Soccer coach woes

The complainant, John Radosevic, contacted this office on behalf of Roberto Sciascia, a Richmond B.C. soccer coach who used to coach at Richmond FC. He was the subject of several stories because some parents filed complaints about his coaching style. Those complaints have led to charges of two counts of assault. Mr. Radosevic and Mr. Sciascia thought the stories were stacked against him and only featured his critics. The coverage presented the allegations and featured several people who spoke in his defense. There was no violation of policy.

COMPLAINT

You wrote to me on behalf of Roberto Sciascia, who was a coach working with the Richmond (British Columbia) FC elite soccer club. Mr. Sciascia has been suspended from coaching and is facing charges of assault based on the accusations of some players and their parents. The case has not yet gone to court.

In March and April of this year CBCNews.ca ran two stories about the case, “Roberto Sciascia, Richmond Soccer Coach, faces allegations of abusive behaviour”(March 17, 2015) and “Roberto Sciascia, Richmond Soccer Coach, charged with 2 counts of assault” (April 3). You said the stories were filled with “inaccuracies and innuendo.”

You accused the reporter of the story, Richard Zussman, of using “erroneous and damaging information supplied by Martin van de Hamil, a reporter on the Richmond Record, a local newspaper, a volunteer and the parent of a player at the club. You feel the information is tainted because Mr. van de Hamil “pursued a personal agenda” against Mr. Sciascia. In fact, your more general concern was that anyone who spoke against Mr. Sciascia cited in the stories had some personal animus against the suspended coach, or was aligned with people who did. You think the reporter did not pay enough attention to those who believe Mr. Sciascia is being victimized and has done nothing wrong.

You also said that Mr. Zussman did not respond to your emails when you reached out to him. You believe he ignored evidence and accounts provided to him by a group of coaches and parents who support Mr. Sciascia:

Everything reported by Mr. Zussman was couched as being based on legitimate witnesses and research. It was a facade. Instead of research Mr. Zussman relied heavily on skewed information supplied by Martin van de Hamel. Instead of real witnesses he used hearsay from people who were political foes and not weren’t actually witnesses (EG: Richard Vagda- Mar 17 ).

Even when he sought out young players to comment without knowledge of their parents, he was selective in what he paid attention to. Real witnesses were either not sought out or ignored.

You pointed out some things you said were inaccuracies in the story. One was that Mr. Sciascia taught the team a defensive technique called “choking the defense.” Mr. Sciascia said through you, “I would never and have never tried to teach any player to cheat by illegally choking another player.” You said alleging Mr. Sciascia was teaching this was another way in which his detractors wanted to undermine his status as a coach. The published story said that the parents of a player brought a complaint because Mr. Sciascia put “his hands around [their] child’s neck in a choking manner” while demonstrating the technique. You say the reporter did not interview a coach who was present when the incident occurred. That coach had a very different take on what had transpired and was shocked when the parents made a complaint.

You also questioned the quote from a former player, John Murray, who is quoted as saying he left the game because of Mr. Sciascia. You say that Mr. Murray was ejected from the club because of his own behaviour. You think that in researching the story Mr. Zussman should have known and reported that fact.

You assert that “no charges of generally abusive behaviour” exist against the coach. You think the stories were unduly influenced by the initial publication in the Richmond Register, and that Mr. Zussman did not properly research or talk to the people who strongly believe that Mr. Sciascia has been falsely accused. You also believe that CBC’s coverage influenced suspension of the coach.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The News Director of CBC News Vancouver, Wayne Williams, responded to your complaint. He addressed the “circumstances you [felt] undermined the credibility of our stories.”

He told you your allegation that Richard Zussman has a “close connection” to Martin van de Hamel, the reporter with the Richmond Review paper and also associated with Richmond FC, is unfounded. He did not dupe Mr. Zussman into taking his information to create a story for CBC News. Mr. Williams said that the two men had their first contact after Mr. Zussman called to talk about van de Hamel’s published stories. Mr. Williams explained that the Richmond Review stories were “just a starting point.”

He added that Mr. Zussman conducted his own research, spoke to parents and other coaches, and his own efforts led to the stories published on CBC platforms (online, radio and television). He told you it was from those sources he learned that Mr. Sciascia was teaching “a technique referred to as ‘choking the defence.’” He described this as “an on field strategy” and “not an allegation that the soccer technique is about choking other players.” He added:

However, there is an allegation of assault against Mr. Sciascia after he is said to have put his hands on a 13-year-old player’s neck to illustrate the word choking.

Mr. Zussman did not rely on the newspaper story in The Richmond Review for his information. He had access to the letters of the parents of the 13-year-old boy who made the choking allegation.

He told you that the reporter tried to talk to some of John Murray’s coaches but he was told by the Richmond Soccer Association that they could not do interviews. You put forward some names of people in the information you sent to CBC. Mr. Williams told you that one of them declined to be interviewed, and the other, Paul Legge, was in fact quoted in the March 17th story on CBCNews.ca.

He agreed that:

In looking at the stories now, I think they would have benefitted had we included more information in the case of John Murray, however the story did not rest on his and his father’s statements.

He told you that the stories fulfilled the need to carry different points of view when reporting on controversy. He reminded you that the story included the views of people who were supportive of Mr. Sciascia, as well as laying out the allegations against him. He noted that the views of BC Soccer, both before and after the suspension, were included in the story, but the organization declined to provide someone to interview. He also rejected the notion that somehow this reporting led to the coach’s suspension after the charges were laid.

He assured you that the newsroom will continue to follow the case as it makes its way through the legal process, and will report the outcome.

REVIEW

The journalistic principles that are relevant here are accuracy, fairness and balance. The stories have to get the facts right, reflecting what was known at the time. There is rarely one truth, and in matters of controversy it is important those different perspectives are represented. The journalist is also expected to act independently, not be swayed by any pressure group, and to verify as much as possible information already in the public domain.

Your concern that Richard Zussman somehow was influenced and relied heavily on the work of another reporter and his published reports is completely unfounded. Reporters read other publications as a kind of “tip sheet” – to learn about stories in the community that they did not know about. That was the case here. The Richmond Review story ran on January 27. The CBC stories ran March 17-19. That is because it took Mr. Zussman that long to line up his own sources, get the documents he needed, and satisfy his editor that he had adequate information and points of view to publish the story. I asked him what took so long. He said the research was difficult because many were reluctant to speak publicly, and at the same time his own attention was divided between his duties in Vancouver, and preparing for his new assignment as bureau chief in Victoria.

As Mr. Williams told you, Mr. Zussman talked to the parents who made the complaint because they considered that their son had been treated abusively, as well as others who were conveying first hand experience. You provided testimony from a coach that was present when the coach put his hands on the 12 year old’s neck, and who says he was puzzled and wondered why the parents reacted the way they did. According to him, after the incident everyone seemed comfortable with what had happened. That is interesting, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that these parents have lodged a complaint and that complaint led to charges being laid. The story itself may not quote from your preferred person, but it is careful to include the fact that after its own investigation after the initial arrest of Mr. Sciascia in January, the management of the organization decided to reinstate him in February. A club board member is quoted at length:

Dan Brodie, a club board member and the official spokesman for Richmond FC, says it’s never appropriate to grab or touch a player in an aggressive manner.

But he also said that “soccer is a very demonstrative sport, as is hockey.”

“As you go explaining different concepts, it is possible that a coach could come in contact with a player,” Brodie said.

“What I find in a lot of these situations is what is positioned as one [thing] with one parent may not be corroborated with other parents.”

Sciascia’s supporters add the coach has a strong record of developing players and teams and won a district championship with his U-18 team last month.

“A lot of players want to be coached by Roberto,” said Brodie.

Mr. Zussman also made repeated attempts to reach Mr. Sciascia to get his point of view about the ongoing RCMP investigation. He even approached him in person. Mr. Sciascia declined to be interviewed, which of course is his right and his choice.

You approached Mr. Zussman this past May, and while in principle it is good practice to respond, it is hard to know how that would change the outcome of a story run in March that did include both the allegations against the coach, and a defense of him. You responded to Mr. Williams by saying that “with respect to the assault charges, you should know that no player, or parent or coach or RCMP or Crown representative at any level has asserted that there was even an intent to do harm, or that any harm actually occurred.”

That may be the case, but the stories reported did not imply that it did. It presented the perspectives of people who felt the behaviour crossed a line, a parent who did not want the coach near his child and people who thought there was a misunderstanding of what had occurred. It is appropriate journalistic practice to present all those perspectives. In fact, the story ends with the line “none of these allegations has been proven in court.” It is responsible reporting.

You were concerned that Mr. Zussman ignored anyone who spoke out in favor of Mr. Sciascia and provided statements from three of them. One of them, Jim Platis, spoke with Mr. Zussman but did not want to be interviewed. He suggested to the reporter that he get in contact with Paul Legge. He did so and Mr. Legge featured in a piece published online on March 19, as well as in the matching television piece. This article, entitled Aggressive behaviour found in up to 40% of coaches, says Justplay research was fulfilling its mandate “to contribute to informed debate” by providing a broader context on coaching and coaching styles. That would enable people following the story to draw some of their own conclusions about what is appropriate coaching behaviour.

The article puts the news story in context and features a quote from Paul Legge, a coach and parent of a team member, who is supportive of Roberto Sciascia. The story states:

But where do you draw the line between tough love and abusive behaviour?

Paul Legge’s son has played for the past five years under Richmond FC coach Roberto Sciascia.

Other parents have complained not just about Sciascia swearing at players but in one incident “putting his hands on [his] neck in a choking manner.

But Legge insists the coach’s behaviour has been misunderstood.

“There are a few times where he yelled at my son, but in the sense that it made my son a better player because he didn’t make the same mistakes in the games that he had made in practice.”

“There is also the belief that kids that are playing at the top level in their community want to be pushed. There is a fine line between pushing and when you cross the line and when you get personal, and I never saw Roberto getting personal with people.”

You mentioned that the article implies Mr. Sciascia was teaching the players to attempt to choke their opponents. I can see why you would say this by the wording of the story. Mr. Williams says it is an on field strategy. Here is what the story says:

In October, parents of one of Sciascia’s 12-year-old players said he went too far when teaching the team a defensive technique called choking the defence.

The player’s father said the coach demonstrated the technique with “his hands on our child’s neck and throat area in a choking manner.”

Had the word strategy been used rather than technique, it would have been clearer. The issue is that there are allegations of inappropriate treatment of players, and that is the main point here, and the focus of the stories.

You raised the issue of one of the young players, John Murray, who was quoted as saying he quit the game because of Mr. Sciascia. You contend that he did not quit but was asked to leave because of his anger and bad behaviour. Mr. Murray insists that he quit. It would have been better to have presented both positions – although Mr. Zussman was unable to find anyone to talk to him about what happened. He also spoke to another young player who corroborated Mr. Murray’s account. If Mr. Murray had been the whistleblower, the single source for the story, this shortcoming would be more critical.

There was a third story published when formal charges were laid. In the closing of the television report, Mr. Zussman says:

Since the CBC rans stories about last month, many players have come forward saying Sciascia was one of the best coaches they have or have ever had and are supportive of his techniques that many have described as abusive. The courts will now determine whether his actions toward those two players do qualify as abuse.

You can’t get much fairer than that. It reflects the fact that this episode appears to have been divisive and difficult for Mr. Sciascia of course, but for the members of his soccer club as well.

And as for your allegation that these reports somehow led to his suspension, the timing and statement would indicate otherwise. There was a court appearance March 31, and charges were laid. BC Soccer put out this statement on April 2:

BC Soccer was made aware of serious allegations surrounding Richmond FC Coach Roberto Sciascia earlier this year.

Having reviewed the allegations and information available regarding Roberto Sciascia, the BC Soccer Judicial Committee implemented an immediate and indefinite suspension in line with the BC Soccer Rules and Regulations – Discipline Rule 10.

Roberto Sciascia is therefore suspended immediately and indefinitely from all soccer related activities.

BC Soccer’s decision is prompted by the formal charges being pursued against Mr Sciascia as a result of the March 31 court date.

BC Soccer will make no further comment until all legal proceedings have been completed.

A final comment: you accused Mr. Zussman of using innuendo. In your correspondence to me, you note that almost every person that was critical of Mr. Sciascia was somehow out to get him, incompetent or in trouble with the club. You are right that reporters must consider the source. Mr. Zussman had more than one source corroborate what he wrote. There is clearly more than one view within this soccer fraternity, and each view deserves to be heard. Ultimately the courts will rule. I would expect CBC to report on the outcome, as is mandated in its policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman