what was going on within these programs. Recently, Ciara McCormack, a member of the Women's Whitecaps in 2007, has come forward and brought those issues back into the spotlight with her blog post, A Horrific Canadian Soccer Story. As someone who experienced some of what happened with the investigation, I need to add my voice to Ciara's as she continues to challenge some of the systemic issues within the world of youth sports here in BC and beyond. I do not believe that the system supported Ciara and her teammates back then, and, although I hope I'm wrong, I do not believe the system functions any better today. So, like Ciara, I have some questions.

Firstly, during the 2008 investigation into the circumstances surrounding the Women's Whitecaps and U20 WNT, very few of the athletes involved were interviewed by the independent fact-finder running the investigation for Canada Soccer and the Whitecaps. Considering the seriousness of the accusations coming from some parts of the team, why were the vast majority of the players, some of whom were central to the allegations, not spoken to as part of the process? In my opinion, the scope of the investigation was quite limited, and I think the soccer community deserves to know why the Whitecaps and Canada Soccer concluded it as quickly as they did.

Secondly, in early October of 2008, when the independent fact-finder was close to concluding her inquiry, she spoke to me about one of her recommendations to the Whitecaps and Canada Soccer concerning the coach involved. She told me that she would inform the organizations that the staff member should avoid future roles such as coaching, as she felt he could not manage what she called the power imbalance between his role as a coach and his relationship with the players. I, like many others, was understandably puzzled when the inquiry concluded with the "mutual decision" to part ways. Despite what the independent fact-finder had told me, the investigation was brief in the end, the conclusion swift and the outcome seemingly amicable for all parties except, of course, the players.

This outcome raises deeper concerns about how we, as a soccer community, view our programs' purpose and the culture we have created to shape our young people. Canada Soccer is the accrediting union for coaching certification in our country. They have the power, the mandate and, most importantly, the responsibility to ensure that the people who coach at any level are fit to do so. To me, that is about a great deal more than just the technical ability to coach soccer skills, especially when it comes to coaching youth. It mattered greatly as an athlete; it matters to me even more now as a mother.

During the events of 2008, to the best of my knowledge, neither Canada Soccer nor the Whitecaps ever reached out to any of the athletes' parents, despite several of the athletes being under 18. Nor, to my knowledge, did either organization ever reach out and offer support to any of the players on the team, some of whom still carry the scars of their experience to this day. As a parent, I find this more than a little lacking, and I question the values behind decisions that are so blatantly not athlete-centred, especially when dealing with minors most vulnerable in these situations. In a world where non-disclosure agreements and fear of lawsuits silence people from speaking their truth and protecting the weak, I support Ciara for taking the risk in talking about what she has experienced and seen.

Recently, the President of BC Soccer, Kjeld Brodsgaard, in An Open Letter from the President and BC Soccer Board of Directors, committed his organization to initiating an independent third-party review and to share the outcome of that review with BC Soccer's membership. His commitment stands in stark contrast to the 2008 inquiry in several ways, not the least of which is his responsibility to transparency.

I've spent a large part of my lifetime focussing on sport; first as a badminton player, later as a soccer player, and now as a coach and, more importantly, a parent. In my pursuit of meaning since 2007, I've come to only a few certain conclusions about what my soccer career meant. As much as I loved to pull on that jersey and step onto the field, it was always far more critical that I try to wear my jersey well in life. I've failed on many occasions to do that, but that makes it matter all the more.

People can choose to argue the details we concern ourselves with when we want to ignore the truth. But that won't change the reality: What happened in 2008 was wrong. People get emotionally hurt, and we are all responsible for doing something about that. Blame and responsibility are not the same things. Wearing our jerseys well in life is not about appearance. It's about setting aside the ego within, having humility and listening to our hearts. Whatever happened, we all have a responsibility to seek the truth, take responsibility for healing our community and bring everyone together to go forward. If we do not, whatever the outcome of BC Soccer's review, we will still be failing our young people. You cannot ask them to become something that we do not have the courage to at least attempt to try and be. This is going to be a game of two halves. The intermission has been long, but I believe we still have a chance to pull this one out.

I, for one, am honoured to be able to call Ciara my teammate.

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Andrea Neil

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