It was mid March 2019.
February 25, 2019 I had written a blog that had gone viral about an abusive coach I had in the Canadian system, an employee of both the Vancouver Whitecaps and Canada Soccer Association.
For the following two weeks it was like I had jumped on some kind of a turbo speed magic carpet, filled with never ending phone calls and daily wild occurrences.
It was Tuesday, March 12, 2019 and it was the first day since I had written the blog that things felt like they had calmed a bit.
I left my house and walked down to get a coffee at the little hipster joint by my house. I sat on the curb, taking a deep breath and just enjoying a Vancouver spring morning and the trees and scenery around me.
I then felt my phone buzz in my pocket.
It was my friend from Florida, who I always joke is my source for all things soccer gossip and news. “hey did you see this?” with a link to a CNN article with the following title:
“A Winemaker, a test proctor and a CEO – These are the people involved in the alleged scam”
I clicked the article and started to read through. I got about halfway down when I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach seeing the name of one of my favourite all-time coaches:
The former head coach of Yale University’s women’s soccer team conspired with Singer to accept bribes in exchange for designating Yale applicants as recruits for the team, according to a court filing.
Rudolph “Rudy” Meredith was the head coach for more than 20 years.
And for the next few days, I’d jump back on that carpet with shocked phone calls with former teammates and the swapping of the local Vancouver media reporting on the fall out of my blog, with media entities such as the New York Times and CNN asking for comment on Rudy, in my inbox.
I’ve told the story of my first phone call with Rudy through laughter countless times over the last 25 years.
I was 17, in grade 12 and starting to get recruiting calls from university coaches.
It was the era where you wrote college coaches before they saw you play, they responded to your handwritten letter by calling you and then you sent them your 20 pound VHS tape if the call went well.
Like any teenager talking to adults that were strangers, the recruiting calls were somewhat dreaded as they felt awkward and scripted.
That is until Rudy called.
Within 5 minutes my Mum, confused by my hysterical laughter and telling the person on the other end of the phone to shut up, wrote on a stray envelope on the counter,
“Who are you talking to?”
And I wrote back, “The coach from Yale.”
And my Mum wrote again looking horrified, “No, seriously, who are you talking to?”
Anyone who knows me, knows I love to banter and talk shit, and within the first 5 minutes of my call with Rudy, we had hit it off.
You know Ciara, I don’t even know why I’m calling you.
Oh yea? I responded. Why is that?
Well first is that you’re Canadian. Everyone knows that Canadians can’t play soccer.
I burst out laughing.
Secondly, I can see from your soccer photo that you have chicken legs. I ain’t never seen a good soccer player with chicken legs.
I laughed again.
And the third thing…
I saw on your resume that you got Most Inspirational Player last year.
He gave a dramatic pause, which I would learn in the coming years was his signature move before he laid out something hilarious.
Everyone knows that you give that award to the worst kid on the team.
I choked with laughter.
By the end of the call, after a few more joking digs at how much better the US was than Canada (a theme that wove its way into phone calls for the next 20 years) he told me to send him my video.
When I sent him the letter accompanying my 20 pound VHS tape, I said to him.
Dear Coach Meredith.
Thank you so much for calling me the other day. I really enjoyed getting to know more about Yale and your program. This is my recruiting tape. Please pay special attention to minute 23. It’s the most important part of the whole video.
I look forward to hearing from you.
So as the story went, Rudy turned on the tape, and watched me play with his soccer office worker Andy, a Yale hockey player from my home province of British Columbia.
And as soon as minute 23 hit, Andy started laughing, understanding like any good Canadian what he was watching. He told Rudy before Rudy understood why there was a random track race at the end of my recruiting video.
Minute 23 was the Canadian men smashing the US in the 4×100 relay at the Atlanta 1996 Olympics that summer.
Rudy told me later, in true Rudy hyperbolic fashion, that he fell off the couch laughing.
I used to joke, but meant it in total seriousness: Rudy could have been at the worst school in the entire US and I would have wanted to go there to play for him with the joy and sincerity and fun he exuded.
It just so happened he was at one of the best.
And the 4 years I was there, through the good times and the bad, was an immense amount of growth and positive experiences under his tutelage. Most importantly I felt safe and cared for as a person under him and his and my assistant coaches Fritz and Robyn, two things I would have extra gratitude for after the witnessing the carnage of things I would experience from coaches later.
Rudy’s arrest also found it’s way into communications with people that were closely linked to Bob Birarda, the coach that my blog was about.
Coastal FC was where Bob Birarda spent years coaching until he was suspended the day after my blog.
In the weeks following the blog, I had the Executive Director of Coastal FC reach out to me.
“Reach out” is a kind way to say what the reality was.
He harassed me, writing 4 condescending, bullying emails that I didn’t respond to, as he was uncomfortable with the questions that I was posing publicly.
Illustrating how tightly knit the Vancouver soccer community is, the Coastal FC ED worked for a small Whitecaps office in 2008, with less than 12 staff at the same time Birarda was let go. He later landed in his ED role at Coastal FC after Birarda’s arrival as a coach there.
I had publicly used the ED’s connection to both the Whitecaps and Coastal FC to illustrate just how desperate the need for 3rd party investigation was in these serious situations.
Not getting a response from the first 4 emails the Coastal FC ED sent me, on the fifth email he this time decided to weave the Varsity Blues Scandal into the Whitecaps Blog Scandal with Rudy’s arrest getting a nod in another message he sent me:
It’s rich that you reference systemic power imbalances and that someone who is in the same organization “must have known” about misconduct. That’s I guess the same as me bringing up Rudy Meredith, and your relationship there.
(It’s worth noting that there’s a big difference between overseeing a club that hired a coach who you knew was let go from another club you worked for, for some kind of sexual misconduct, and for an athlete playing for and coaching under someone, but I digress.)
The irony of his messages was palpable, however as there was little media helping ask the real questions that people that were hurt in 2008 were posing as to how Birarda was allowed back on the field. While there was silence in Canada and little reporting in the US on the very serious story of athletes getting hurt by abuse, at the same time, for months there was an insatiable quality to the media’s coverage of the Varsity Blues Scandal where coaches hurt universities.
The hurt caused being primarily the equivalent of pennies being stolen from billion dollar university corporations.
While the weaponizing of my college coaches arrest was one thing, the irony of the Varsity Blues Scandal happening at the same time as my blog unfolding, was that in the couple of weeks between publishing my blog and Rudy’s arrest I had a chance to reflect on the many coaches that I had, including Rudy.
And I remembered many coaches who were inappropriate, unprofessional, or just mean assholes that had a whistle around their neck and utilized their power to quell whatever obvious insecurities they carried around. And yet, I thought back to Rudy and my UConn coach Lenny, and their staffs and was so grateful to have played for genuinely nice people who treated me with kindness and respect and allowed me to come out of their environments loving the game even more then when I walked in.
And yet I saw the media reporting with almost an unrelenting joy, any story that would tear Rudy down.
I thought back to 1997-2001 when I had Rudy as a coach, myself and my teammates having a blast. While other teams were training seriously on Halloween, we’d be dressed up in ridiculous costumes, the coaching staff included, blasting music and having hilarious competitions.
After winning big games, he’d arrive to the field with chocolate covered strawberries. He’d jump in and play with us at practice, his love for soccer infectious.
When I got hurt my senior year and couldn’t play for the year and he saw that I was miserable sitting and watching training every day, without telling me he organized with a local high school that I could go and help coach them during our practice, and get back in the end to be with my college teammates at ours.
And after getting into a dicey situation in Wyoming the summer before my junior year with one of my teammates that landed us panicked at the local police station at 7am on a Sunday morning, Rudy was the adult that we decided to call for help and advice.
He left us with one of his many signature quips as we were hanging up, “well I’m just glad you guys are ok. I figured you weren’t calling me at 9am on a Sunday morning with questions about the summer training program.”
I kept in touch with Rudy through my soccer career and when I landed back in Connecticut in 2011, I helped out with the program for a couple of years.
And Rudy continued to show the same caring nature and big heart right up to the last time I saw him in 2016 when I was running a clinic in Toronto. There was a player at the clinic who had recently became orphaned with her Mom’s passing. I knew her story through her club coach who was a good friend of mine.
I asked Rudy if he could help me help her, and I watched as he talked to this kid for a half an hour, and asked her what her goals were.
He ended up for the next few months coordinating with a prep school coach he was friends with, to see if he could help her get some stability and a chance to play at the next level for absolutely nothing in return only because he cared.
But over the course of 2018 and into 2019, I knew something was off.
Rudy was vague, seemed distracted every time I talked to him and often said, I can’t say it on the phone, but I’ll tell you about it when I see you in person. Now I know it was because he knew his phone was tapped by the FBI, the transcripts of his calls featuring on another recently released Netflix special on the scandal.
When I saw news of his arrest it was like a lightbulb going off, making all of his distracted behaviour over the months before, make sense.
Subsequently I found it really interesting watching the narratives around the Varsity Blues Scandal emerge.
One was the outrage that came from many, and fanned by the media, that the coaches who accepted bribes were taking away spots from deserving students and in some way disrupting the meritocracy of these prestigious schools.
I couldn’t help but think back at my experience at Yale and think of how ironic that take was.
There were many people at Yale that it was open secrets that they were there because of financial donations or pull that their parents had. Even those of us that “got in” because of “our ability” – I was privileged enough to have parents that had time to invest in me to drive me to soccer practices and pay for extra teams, and who had the bandwidth to push me to achieve in school. Other friends that I met at Yale spoke about taking the SAT’s 5 times, or getting extra advantages in the process that allowed them to land at the school. Part of the branding is for all of us to believe that in some way we were “special” or “talented” to be there, but in the end we were all the product of some incredibly lucky privilege based on where we grew up, the opportunities we had or the amount of support we had growing up.
Granted we all worked hard, but to not acknowledge the head start that the majority of us had through our journey would be misrepresenting the truth.
If I had any doubt of that, all I needed to do was reflect back on the time I spent picking up the kid I mentored for all 4 years of college at her elementary school, and juxtapose the utter chaos of her schooling experience with the pristine, serene schools of the Yale professor’s kids that I would babysit some evenings.
It was a very visual lesson in the fact that the last thing America is, is a meritocracy and Ivy League schools are peak representation of that fact.
So the notion of a denied meritocracy was a very interesting notion, as it seemed to be what much of the outrage around the Varsity Blues Scandal was based on.
What did seem obvious to me as I juxtaposed my journey with my blog and heightened awareness of abuse in sport at the same time, was the fact that very clearly in our society it illustrated what and who matters.
While the FBI sat on the Larry Nassar file for over one year after the initial report, allowing for an additional 40 athletes to be molested, the FBI seemed to be able to move with the speed of light and action on a file of fraud against billion dollar corporations.
While abused athletes fight to get a shred of media attention to tell of so many horrific stories that have been endured, on the flip side, if the media around the college admissions scandal was a tap, it would be bursting out non-stop and full steam. A new production every few months it seems, about it.
I don’t have the answers, and in saying anything above, I’m not saying what happened was right.
Awful choices were made which has led to serious consequences.
But like the pandemic, walking the Varsity Blues Scandal journey with my blog side by side at the same time, I couldn’t help but see clearly what our society values with resources such as legal justice, support and media.
The treatment towards billion dollar corporations versus regular people.
Watching someone that was so good to me and others getting dragged over and over again in the mud versus other coaches and executives in athlete abuse cases, causing real damage with their actions to real people, emerging unscathed and unpunished.
Many people will forever remember Rudy in scandal on the front page of the New York Times.
My image however, will be him, when he was a big shot Ivy League head coach, in the corner of a community center in Burlington, Ontario, listening intently to an orphaned high schooler telling him about what she was going through.
And the emails I received from him after, suggesting ways we could help her.