Over the coming weeks we will be speaking to many of the 14 women participating in the programme which is in association with ‘Women in Football’.
They come from Afghanistan, Australia, Canada, Denmark, Guatemala, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, Senegal, Sweden, Switzerland and Uruguay. The ‘Women in Football’ course is overseen by leaders including its chair Ebru Koksal.
The first of the 14 we spoke to is Ciara McCormack, a board member of the Canadian football player association who is starting up a company to provide support for victims of abuse in sports.
She was raised by Irish parents in Canada. After graduating in Women’s Studies from Yale University, she went on to represent the Republic of Ireland’s football team and played for Danish club Fortuna Hjørring in the 2003 UEFA Women’s Champions League final.
You already have some leadership experience in football.
I started running showcases and advising young women about how to earn sports scholarships in Canadian and U.S universities based on my experience in winning a soccer scholarship. In 2016, I set up my own company TOPP Soccer. I am the Chief Executive and employ two other people. We want to empower teenage players and allow them identify all the different options and help them reach their goals in the game.
Are there barriers to women in North American football?
There is sexism but I’d say it’s more subtle than other places. In both Canada and the U.S., most money and power in the game is male-dominated. In Canada, we are one of the only countries in the world that I would say has gone backwards in terms of opportunities for women in the last 15 years. Despite our national team being top 10 in the world, there are less high-quality semi-pro teams than before and we still don’t have a national league for women. There’s an attitude we should just be quietly grateful for the crumbs we are given. With my Irish roots, I feel a bit like mixed-martial arts fighter Conor McGregor because I’m outspoken. I’m not afraid to take a punch and give a punch.
Can you give some examples.
I was a whistleblower about a coach involved with the Canadian national team back in 2008 who was fired quietly for sexual harassment. I wrote a blog exposing the whole story in 2019. I was not a victim but I knew the whole story and I was definitely bullied and experienced an awful environment along with many others. I knew it wasn’t right he was back coaching in Canada at the time the federation was talking about safe sport. I found the hypocrisy appalling.
What happened next?
He had also been a coach with Vancouver Whitecaps and thousands of people started to walk out in protest at the team’s Major League Soccer (MLS) games because the Whitecaps appeared to take no responsibility. Away teams fans also walked out. We had tried for 10 years to have the story told. I was so grateful that people wanted to hear about it. I know victims don’t usually get their voice heard. One of the most harmful parts of abuse is being silenced. After all the publicity, more victims came forward and the coach was arrested and charged with nine offences.
“When each of them told their personal stories it was like listening to 13 amazing TED Talks”
What was it like being a whistleblower?
It was overwhelming but I knew how lucky that we were to be finally heard. I became a de facto 1-800 hotline. I heard about other situations in Canada and around the world that made it clear a safe space for athletes is sorely lacking. At the moment I am working to set up an organization that allows safe third-party reporting, and education for athletes. We hope to launch by the end of the year.
Is there anything else similar in Canada?
Right now you can only call the hotline of the sporting entity. But national sport organizations have a massive conflict of interest. They are going to fight for their own survival first. There is nothing athlete led in Canada. There is no mental health support to walk players through situations. The perpetrators don’t get flagged unless they are convicted of a sexual crime. That leaves a lot of risk and potential for harm.
What has been your experience of 'Ready to Board' so far?
I’m based on the west coast of America so the programme has been from 3am to 6:30am each day this week. I’m normally a person who needs eight hours of sleep but the time goes by so quickly and it leaves me revved up for the rest of the day. I am blown away by the other women’s ability and fearlessness. I’m so grateful for being included. Any time you are around greatness it inspires you to do more. When each of them told their personal stories it was like listening to 13 amazing TED Talks.