Women’s rowing coach Barney Williams resigns in mutual agreement with UVic

Campus News

After multiple investigations, a lawsuit, and an alumni letter, Williams is moving on 

Elk Lake, where vikes rowing teams train
Elk Lake, where the Vikes rowing team trains. Photo by Kate Korte.

UVic Women’s Rowing Coach Barney Williams has resigned in a mutual agreement with UVic. Since 2019, at least 17 individuals have either formally complained or spoke to the press with allegations against Williams. 

“Both the department and Williams have determined it’s in the best interest of the rowing program for him to step away from his position as women’s rowing head coach so that the circumstances associated with the 2018/19 season are not a continuing distraction for the program,” read today’s press release.

UVic says Williams had some “some significant personal challenges over the past three years.” Williams was hired in July 2018 and allegations of abuse began to surface in September.

In addition to the four individuals who formally complained to UVic’s Equity and Human Resources office (EQHR), nine rowers alleged abuse in Natasha Simpson’s original Martlet article or to Laura Kane at the Canadian Press. Three Cornell University rowers and one athlete from the “Row to the Podium” program, all of whom were previously coached by Williams, also came forward to Kane. 

Athletes allege they were forced to train while injured, pushed to return to practice when sick, publicly berated, pitted against their teammates, and suffered aggravated mental health issues. 

Former coxswain Lily Copeland is also involved in a lawsuit against UVic and Williams — Williams for allegedly aggravating her mental health concerns and UVic for their alleged negligence.

Copeland was on the team for the 2018-19 season. She alleges Williams yelled at her alone in a confined locker room and repeatedly mocked her in front of her teammates. 

In a court-filed response, the counsel for Williams and UVic denied these allegations. The response maintains that Williams’ conduct was “respectful and appropriate for team coaching designed to maximize performance.”

The response also states there were “no circumstances existed or were known to [the university] that [Copeland] was ever suffering harm,” and that Copeland “has not been harmed by her experience at UVic, nor from her relationship with Williams as her coach.”

Three months after Williams was hired, and again in January 2019, Copeland says she met with then-Associate Director of Sport James Keogh about Wiliams’ conduct, according to the lawsuit. 

Keogh was aware of these concerns for at least four months before circulating an online survey about the coach in March. At this point, Copeland filed a formal complaint with EQHR and Rowing Canada. Williams was placed on leave temporarily but returned to coaching in the fall of 2019.

Copeland was one of four individuals who formally complained to EQHR about Williams during the 2018-19 season. The university evaluated the complaints under the discrimination and harrasment policy — a policy that does not contain a definition for “abuse” or the words “sport,” “coach,” or “athlete”. The results of the EQHR’s investigations have not been made public.

Over 60 Vikes rowing alumni signed a letter in May 2020 calling on the university to take further action and re-conduct the investigation into Williams under a SafeSport policy. 

“UVic is essentially saying to these athletes ‘sorry, you’ll be a footnote in history as the last athletes to have their complaints dealt with under the old policy,’” the alumni letter reads. 

In fall 2019, UVic put in place a set of initiatives to support their varsity athletes and added two prominent mentors to support their rowing program. Williams was also participating in professional development programs that focus on conflict resolution and communication. The university began the process of creating their own coaches’ conduct policy, which was unveiled in October 2020.

In the press release today, Director of Varsity Performance Sport Nick Clarke says the focus going forward will be on ensuring student-athletes are supported. 

“Our main focus at this moment is squarely on the student-athletes,” said Clarke. “We recognize that this was difficult and unexpected news for them. We are committed to continuing to provide the student athletes and other members of the team the necessary support and resources to focus on their health, safety, and academic achievement and to begin preparation for the seasons to come.”

In the Martlet’s previous coverage, Williams and UVic declined to comment on the lawsuit as it is before the courts.