Former Team Canada and Whitecaps women's soccer coach Bob Birarda sentenced to 2 years

Former Vancouver Whitecaps and Canada U-20 women's soccer coach Bob Birarda is seen above in June after pleading guilty to sexual assault. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Former Vancouver Whitecaps and Canada U-20 women's soccer coach Bob Birarda is seen above in June after pleading guilty to sexual assault. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Former Team Canada and Vancouver Whitecaps women's soccer coach Bob Birarda has been sentenced to two years less a day, consisting of 16 months of jail time, followed by eight months of house arrest.

He was also handed three years probation.

Birarda listened to the decision from a chair at the front of a North Vancouver provincial courtroom, wearing a dark blue blazer and grey pants. At the conclusion of the hearing, he was put in handcuffs and led out by a sheriff.

In her reasons, Judge Deanne Gaffar described the case as involving a trusted member of the soccer coaching community who violated the sexual integrity of youthful and promising players, with impacts and devastation continuing to this day.  

Gaffar said given the public attention on the case, she was "acutely aware" her decision would not meet the expectations of some while seeming too severe to others.

Birarda pleaded guilty in February to three counts of sexual assault and one count of touching a young person for a sexual purpose, charges relating to four players who were teens in high-performance programs when he coached or mentored them.

The offences took place over a span of two decades, between 1988 and 2008.

Victims react

The names of the four victims are protected by a publication ban. One victim who spoke to CBC said she appreciated the judge acknowledging Birada's predatory and grooming behaviour.

"That shows the charges don't relate to single incidents of bad judgment," she said. "If there's any other player out there who was mistreated by him, I want them to know it's not their fault."

A second victim said that seeing Birarda sanctioned doesn't fix a systemic problem in soccer.

"The victims, in this case, were teenage members of select B.C. soccer teams ... which should have been a place of personal growth and development but instead became a place of sexual violence with life-altering consequences," she said.

"I'm glad to see this [sentence]. I don't want him near young women or in the sport of soccer. But I think there's a larger issue we need to address."

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

In victim impact statements presented earlier, three of the four victims described how Birarda started communicating with them in ever-increasing volumes of phone calls and, later, texts and emails. The conversations started out about soccer but were manipulated toward personal and then sexual content and eventually resulted in a sexual violation.

He repeatedly told one of the players that he intended to have sex with her on her 18th birthday, which he referred to as "Ecstasy Day." Gaffar said the "prolonged psychological pressure" made the young woman quit soccer on her 18th birthday to get away from him. He was 40 at the time.

The players all aspired to play nationally or internationally and were well aware of the influence Birarda had on their ability to advance in the sport. They described trying to navigate his "gatekeeping" role with his inappropriate behaviour. At least two of the players found themselves apologizing to him for refusing his sexual advances.

'Betrayal of position of trust'

In listing aggravating circumstances, Gaffar cited the multiple offences and multiple victims over a 20-year time span, the victims' ages at the time of the offences (16, 17 and 18), elements of grooming and the betrayal of a position of trust. She said the power imbalance in the relationships forced the victims to navigate his misconduct amid his growing influence in the soccer community.

Mitigating circumstances cited by Gaffar included Birarda choosing to enter an early guilty plea, his demonstration of profound regret, the counselling he's undertaken and his low risk to re-offend, according to reports from two psychologists.

Allegations around Birarda's conduct with players first became public in 2019 when former Whitecaps player Ciara McCormack published a blog describing some of the behaviour.

In 2008, Birarda was quietly dismissed as head coach of Canada's women's under-20 team and head coach of the Whitecaps women's team for incidents and text messages involving players unrelated to the criminal charges.

He started coaching girls' soccer in a Vancouver suburb a few months after the dismissal and continued until 2019.