Friday, August 12, 2011

Louise Kerr interviews Gail Munro

Louise Kerr has been a friend of mine for a long time. You may know her as a member of the Irish Curling Squad. Her photo has been on the blog a number of times, not least when competing for Ireland at the Le Gruyere European Curling Championships last December, see here! I know her also as a hard-working journalist with The Galloway Gazette. She's written today about Vernon, and her article (here) includes an interview with Gail Munro, in the wake of her successful defamation action against former National Coach Derek Brown. Incidentally I note that Lord Doherty's opinion did not merit a mention on the Royal Club's website, although my own record of this, with a link to the decision, is here.

With permission, I have reprinted Louise's article below.

"THE sport of curling rarely makes it into the back pages of the dailies let alone the front of the papers, but in March 2008 the sport hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons when Scotland’s skip at the world championships was accused of refusing to play for her country by her own coach. That player was Stranraer curler Gail Munro. She was so devastated by the accusations levelled at her by Derek Brown, the former Scottish Institute of Sport national curling coach, she took him to court for defamation of character.

Last month she won her case in the Court of Session in Edinburgh, when a judge awarded her damages of £21,950.

Mrs Munro, the manager of the ice rink in Stranraer’s North West Castle Hotel, achieved her lifelong ambition in February 2008 when she skipped her team to victory in the Scottish Women’s Curling Championships. A month later she proudly stepped onto the ice as Scotland’s representative at the World Championships in Vernon, Canada.

But the dream turned to a nightmare when the team won one game out of nine. With the spectre of Scotland failing to gain qualification for the Olympics looming, national coach Brown, who was in charge of selecting the GB squad for the 2010 Olympics, told Munro she was out of the team. Munro was shocked and upset at Brown’s radical decision, but had to accepted it. Her third player and close friend Lyndsay Cumming then told Brown she was very unhappy that her skip had been sidelined. Relations quickly deteriorated between the two players and the coach and neither player returned to ice. Munro and Cumming were then effectively ostracised from the other players and the backup staff to the extent they were asked not to travel with the team on the premise they would affect team morale.

For the last two games, Brown made the decision to play with just three players instead of the usual four, which is allowed under World Curling Federation rules. The makeshift Scottish team won both games, securing Olympic qualification.

In a press conference Derek Brown was asked why Scotland were only fielding three players and he told the media that Munro and Cumming had refused to play for their country. He based his comments on discussions he had with the team coach Rhona Martin and what she told him about Munro’s mindset after she was dropped. He assumed that if she was asked to return to the ice she would refuse. But as Lord Docherty pointed out in his ruling on the court case, Brown was the only person with the authority to ask Munro to play - and he did not ask her.

Under the players’ contract with sport’s governing body, the Royal Caledonian Curling Club, the players were not allowed to make any comment to defend themselves. The shock news was soon making sensational headlines both in Canada and back home in Scotland. Even the RCCC website initially issued a statement saying that the players had refused to play and the organisation was backing the coaches’ decision - although this was removed shortly after it appeared.

An incensed Munro demanded that Brown withdraw the comment and issue an apology. He didn’t and never has, maintaining that what he said at the time he believed to be true.

Munro said his comments were false and defamatory and in the face of being labelled for life as the curler who refused to play for her country, she embarked on a costly, but ultimately successful, three-year legal battle to clear her name.

She remains actively involved in competitive curling in Scotland while Derek Brown recently took up a coaching post with the USA Curling Association.

Last week, she spoke to The Galloway Gazette about her feelings now she has been vindicated and her plans to ensure that what happened to her does not happen to anyone else.

Question - How has this affected your life during the past three years?

Answer - “It has consumed it entirely. It has been so difficult to take time out and think about something else, even for a day. There has always been something else to deal with from the original disciplinary hearing onwards. There was always another e-mail from the lawyers to read and deal with. It’s is hard to describe just how much it took over my life and I felt guilty about the effect it was having on my family, especially my daughter Robyn, who was only four when all this started. I was very conscious that she needed me but I had to finish this. I also felt I was being selfish as I was thinking about nothing else. The whole experience has affected my confidence. If I was out socially I could only relax in the company of those close to me, out of that circle I often felt uncomfortable. But my true friends stuck by me and were always there for me when I needed them.”

Q - Did you ever feel at any stage like giving up? What gave you the determination see it through to the end?

A - “I couldn’t have lived with myself if I hadn’t seen it through. I will never forget how people looked at me when I came back from Vernon. I just couldn’t have lived with myself if I hadn’t done everything I could to clear my name. There never was a point when I felt like throwing in the towel. “The only thing that might have stopped me was the financial aspect of it, especially taking the case through the courts. Costs must be in the region of £60,000 on both sides. I have had financial support from some members of my family but it has always been my intention to repay any money given.”

Q - What are you feelings about those who sided with Derek Brown?

A - “I was hugely disappointed that people I regarded as friends, people that I had invited to my wedding, suddenly turned their backs on me. I literally had doors shut in my face when I have been away at competitions. What really hurt was no one asked for my side of the story. Some of these people have never spoken to me since Vernon and still canny look the road I’m on. After Lyndsay and I were dropped it was not our place to upset the girls before they went onto the ice to play and we did what we were asked out of respect for them. But I felt they immediately allied themselves with him (Derek Brown) because they were all hoping for Olympic selection. Many of those involved, including Derek Brown, no longer work in Scottish curling at any level but I now really hope that he and those who assisted him can learn from their mistakes. There is no protection for players and that has to be changed. Everything is weighted in favour of the support staff. “The thing was, I accepted the decision to drop me from the team! I had tried all my curling career to represent my country at a world championships and no one was more gutted than me that I didn’t bring my best game to the worlds. “But we went from being a team of four that had had a great season and got on well to suddenly, after we won the Scottish, a team of eleven, when seven support staff appeared. In hindsight, we should have rejected the Scottish Institute of Sport’s help but, out of respect for them, we allowed them to do their jobs.”

Q - What are your feelings towards the RCCC?

A - “I was disappointed with them too - that they were prepared to sweep the matter under the carpet and hope the whole thing would just go away. I would like an apology from the Royal Club. The Royal Club made three demands of us when we came back - to apologise, to give a financial contribution to curling development in our area and not to play in any competition that could lead to international representation. But to do that would have been seen an admission of guilt so we refused and fought to have the truth exposed.”

Q - How much would it mean to you to represent your country again?

A - “I would like to do it but I need time out before considering that again. I need time to recover but I will continue to compete.”

Q - If, at some point in the future, you came face to face with Derek Brown and he apologised to you, what would you say to him?

A - “I’d just say “you’re too late”. He had the opportunity, even up to five minutes before he took the stand, to apologise. But he didn’t and he hasn’t and I don’t think he ever will. What I would appreciate is an apology from other people who perhaps didn’t know what was going on but do now. It is unfortunate that many of those who were at the Royal Club at the time, have moved and probably no longer feel responsible despite their involvement at the time. I would also like to say how much I appreciated Lyndsay’s support out there and since we returned. It was regrettable that Lyndsay backing me was seen as a refusal to play. But none of us knew that until the press reports appeared. We then realised that he (Derek Brown) had taken it as a refusal to play. Now that it’s all over I would like to place on record how much I appreciate the support of friends and family without that I would not have got through this. I really want something good to come out of this. I would like to set up a support network for athletes so they are able to speak to someone in confidence if they have problems - like a helpline. All we are waiting to hear about now is the expenses. I was out of pocket to the tune of £17,000 to defend my self against the Royal Club and I’ll never get that back. But I’m glad now I had my day in court. The whole thing could have been sorted out long ago but I would not have had the same satisfaction from an empty apology.”

This photo of Gail is by Galloway Gazette photographer Peter Foster. For those who might be wondering about other names, William is on the left, and Katie on the right!