THE sport of curling hit the headlines in March 2008 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, that 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.
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, told Brown she was unhappy that her skip had been sidelined. Relations deteriorated between the two players and the coach and neither player returned to ice. Munro and Cumming were then asked not to travel with the team on the premise they would affect team morale.
For the last two games, Brown decided 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. He said Munro and Cumming had refused to play. He based his comments on discussions he had with 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, who heard the case at the Court of Session, pointed out in his ruling, 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 news was soon making sensational headlines both in Canada and Scotland. Even the RCCC website initially issued a statement saying the players had refused to play and the organisation was backing the coaches’ decision - although this was removed.
An incensed Munro demanded Brown to 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 as the curler who refused to play for her country, she embarked on a costly, but ultimately successful, 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, Munro spoke to The Galloway Gazette about her feelings now she has been vindicated.
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 email from the lawyers to read and deal with. It’s is hard to describe how much it took over my life and I felt guilty about the effect on my family, especially my daughter Robyn, who was only four when 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.”
Q: Did you ever feel at any stage like giving up?
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. 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 over this?
A? “I was hugely disappointed that people I regarded as friends turned their backs on me. I 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 no longer work in Scottish curling but I now hope he and others can learn from their mistakes.
“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 I that I didn’t bring my best game.
“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 11, 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 it too – that it was prepared to sweep the matter under the carpet and hope the whole thing would just go away.
“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, Derek Brown 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. 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 myself 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.”