UVic Women’s Rowing team deletes Instagram comments, shares photos of former rower critical of athletes who spoke out against head coach

Campus News

Athletes deleted comments criticizing Vikes Women’s Rowing and shared photos of athletes posing with a former rower who called abuse claimants “soft as play doh”

Photo from Vikes Womens Rowing on Instagram

In honour of 2020’s Bell Let’s Talk Day, the UVic women’s rowing team joined countless teams, businesses, and individuals in advocating for healthy mental health practices on Instagram. 

“We’re joining the conversation to end the stigma around mental health, fortify the connections that make us a strong team, and create a better environment for future Vikes,” read the post. “Nobody is always okay, and that’s okay.”

For National Girls and Women in Sports Day (NGWSD) on Feb. 5, the team sent out a post honouring those “who display the courage to lean in [and] speak truth to power.”

In light of the abuse allegations against Vikes Women’s Rowing Head Coach Barney Williams, the months of delay between when the administrators first received complaints and when the university began to investigate, and the university’s reported treatment of athletes who filed formal complaints, some Instagram users voiced that they felt this public support for female athletes and mental health awareness hypocritical.

The women’s rowing team’s response deleted the following comment on the team’s Bell Let’s Talk Day post:

“This post is so hypocritical, and [I] am really surprised that the women’s team would post something like this after what happened last year and how unsupportive the coach and athletes were and continue to be [to] their own “teammates” … but glad to hear there is finally some new initiatives in the works. Perhaps reaching out to those girls who were hurt last year might be a good first step??? Or remove this post until you practice what you preach?”

Another deleted comment, on the NGWSD post, asked, “You honour women who have the courage to speak up? What about the rowers who had the courage to speak up last year? How many of you are supporting them?” 

Comments commenting on the censorship were also deleted:

“Why are comments being deleted from your posts? Social media is meant to be open communication — so if you post something you are in fact inviting your followers to comment without censorship. By deleting those comments that challenge this post, which is hypocritical based on the events from the past 18 months, you are misleading and lying by just presenting one point of view.”

“I value the sentiments in this post,” another deleted comment read. “However, I find it hypocritical when comments that were posted are deleted — social media is a forum for discussion. You are censoring the comments? Why post something that you can’t support or say something that you don’t practice? Shame on you!”

UVic Women’s Rowing Head Coach Barney Williams returned to coaching in October 2019 following a six-month leave. He was at the time still under investigation by UVic and Rowing Canada Aviron (RCA) for abuse and harassment. Among other conduct resulting in mental and physical harm to multiple athletes, Williams was accused of routinely locking coxswain Lily Copeland — a petite team member responsible for steering and coordinating a boat — in a small room called “the sauna” at the Elk Lake boathouse in order to berate her, often poking and physically intimidating her. She later told the Canadian Press that Williams’ treatment drove her to self-harm. She was not the only athlete to suffer serious mental health concerns or experience verbal abuse. Multiple athletes recalled Williams telling women that they were worthless and of no value to the team.

UVic’s investigation ended in November. The results are confidential and complainants had to sign a confidentiality agreement. Williams remains head coach.

In response to an inquiry about why comments were being deleted, an athlete who asked to remain anonymous told the Martlet that current varsity athletes chose to delete the comments, but will rethink such action in future.

“As student-athletes, we saw the comments and we were concerned that [they] did not reflect the Instagram Community Guidelines and our desire to ensure a safe space for everyone,” she said. “After further discussion, we recognize that constructive criticism and feedback do have a place and as such will be more aware with respect to future comments.”

While Instagram’s Community Guidelines do state that users are free to delete comments on their posts that they don’t like, there is nothing stating that comments challenging the authenticity of a post could actually be in violation of the guidelines.

Since the Martlet’s inquiry, this comment critical of the team has remained visible:

“It’s interesting how teams preach #BellLetsTalk and invite those suffering to reach out. Although, when faced with a request for support from an individual, some are shut out and claimed to not have the mental fortitude to take part in the sport. That they are not “tough” enough. That they are weak. Posting a picture with a subpar caption once a year doesn’t cut it. Mental health support needs to be everyday, not just today. Be better than that. Support, provide, love and be there for those who need it. Because sooner or later you’re going to realize that having a beautiful team on the outside means absolutely nothing. #iamtoughenough.”

Another comment reads, “Authenticity is displayed in actions. When you start walking the talk [sic] as much as you talk the talk, respect will be regained for the team, as well as for yourselves. Inspiring are those who spoke the truth despite being cast out. #Fisforfail.”

Multiple photos shared on the Vikes Women’s Rowing Instagram from Monster Erg 2020 show former RCA athlete Kale Van Bruggen (who competed in the Monster Erg Open 500m Challenge) posing with Vikes athletes. Van Bruggen was formerly coached by Williams, and when the Martlet began reporting on the abuse allegations, Van Bruggen posted public comments calling the women who spoke out about Williams’ “soft as play doh and potato chips” and stating that they should “toughen up or leave.”

“Thoughts and feelings don’t matter,” Van Bruggen stated in a comment. “Performance and results do … Don’t like it? Go to a safe space on campus, talk to a councillor [sic] or try a new sport/activity such as badminton or yoga.”

According to the Women’s Rowing Instagram post, Van Bruggen’s company, Gold Standard Hauling, sponsored the Monster Erg event winners. This is the first year that Gold Standard Hauling has been a Monster Erg sponsor.

An athlete involved with the women’s rowing team’s social media said that Van Bruggen’s comments were not taken into consideration when the photos were chosen. In reference to a photo depicting Van Bruggen flexing his arm with a UVic rower, the athlete told the Martlet that she selected the photo “because it depicted the wide array of competitors at the event through the juxtaposition of him and one of our teammates.”

There have been no public statements from Williams or UVic either taking responsibility or apologizing for the harmful experiences described by former athletes. In a team meeting held the day the existence of the allegations was made public, both Williams and Assistant Director of Sport James Keogh referred to how the athletes who reported abuse “perceived” their experiences. While some athletes present at the meeting were emotional about the experiences of their former teammates, one athlete stated that the abuse allegations had no impact on her opinion of her coach.