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Virginia youth player accuses Spirit head coach Richie Burke of mental, verbal abuse

Burke allegedly used homophobic language and verbally abused at least one youth player while coaching at FC Virginia.

Livingston v Dinamo Bucharest - Pre Season Friendly Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images

It seemed like your average social media post. The Washington Spirit posted a few pictures of its players in USWNT camp on Saturday and went on with their weekend. Then came a comment from a parent whose son had played for new Spirit head coach Richie Burke while he was at FC Virginia:

The comment, posted Sunday morning:

“My daughter is devastated to see her favorite womens [sic] footy team hire the coach who abused her brother verbally, mentally, and emotionally when he was at FCV. His language, use of homophobic slurs, and disturbing coaching behavior was protected and our daughter watched it all. She watched us fight the club while her brother and other boys on the team sought medical intervention for the abuse and now she gets to watch this coach be celebrated by coaching her favorite team. She has learned that abusers get rewarded and what an awful thing. I feel so sorry for our #SpiritFam today. What a sad day.”

In further comments on the same Spirit instagram post, the parent, Kellie Herring, elaborated that her son had been “sworn at, sat on the bench and berated and asked why you even come out to play, called a moron, shitty, and much, much more...” and that Burke had casually used homophobic language.

In a phone interview with B&RU, Herring and her husband Eric went into more detail about Burke’s verbal abuse of their son, Jagger, over a range of about a year from May 2017 through May 2018. The Herrings said that Burke insulted their son by calling him an idiot or a moron, and that he and other bench players heard Burke tell another player to “get in there and get that f***ot” during a game. Jagger came to them after the f-word incident and, Kellie said, “That’s when everything starting tumbling out about how bad it was.”

“To me it was he knew concretely that that was wrong to say [the f word],” Kellie said, “But in his mind, all the other stuff he was feeling like he deserved. He knew it was wrong but he couldn’t quite really say it because [the other players] were all like, he’s like that with me. It messed with his head so much.” It eventually got so bad that they sought therapy for Jagger, who they said told them that he hated soccer and that he “just shut down.” Now 16, Jagger is doing better, and is playing soccer again for his high school team.

The Herrings have an 8-year-old daughter who also plays soccer and would watch Jagger play at FCV. Their daughter noticed Burke’s verbal abuse and began asking her parents not to come to her practices or games. “She’s afraid that someone is going to yell,” said Kellie.

The Herrings said Burke also allowed the players to scream at each other, and that he created “a really weird dynamic, this power dynamic amongst the boys,” according to Kellie. This would seem to be backed up by several former players of Burke’s who went on the Spirit’s instagram to praise Burke as a coach and declare that anyone who couldn’t handle his methods was “weak minded” and “soft.”

A request for comment from the Washington Spirit yielded this reply on Monday morning.

We take these concerns very seriously and have taken great care to gather all available information. We have spent significant time with FC Virginia and members of their management team who were involved when this family raised its concerns last year. FC Virginia and Coach Burke have been transparent in providing information and answering our questions.

What we have learned from FC Virginia and from Coach Burke is that at time of the issue, FC Virginia investigated the matter and determined no action was necessary. The parent also contacted Loudoun County authorities last year, and they too determined no action was necessary. Of note, as part of its work, FC Virginia polled the rest of the team’s parents in an anonymous format that allowed for honesty without retribution and found that the other parents were universally happy with and supportive of Coach Burke.

To be clear, we take any concern like this seriously and as an organization we are committed to creating a safe, supportive and inclusive environment for our players.

As attention to this incident grew online, we were very pleased to receive support from numerous parents who have worked with Coach Burke throughout the years, including many from parents of this FC Virginia team. Those parents spoke of Coach Burke’s commitment to excellence and to fairness; to player development and character building; to strategy alongside sportsmanship.

It should be noted that Christian Cziommer, FC Virginia’s technical director, is now also a member of Richie Burke’s Spirit staff as a tactical analyst and team performance coach, as listed on the Spirit’s website. The Spirit’s statement makes no mention of speaking to the family making the allegations, and the Herrings confirmed that the Spirit never contacted them as part of their investigation.

Spokespersons for the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office replied to a request for information that they had no reports from 2018 with either the name Richie Burke or the name Herring, nor did the sheriff ever respond to calls involving Eric or Kellie Herring in 2018. The Herrings themselves also maintain they did not go to the Loudoun County Sheriff or any other authority besides the club. Eric said that they consulted a lawyer about what they could do, but did not file any reports with the sheriff’s office. As of the writing of this article, the Spirit have not replied to a request for clarification of who they meant by “Loudoun County authorities.”

In a statement provided by FC Virginia, the club said that they were aware of the Herrings’ complaint and that approximately 10 months ago, around when the Herrings brought their concerns to the club, they interviewed coaches and staff, and “no one raised any concerns about Coach Burke’s interactions with FC Virginia players.” They also said they conducted an anonymous survey and received “universal support” for Burke.

“As a result of the information gathered in the investigation, we were made aware of no facts to substantiate or corroborate the allegations made against Coach Burke,” the club said via their release, but regardless they required that all their coaches complete a SafeSport training course which included training regarding emotional and physical misconduct. As of the writing of this article, FCV did not respond to a request for confirmation that Burke completed the SafeSport course.

Based on the timeline of events, FCV was aware of the Herrings’ complaints regarding Burke well before the Spirit confirmed him as their head coach on Jan. 8, 2019, and this incident should have shown in any kind of vetting done by the Washington Spirit.

The Herrings said they don’t want the Spirit to fire Burke, they just want the perception of what is acceptable in sports to change, and to destigmatize asking for help with mental health issues. They’ll still be taking their 8-year-old daughter to Spirit games. “I’m supporting the women regardless,” Kellie said. “I’m going to show her that we’re not going to be intimidated. [The players] don’t have a say in who coaches them. 100% we support the Spirit still.”

“If we could just get the message out there that coaches can be successful without using verbal abuse to players,” said Eric.