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Soccer star Andrea Neil calls for judicial inquiry into sports abuse in Canada

Nothing can change until we turn the lights on and reckon with where we are
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Canada’s Andrea Neil (5) jogs off the field after the international friendly soccer match against Germany in Burnaby, B.C. Thursday Sept. 1, 2005. A former captain of Canada’s women’s soccer team is calling for the federal government to launch a full judicial inquiry into abuse in sports across the country. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chuck Stoody

A former captain of Canada’s women’s soccer team is calling for the federal government to launch a full judicial inquiry into abuse in sports across the country.

“Nothing can change until we turn the lights on and reckon with where we are,” Andrea Neil told members of Parliament on Thursday.

Her testimony came at the Standing Committee on the Status of Women’s latest meeting on the safety of women and girls in sport.

Athletes from more than a half dozen sports have called for change in recent months following widespread allegations of harassment, abuse and bullying. Late last month, more than 90 Canadian and global sports scholars joined the call for an independent inquiry in a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Neil told the committee she’s heard stories about mistreatment, abuse and corruption within Canadian soccer for years, including as recently as last week.

The celebrated midfielder made 132 appearances for the national team between 1991 and 2007, and was inducted into the Canada Soccer Hall of Fame in 2012.

In 2019, she made headlines yet again when she spoke out in support of a group of players who alleged they’d been bullied, abused and harassed by Bob Birarda, a former coach of Canada’s U-20 women’s team and the Vancouver Whitecaps women’s team.

Birarda pleaded guilty last February to three counts of sexual assault and one count of sexual touching involving four players, and was handed a sentence of two years less a day in November, including nearly 16 months in jail.

Canada Soccer did not properly handle the players’ allegations and enabled him to continue coaching girls after he was dismissed by both the national sports organization and the Whitecaps in 2008, Neil said.

“Our national federation had completely failed at safeguarding, irresponsibly shifting his predatory behaviour on,” she said.

“These women have been dismissed, diminished and devalued as human beings by those who were responsible for keeping them safe.”

In addition to a judicial inquiry, Neil wants the government to commit to a comprehensive forensic audit of Canada Soccer’s finances and publicly disclose how funding is being used and why.

“Those brave enough to call on (Canada Soccer) to do better have not been protected,” she said. “Some have suffered retributions, others silenced and smothered by non-disclosure agreements and clauses in employment contracts.”

Olympian Lanni Marchant also spoke before the committee on Thursday, detailing the harassment and abuse she experienced first as a young figure skater, then as a long-distance runner who competed at the 2016 Rio Games.

Asked what the system for reporting abuse should look like, Marchant, who’s now a lawyer, said it needs to be simple because athletes are so focused on competing, and so used to trusting their coaches and those in power.

“We need a program, because when you’re under that stress and being abused, it literally needs to be paint by numbers,” she said. “We need something we can just follow through with our very dumb athlete brains.”

What athletes need, Marchant added, is to feel that their allegations have been heard and are being taken seriously.

“To pursue sport and represent Canada should not mean a decision between risking our physical, mental and emotional health to achieve our goals or walking away completely because the system is broken,” she said.

“Athletes are screaming for a sporting system to provide a safe and protected space for us to speak up. We’ve been asking and now are demanding one.”

—Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press

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