VANCOUVER—The swath of light-blue shirts was visible from the other side of the stadium.
That section of BC Place was reserved for a group of dedicated Vancouver Whitecaps fans known as the Southsiders. Just minutes before half time in a tense soccer match against the Portland Timbers on May 10, dozens rose from their seats and headed up the stairs to the concourse.
The rowdy fans banged drums and chanted team songs at the top of their lungs. Their Whitecaps-blue T-shirts were emblazoned with three simple words of protest: “We Believe Them.”
It was the Southsiders’ third walkout in a month, joined by another fan group called the Curva Collective and other attendees. The Southsiders were making a show of support for more than a dozen female players who say a former coach of the Whitecaps and U20 national women’s teams bullied and sexually harassed them between 2007 and 2008, when he was dismissed.
The coach, Bob Birarda, was never charged with a crime, and the allegations are unproven. He was later suspended from a coaching position at Coastal FC, an all-ages soccer club in Surrey, in March after the allegations surfaced online.
Those allegations first appeared in a Feb. 25 blog post by former Whitecaps player Ciara McCormack. On March 26, former national team player Andrea Neil weighed in with her own post, which pointed out flaws in the initial investigation. Then on April 4, another 13 former national team players coached by Birarda in 2007 and 2008 published an open letter “calling for a thorough investigation … as well as a significant overhaul of player safeguarding practices.”
Disappointed by team officials’ handling of the allegations, including a “lack of transparency,” the Southsiders staged four stadium walkouts throughout April and May, co-ordinated a T-shirt campaign and continued to push team management on the issue through public statements.
Then, progress. On May 20, Whitecaps owners Greg Kerfoot and Jeff Mallett met with McCormack and three of her former teammates. A week later, they hired an independent third party to review club policies around safety.
“I don’t think it would have happened without (the Southsiders’) support,” said McCormack.
The Southsiders never questioned their role. These fans, known for their raucous behaviour at games, are supporting women in a way some survivors say is defying stereotypes and demonstrating how accusations of sexual misconduct in sports should be handled.
“It’s 2019,” Southsiders president Peter Czimmermann said as the group gathered at a Gastown pub in May to watch an away game. “This group is for everybody.”
Southsiders celebrate the Whitecaps, for sure, but Czimmermann said they also have the aim of “making the team better and making Vancouver better.”
“We are an inclusive organization,” vice-president Paul Sabourin-Hertzog agreed. “We try to make the group inclusive of gender, (as well as) anti-racist, anti-transphobic, all those things.”
That’s why, as soon as the 13 women published their April 1 letter, the Southsiders asked for a meeting to see how they could help.
For McCormack, it was completely unexpected. When the first walkout happened on April 17, planned entirely by the fan group, she was in shock.
“I still get emotional about it, because we were so unsupported for so long … and all of a sudden, it’s like your big brother shows up at the playground,” said McCormack.
McCormack believes the Southsiders are unique in Canada for taking on the role of advocates. And plenty of players have needed support.
In February, a CBC investigation found at least 222 coaches of amateur sports in Canada had been convicted of one or more sexual offences in the past two decades.
In May, every member of the board of the Ottawa Lions track-and-field club resigned after a report commissioned by Athletics Canada detailed a systemic failure to address multiple allegations of sexual abuse, assault and harassment of athletes, some dating back four decades.
Last year, three skiers filed a lawsuit against Alpine Canada seeking damages for alleged abuse by former coach Bertrand Charest. He was found guilty of 37 sex-related crimes associated with nine athletes in 2017, though he is appealing both his convictions and his 12-year sentence.
Formal solutions are on the way. In May, Minister of Science and Sport Kristy Duncan said the federal government would develop a national code of conduct for sport to protect athletes from abuse.
But Southsiders fans took matters into their own hands, demanding meetings with Whitecaps owners and pushing them on social media to hold open press conferences to answer reporters’ questions.
Despite being in the thick of the fight, the group has not been shielded from such problems themselves. Some Southsiders have reported being harassed and intimidated, possibly by members of their own ranks.
Last fall, in an attempt to better understand the experiences of women and minorities in the group, the Southsiders conducted an anonymous survey. It showed some Southsiders did not feel safe or welcome at times at Whitecaps games.
Darcie Kerr, a longtime Southsider and former board member, said in an emailed statement that she “spoke personally with a number of supporters” and heard stories of “verbal abuse, harassment or unwanted sexual advances or touching.” Since the survey question only asked whether people had ever been harassed at a game, she said she did not know whether Southsider members committed the acts.
Kerr said the findings indicated that there was more the group needed to do to create a “strong, positive and safe place for women at Whitecaps games.”
She decided to form the South Sisters earlier this year, a subgroup meant for “all females, people who identify as female and allies.” It now has 48 members.
The South Sisters have collaborated with BC Place and the Whitecaps to have a “dedicated female security team” available at games. They also influenced a decision to replace “invasive pat-down security checks” with metal-detecting wands at the entrance.
“The core group is still male dominated — that’s due in part to the history of male-dominated sports — but the people involved are really trying to promote inclusivity,” said South Sister Pippa Adams, a PhD candidate studying feminism and pop culture at Simon Fraser University.
“You can see that through the Pride flags waved at every match, the women leading the chants at matches and the support of these women.”
The Southsiders’ support is rare in the world of sports, she said, but she believes the way fans react to sexual misconduct allegations is changing.
“There’s something visceral about sports that isn’t the same with movies or TV,” Adams explained. While actors are removed from the viewer at home, in a stadium, fans are under the same roof as players and management.
Hockey legend Theo Fleury has experienced the cultural shift on a personal level. Once a player with the Calgary Flames and the New York Rangers, he published a memoir in 2009 detailing sexual abuse by his former junior hockey coach Graham James, not long after player Sheldon Kennedy accused the same coach.
“I definitely felt supported by the people around me, but there was still some stigma attached to it,” he said in an interview. “I think that people were maybe a bit naive on handling these things because victim-blaming was still around.”
Since his memoir, Fleury has worked to support young people in sport and promote awareness about possible harassment and abuse before it happens. He has seen “a lot of changes” in the way allegations are handled by fans and said what the Southsiders are doing is exactly what he wants to see.
“I love the fact that they printed shirts that say ‘We Believe You’ … That is the greatest thing you can say to someone,” he said.
“It looks like in Vancouver they’ve got it spot on.”
Cherise Seucharan is a Vancouver-based reporter covering health, civil liberties and safety/youth. Follow her on Twitter: @CSeucharan