Following resignation, Barney Williams suspended by Rowing Canada for 12 months

Campus News
rowing uvic elk lake
Photo by Natasha Simpson.

Rowing Canada (RCA) has released their full decision into the conduct of former UVic Women’s Rowing Coach Barney Williams. Williams resigned in a mutual agreement with UVic on April 18.

The panel found that Williams violated the RCA Code of Conduct and the NCCP Code of Ethics in his interactions with former rower Lily Copeland and his assistant coach Sam Heron during the 2018-2019 season. The decision is the product of RCA’s investigation into Williams’ behaviour, following complaints brought forward in August 2019. 

As a result of the decision, Williams is suspended from participating in all RCA activities for 12 months. If Williams wishes to return to coaching during that time, he’ll have to work with a coach evaluator, receive one-on-one mentoring, and complete a remedial training plan through the RCA certification program. 

“Aggressive and unwelcome coaching behaviour is a violation of the standards and obligations spelled out in both the RCA Code of Conduct and the NCCP Code of Ethics,” the decision reads. “It is important to note that several women, many of them promising athletes, testified that Mr. Williams’ coaching led them to leave the sport prematurely to the detriment of the sport and to these athletes.”

Williams’ comments to the RCA panel, which are included in the decision, maintain that he did not view his coaching style as inappropriate. He denies many of the allegations against him.

He asked that the panel not impose any ban or significant sanction, adding that he had already “been through enough” between the UVic investigation against him and the media scrutiny. 

Complainants included former rowers Lily Copeland, Sarah Craven, two other anonymous rowers, and assistant coach Sam Heron. An additional former rower came forward but did not continue to be involved in the investigation. They also heard from 16 witnesses. 

Although RCA opened an investigation into Williams’ conduct in August 2019, it was stalled after Williams took issue with some aspects of the investigation process. An independent panel was appointed in fall 2020, followed by proceedings in December 2020 and January 2021. During this time, Williams continued to coach at UVic. On April 8, Williams texted the team that he was “on vacation,” and “no one was trying to take him down.” He resigned on April 18. 

In the investigation, Williams told the panel “that he was [not] aware of the negative effects his coaching had on the complainants or any of his other athletes.” However, several of the complainants expressed that they were afraid to share their concerns with Williams out of fear of how he might respond. When Copeland voiced concerns about her mental health, for instance, she alleges that Williams did not take them seriously. 

Other evidence in the decision includes allegations that Williams forced athletes to train without proper equipment, excluded certain athletes on the basis of their performance, did not provide constructive feedback to athletes, and created an environment where teammates were pitted against each other. Williams dismissed the majority of these accusations in his comments to the panel, claiming that he only wanted to help athletes “become the best version of themselves.” 

The panel did not conclude that his interactions with Sarah Craven and the other two rowers were violations of the RCA Code of Conduct or the NCCP Code of Ethics, and only concluded that the one-on-one interactions with Copeland and his conduct with Heron at two meetings in 2018 violated these codes. Copeland is also involved in a lawsuit against Williams and UVic. 

The panel specifically noted how Copeland was treated. Copeland alleges Williams would yell at her in a small room after rowing practice. These interactions sometimes left Copeland in tears. Craven told the panel Copeland looked “shell shocked” afterwards. Although Williams denied ever seeing Copeland cry, the panel found that Copeland offered a “compelling and emotional account of those same meetings.” 

The room known as the 'sauna,' where Williams would meet with Copeland after practice and allegedly cause her to be very upset. Barney Williams - rowing UVic.
The room known as the ‘sauna,’ where Williams would meet with Copeland after practice and allegedly cause her to be very upset.

Copeland also alleges that Williams dismissed her mental health concerns when she brought them up in a meeting. The panel found this dismissal to go against his responsibilities as a coach. Copeland told the panel that after this meeting, she felt she had to suppress her mental health concerns and push herself harder as a rower. 

In terms of Heron, the panel focused on two of Williams’ interactions with her — both of which took place in 2018. The panel concluded that Williams “engaged in conduct that was unwelcomed and inappropriate particularly given the power dynamic between him and Ms. Heron.” 

Although the panel focussed on the complaints made during the 2018-19 season, others have come forward to the media and UVic with their concerns about his conduct. In total, 17 individuals have alleged Williams was an abusive coach. 

Williams could return to coaching if he follows the conditions of his suspension, but he has decided ” to step aside and allow the team to have a clear focus on the future, with no further distractions.”

In an emailed statement to the Martlet, Williams thanked the current team for their support.

 “I was and remain deeply sorry to learn of the impact that my leadership had on these individuals. Since learning of these complaints, I have been committed to ensuring that no other member of the roster has a similar experience.”

“It was a very challenging year as the program transitioned to new leadership and a new philosophy, but I understand that, as head coach, I was expected to model the highest standard of conduct at all times.”

He said his philosophy is in line with the team’s charter, which states “the courage of the team is the strength of the boat.” Over the past three seasons, Williams says the culture around rowing at UVic has become safer and more inclusive.

Terry Dillon, CEO of Rowing Canada, expressed that these situations are difficult for all parties involved. As a governing body, he said Rowing Canada has tried to maintain a degree of distance and independence while also providing support and healing where possible.

“It’s important that the community comes together as on to help move on […] and do more to ensure breakdowns like this become fewer and fewer and hopefully don’t happen,” Dillon said.

Dillon added that Rowing Canada has a longstanding relationship with UVic, which he expects will only continue in the future.

This article will be updated as this story develops. The Martlet has reached out to UVic for comment but has yet to receive a response.