“Plow ahead”: Vikes eager to move forward following Martlet investigation into allegations against head coach Barney Williams

Campus Investigations News

Williams apologizes to current rowers in closed-door meeting

Photo by Natasha Simpson

On Oct. 16, the Martlet reported on allegations of harassment and abuse by Barney Williams, Vikes Women’s Rowing Head Coach, who is allegedly under investigation by both UVic and Rowing Canada Aviron (RCA).

That same day, the women’s rowing team was gathered by Director of Vikes Athletics and Recreation Clint Hamilton and Associate Director of Sport James Keogh for an emotional meeting. Williams, who returned to coaching on Oct. 7 after a six-month leave, was also present.

A current team member recorded the meeting and shared the audio with the Martlet, giving consent for its use.

Near the 30-minute mark of the meeting, Williams — who has been unable to provide comment to the Martlet due to the ongoing UVic investigation — apologized to the team members present.

“I’m so sorry,” said Williams. “[The UVic process is] a less-than-ideal process in terms of reconciliation, but it is a fair process, and that’s why I’ve respected it. But if there’s one thing that you walk out of this room knowing, it’s that I’m obviously so sorry for the experiences that those individuals have had and then consequently the experiences that so many of you have had.”

“We made a pledge to young student athletes that they would have a healthy and challenging experience,” said Williams. “Their perception of that experience was far from that.”

Hard conversations

When asked by a student in the meeting, Hamilton claimed that he was not aware of the experiences of athletes who left the team because of Williams until UVic was already involved in an investigative process that, for reasons of confidentiality, prevented any discussion.

Hamilton referenced a hard conversation had earlier that day with coaches and assured the team that UVic is dedicated to finding more ways to provide support for student athletes. The intent, he said, is to improve both support and understanding of what students are experiencing, and he wants to have a case manager dedicated to helping athletes who are struggling.

“[We’re working] so that coaches can understand that, though their intentions may be very positive, that their actions and their behaviours are having the exact opposite impact to what is intended,” said Hamilton.

“I’ve been part of a conversation nationally with all my colleagues,” Hamilton said. “What’s happening and what we’re experiencing at UVic is not isolated to UVic and it’s not isolated to the Vikes.”

If there’s one thing that you walk out of this room knowing, it’s that I’m obviously so sorry for the experiences that those individuals have had and then consequently the experiences that so many of you have had.

Barney Williams, UVic Womens Rowing Coach

The acceptance and normalization of abusive coaching is an issue in sports culture, as was recently discussed in a blog post by Jennifer Walinga, an RCA and Rowing BC board member, Olympic gold medalist, and Royal Roads professor.

“We know that the ill effects of ‘old school coaching,’ which translates into physical, psychological, and emotional abuse, harassment and bullying, are significant,” Walinga wrote on her blog. She talked about how poor coaching demotivates athletes, inhibits their mental skills, and divides the team, as well as causing athletes to lose focus and doubt themselves.

One team member asked Hamilton if he was aware of the contents of the Martlet article prior to its publication.

“No, is the quick answer,” Hamilton responded, “but certainly I would say I was not surprised by anything in the article.”

The Martlet investigation revealed allegations that Williams shut women into a small room at the Elk Lake boathouse in order to yell at them, publically humiliated athletes in front of their teammates, and punished them by denying them on-water training. Multiple reports depicted Williams in a state of extreme aggravation. 

Hamilton defended UVic’s investigative process, which was not complete at the time of the meeting despite Williams’ return to coaching on Oct. 7. He stated that the situation had been hard for Keogh, but that he had been committed to the process for all involved, including Williams. Communicating with the team during the process was Keogh’s responsibility, something that Hamilton credited him with doing in a “remarkable way.”

Keogh did not tell the team that Williams was under investigation by either UVic or RCA, stating only that Williams six-month leave was personal. Despite the ongoing investigations, Keogh assured athletes that Williams would be coming back.

“Everybody’s experience is their own,” Keogh said at the meeting, “and everyone’s perception of that experience is their own as well. So, by that I mean, you know, the simplest thing is a joke over here, lands really poorly over here.” 

He did not mention the complaints of alleged abuse brought to him by student athletes. 

“Some people need to be challenged and pushed in a certain way,” said Keogh. “Other people, that doesn’t work for them.”

“Business as usual”

“What’s next?” asked one athlete at the meeting, who was audibly emotional. “I don’t know how you roll up to the boathouse tomorrow, business as usual.”

Another athlete reiterated her question, asking what the team would do moving forward, seeing their former teammates and now knowing how they felt, especially given that some current team members were angered by the Martlet’s article.

“You show up,” said Hamilton. “You work as a team and individually you stay focused on that as we work [towards the Canadian University Rowing Championships].”

Their former teammates were not the only thing on the minds of athletes at the meeting. Team members expressed concern with the future of the rowing program and their own reputations as athletes. 

“I think a lot of us just have higher expectations than what we’ve been receiving,” said one woman. “The program feels unstable, and there’s no other way to put it … The athletes are driving a program. We’re here to compete, not to worry about whether or not the program is going to see another year or if our reputations are on the line because we are now affiliated with a program that has ‘X’ reputation.” 

“These [investigative] processes are hard,” Hamilton responded. “However, this process has a program leader back. That’s part of that process, and the coach is back.”

Hamilton did not comment on how Williams’ return as a coach relates to the legitimacy of the complaints filed against him.

In response to an athlete’s statement that Hamilton couldn’t guarantee that Williams would still be the head coach in six months, the Director of Athletics was vague.

“I can’t guarantee that I’ll be here in six months. I can’t guarantee that I’ll be here next week,” said Hamilton. “I’m not in the business of guarantees. Never have been.” 

Hamilton did not comment on how Williams’ return as a coach relates to the legitimacy of the complaints filed against him.

“Contracts exist for a reason,” countered an athlete. “It’s important for us to know that we are not an assorted congregation of recreational athletes, and we are a varsity [team] with the support of a varsity program.” 

As well as losing their head coach for six months, the team also lost an assistant coach who filed her own complaint against Williams.

Hamilton stated that some varsity programs at UVic would love to have the resources of the rowing team, eliciting an emotionally charged response from an athlete angry about the lack of consistency.

“There’s a difference between having amazing coaches working with us, and having people be around and just say they worked with us,” she said.

During Williams’ absence, the team’s practices were supervised by multiple people, including Hamilton and Keogh.

“I don’t think there’s a lot I’m going to be able to say today that’s going to change how you feel,” said Hamilton. “Sometimes support doesn’t feel like support at the time.”

“There’s this year’s team and there’s last year’s team”

Once Hamilton left the room, the athletes further vocalized their frustration to each other and to Williams. Those who can be heard on the recording are clearly upset about the Vikes administration’s management of the situation.

“I fucking hate how many times [Hamilton] says ‘oh, you have to trust your teammates,’” said one woman, inciting laughter from the others. 

Exclamations of “We trust each other,” “We’re not the problem,” and “Give us some answers!” could be heard following this.

However the team may feel about UVic and the rowing program, some of the women speaking on the audio recording united around Williams, a stark contrast to the former Vikes who spoke out against him.

“Barney gave a lot of us our best year last year,” said one athlete. “Since he’s been kind of going through a rough time right now, I think it would be healthy if we kind of, I don’t know how, but kind of remind him that he is such a great coach, and a great guy.”

One woman stated firmly that the experiences of former teammates did not alter her perception of her coach.

“I know what my relationship with my coach is like, and this article doesn’t change anything,”  she said. “Don’t let the opinion of others change what you know,”  

However, other women noted that although they support Williams, their teammates may feel differently.

“If you’re feeling the opposite of everybody in this room, that is okay, and that’s exactly what we’re talking about in terms of ‘you gotta say something,’” said an athlete. “The person you’re talking to might feel something different — that doesn’t mean you can’t come to them and say how you’re feeling . [The team] can be an environment where everyone feels positive.”

“Coming forward and talking to one of the captains is courage,” stated another athlete, “and if you bring forward how you’re feeling, that will make the team stronger.”

After the conversation among the athletes died down, Williams made a few more remarks.

“This is about each individual processing things as they see fit,” Williams said. “I’m not angry, I think that’s really important. I have no hard feelings.”

Williams choked up as he encouraged the team to use emotional situations to carry on, using the loss of a family member as an example.

“I [made] an internal pledge that in some small way her legacy would be lived out through this environment,” he said. “That each and every member of this roster, again, would be given that chance to thrive, and grow, and live, in a way that she wasn’t able to.

“[Emotional catalysts] are incredibly powerful. They’re organic. There’s no script to follow. [But] they will produce incredible outcomes. So, I kind of challenge you guys as a group to look at it through that lens.”

The meeting ended with a statement from Williams in the context of deciding whether the team would practice the next day, given the circumstances.

“It’s your journey as a team,” Williams said, “and I think the ultimate strength of the team is when there’s respect for individuals. Which of course we’re learning on the fly here, and very critically reflecting on.”

For the athletes heard on the recording, taking time to reflect did not include taking time off from training, with several women indicating that rowing itself was a refuge. 

“There’s this year’s team and there’s last year’s team,” Williams said. “This year’s team deserves to make its decisions … You as a team make your decisions, and they’ll be made out of respect for the past, and they’ll be made out of respect for the future, but this is your present.”

Results of hearings as part of the UVic investigation into allegations against Williams were supposed to be presented to those athletes who filed formal complaints on Nov. 11. However, athletes were notified by email that results have been delayed until Nov. 21. According to multiple sources, no reason was provided.

Despite ongoing investigations by both UVic and Rowing Canada, UVic hosted the Canadian University Rowing Championships at Elk Lake.

This regatta took place on Nov. 2 and 3. The Vikes lost in terms of overall points to the UBC Thunderbirds. This is the second year running that UVic has lost to UBC, who also took the mens’ and womens’ titles in 2018.