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The former Ireland international who’s become a leading advocate in football’s me-too movement

Ciara McCormack on the NWSL abuse scandal and other similar controversies that have plagued sport.

Ciara McCormack pictured playing for Ireland in 2010.
Ciara McCormack pictured playing for Ireland in 2010.
Image: Donall Farmer/INPHO

WOMEN’S SPORT has come a long way in the past decade.

Particularly in Ireland, 2021 served as a reminder of the many accomplished female athletes who have been given a chance to flourish.

The fact that the RTÉ Sportsperson of the Year shortlist was dominated by women felt like a sign of the times.

Yet there were also some sobering reminders that women’s sport still has a long way to go and falls badly short in certain regards.

One of the biggest sports stories of the year was the National Women’s Soccer League abuse scandal.

It started when The Athletic published an article whereby multiple players accused North Carolina Courage head coach Paul Riley of sexual coercion.

The ramifications were significant. Riley was fired by the club, NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird resigned and general counsel Lisa Levine was also forced out by the board of directors. Steve Baldwin, the CEO of the Washington Spirit, also stepped down. Investigations were launched by Fifa and US Soccer among others.

It was not the first and certainly won’t be the last abuse story to plague women’s sport.

As a consequence, a sense of wariness more so than surprise was the predominant reaction.

A full weekend of games were cancelled over the issue.

When matches resumed, play was halted mid-game during one round of action last October, as the league’s footballers sought to protest the prevailing toxic culture that ostensibly exists in the sport.   

This is not a scandal as far away as it might seem. Two Irish players, Denise O’Sullivan and Diane Caldwell, have been on the books at North Carolina Courage in recent times, though the latter’s departure from the club was announced earlier this month.

National team boss Vera Pauw was among those to weigh in on the scandal. The Irish coach emphasised that the problem was not restricted to US football, where she briefly spent time as a coach of Houston Dash in 2018.

“I don’t want to minimise it to there,” Pauw told reporters. “It is all over the world and it’s happening on a daily basis. That’s the only thing I want to say about it because there are people who want to change things.

“I play my part in all that, I always played my part and I never came out with that to protect people but it is something that is going on for too long. I am happy I am not the only one anymore. There are a lot of people of course standing on the barricades.

“I have always chosen to do it behind the scenes but, trust me, it’s happening all over the world. Everywhere where I have coached.”

One person who is no stranger to this subject matter is Ciara McCormack. The former Ireland international was involved in a separate controversy that began in the mid-2000s and still to this day has not been fully resolved.

She revealed her negative experiences with Bob Birarda and the Vancouver Whitecaps in a blog in 2019 and subsequently spoke at length about them in interviews both with The42 and elsewhere, so this article won’t be revisiting that particular story in detail. 

But after sharing her experiences, McCormack felt emboldened by the public support she received. As a consequence, she has become somewhat of a spokesperson and a representative for disillusioned female footballers.

When news of the NWSL abuse scandal broke, the BBC, The Guardian and Newstalk were among the many outlets to seek McCormack’s opinion.

With football having largely turned a blind eye and stayed silent on this subject for decades, the 42-year-old retired defender was determined to do the opposite.

On the latest scandal, she tells The42: “At this point, having existed within women’s soccer for a while, I wasn’t surprised.

“I had spoken to a journalist a couple of weeks before. He made the comment that he found it really surprising how quiet soccer was, and he said something along the lines of the quietest corners are where the darkest secrets lie.

“I feel like we’re in a phase right now that’s almost like a purge. It’s just story after story. But I think it’s a big positive, it’s a lot of collective trauma to be carrying around. 

“And I know the stories are so gross, awful and whatever. I’m just really happy every time I hear someone coming forward. I know from my own experience that you just can’t start to heal from any of this stuff until it’s out there.

“What’s changed is the climate now is validating. It’s a lot more of a safer space for people to come forward. I know how much trauma you have to carry around.

“I wasn’t sexually harassed or any of those things, but I existed within those environments. I saw my teammates getting targeted. I spoke up about it within various circumstances and suffered personal consequences for that. I think it’s a time for all of this coming out and I think it’s a time of healing and just laying a better and safer foundation moving forward.”

An obvious question is what can be done now to stem the prevalence of abuse within women’s soccer in particular and elsewhere.

“I think the first step is awareness of the harm and the long-lasting harm, and I think that’s what’s happening now,” says McCormack.

“I think people have to understand that it’s not like you end your soccer career and there’s a finite wall and then you move on to the rest of your life. This stuff seeps into the rest of your life. So just an awareness of how serious this stuff is and how damaging it is [is important].

“I think players also need to be educated. What is abuse? How important is it for players to have boundaries in all capacities that truly make the sport a safe place?

“Even for me, I’ve learned terminology and words that I didn’t have before. Neglect is a form of abuse. I used to think it was a consequence of my personality, suffering consequences for speaking up and so, just being able to recognise for athletes in those circumstances, how they should be treated and just how harmful it is to stay in environments that aren’t healthy. It’s something I look back on and wish I got out of environments sooner for my own mental health.”

portland-usa-03rd-oct-2021-portland-timbers-and-thorns-soccer-fans-mounted-a-vigorous-protest-against-sexual-harassment-and-professional-coercion-exerted-on-portland-thorns-female-footballers-at Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Over the years, there have been high-profile abuse cases, not only in soccer but swimming, gymnastics and ice hockey among others.

One recurring feature is that sports organisations invariably act in their own interest, at the expense of the athlete’s, which is why there are invariably attempted cover-ups in these situations.

“Moving forward, having an athlete-led organisation that gives athletes a safe place to report [is key],” McCormack says. “And one that is investigative on organisations that are outside of their grasp and their ability to control narratives.

“I think that piece of it is super important and I also think that support, once people come forward and even amid situations looking for a safe place to talk about whatever it is that they’re going through and even after the fact, just that support is so important in terms of peers or allies that have been through [similar] circumstances and obviously, professional help. Both of those things were massive turning points for me in terms of being able to turn the page and move forward into a much healthier headspace.”

Already some independent athlete-led organisations, such as Global Athlete, exist, and McCormack believes this is the way forward for sport in future.

“For a long time, as athletes, we’ve grown up in a world where we’re told that people do the right thing and there are these channels and we don’t question them in any way.

“People have been in this situation, gone through those channels and realised that they’re all about protecting the institutions and organisations that have nothing to do with protecting or looking out for the athletes. You’ve suffered harm and you just want to move on and it’s a hard torch to take up where you’re in the headspace and you only really know about the necessity for it unless you’ve been through it and seen the dysfunction of it.

“So that’s a huge priority for me. Moving forward, I don’t like to sit in negative spaces. I like to come up with solutions. I truly think that the Global Athlete thing is phenomenal in terms of something that’s totally athlete led and focused, and that’s the direction I see everything moving in.

“Even people enabling and causing harm through these organisations have always had protection, whereas a victim has to come forward and give their name and personal story. Then they’re sort of siloed.

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“So I think now, athletes are starting to get together on the other side and be like: ‘This isn’t good enough.’

“We have to take matters into our own hands to make sure that athletes are protected and taken care of. There has just been so much harm caused by these organisations and not only from the situations happening but the cover-ups and the enabling and the looking the other way. I think that’s what needs to change and I don’t see it coming from anybody else besides people looking out for the athletes’ best interests, which is probably the athletes themselves or former athletes.”

Judging by any metric, women’s football is more popular than ever. The last World Cup was watched by over a billion people and broke viewership figures.

Ireland’s match with Georgia last month attracted a record TV audience for a women’s international in this country.

This greater attention inevitably brings more scrutiny. And McCormack believes the fact that the sport is increasingly popular can help shine a light on the problem without necessarily solving it.

Even in hugely popular men’s sports, abuse has been a big issue. The Barry Bennell case is one example of a scandal that rocked English football, while McCormack also cites the Kyle Beach story in the National Hockey League that surfaced earlier this year.

However, McCormack suggests the more power athletes are afforded, the greater protection they are likely to have.

“Part of what gave abusive coaches power in the past was the fact that there were so few opportunities and there was so little money [in the women's game]. A lot of the time, the national team was the pinnacle. And it felt like you could not be happier with the national team [in contrast to] men’s football with their millions-of-dollars-a-year contracts and if it didn’t work out with the national team, it was a bummer but they could continue to play.

“The system [in women's football] has been set up in the past with the lack of finances and professionalism. There was way too much of a blurry line between personal and professional and then also too where the coaches were gatekeepers. So if it didn’t work out with the national team, that was it.

“You’re pretty much done. You couldn’t even really get Visas overseas without having that national team tagged to you. There were a lot of repercussions to that sort of thing.

“It’s also true when things are sort of in darkness, abusers are empowered. I think now, coaches even if they are skewered that way or would try something like that, they’ve seen that players aren’t afraid to come forward, they are being believed, there are actions taken — coaches not being able to coach anymore if they decide to do that with their power.”

nwsl-protest-signs-after-a-week-of-scandal-the-nwsl-restarted-wednesday-with-a-football-soccer-game-between-ny-nj-gotham-fc-and-the-washington-spirit-numerous-protests-signs-along-with-a-mid-gam NWSL players pause mid game to protest abuse in the sport. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

For McCormack, being an advocate and having to regularly think and speak about abuse takes a toll. She becomes emotional during this interview and often does when discussing the subject. Yet it is nothing compared to the pain of being kept quiet in the past.

“We were silenced for over a decade and I’m still just so grateful to even be a voice and just to be somebody that can speak for this stuff. I’ve experienced the harm myself personally and again, just the harm of not being heard. So I think it’s a real privilege and I’m so grateful that it’s become such an issue that there are lots of people that want to talk or hear about it.

“I have gone through a lot of therapy the last couple of years since all this stuff happened. I think a big thing for me would be that, it was a survival tactic., and just to be able to disconnect emotionally but as a human being, it’s not a very healthy thing to do. I think it’s therapy for me [speaking out]. There’s a 50:50 at this point whether I get emotional or upset talking about it.

“It’s a sign for me that I have my own emotional growth through all this stuff. But for sure, I’m a lot more careful now even when I have to tell the story or get into the details of what happened, as I’ve gotten healthier emotionally, I find it more draining to go deep into the details of what really happened.

“I’m grateful that we’re at a point where a lot of people want to talk about it because it’s such an important issue. Accomplishing things at World Cups, Olympics or whatever, none of it matters if people don’t come out of sport healthy and happy and having had something that’s been a positive.

“It’s such an immersive experience and it’s so deep in terms of how it seeps into your life post-sport. I think it’s so important to be talking about it and creating environments and pathways that leave people better for having been in sport as opposed to having to go to therapy and be dealing with really deep emotional negative things after they’ve come out. So I think we’re in a good place that we’re starting to talk about it.

“Every time [an athlete speaks out], I think it makes it easier. It takes away a veil of shame that a lot of people feel that they’ve done something wrong. It just allows everybody to heal and move forward and this stuff doesn’t go away unless you tackle it head on. So I think it’s really important what’s happening right now and the fact that it does feel like there’s this huge purge, it’s such a positive thing.”  

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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