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Preventing Sexual Abuse In Sport Relies On Football's Next Steps

Picture of Luke Bradshaw
Sports Editor
Updated: 29 November 2016
On November 16, 2016, former professional footballer Andy Woodward revealed he was sexually abused as a child.

In an interview with The Guardian, Woodward explained that he was abused by convicted paedophile Barry Bennell when coached by Bennell at Crewe Alexandra between the ages of 11-14.

Since that story broke, the extent of child abuse within youth football has been revealed in dramatic detail. The claims made relate to incidents in the 1970s and 80s, but those involved in the game have a moral duty to investigate the matter properly today. The question to be answered is how should the problem be approached as a whole?

The UK is generally considered to be the world leader in terms of child protection in sport because of its Central Unit, with national standards that governing bodies need to adhere to. In practice, however, there have been flaws within the system and now serious investigations need to happen as a result.

According to Dr. Mike Hartill, a reader in the sociology of sport, there are weaknesses and challenges in this area. He tells Culture Trip: “Each governing body has one lead safeguarding officer, but we found that they felt isolated and not taken seriously. Celia Brackenridge was conducting studies in sexual abuse in sport as far back as the mid-1980s, but she was pillared in the press and accused of being a trouble maker.”

In the last ten days more than 20 former footballers have come forward regarding sexual abuse, according to the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) chief executive Gordon Taylor. Most have accused Bennell, but in addition, at least one player told police he was the victim of George Ormond, who worked as a youth coach at Newcastle United and was sentenced to prison in 2002 for offences against young children.

As well as Crewe and Newcastle, Blackpool, Manchester City, Stoke and Leeds have all been implicated. Most clubs have been swift to carry out investigations, but Crewe – who employed Bennell in the time period that the majority of the claims are said to have taken place – have been alarmingly sluggish with their response to the situation, raising a suspicion of complicity.

Former sports minister Richard Caborn told the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that there were “real concerns” about the protection of young people in football – as well as other sports – when he was in government in 2001. That same year, a commission was set up that resulted in around 60-70 coaches being banned from the game, according Mark Palios, former chief executive of the FA.

There are few other environments that combine the same accessibility to young children, with the shining light of a dream career as the end goal.

Hartill says, “It’s a closed society that has taken on ever greater significance because of the material rewards. There’s lots of ‘cultural capital’ at stake for talented children; they’re encouraged to invest in this system, body and soul, giving everything to achieve whatever goal is set for them.

“Factor in the praise children receive from adults for doing well and the power that individual coaches can possess, it then becomes easy to see why sport is so appealing to men that want sexual access to children. Add to this, the potential rewards for the child, football’s heteronormative skew, and a masculine culture where you don’t cry, you don’t complain and problems regarding sex aren’t spoken about, and you have a powerful mix that is conducive to sexual abuse.”

This problem does not simply exist in football. In 1995, former British Olympic swimming coach Paul Hickson was jailed for 17 years for sex attacks on teenagers in his elite squads. He ran training clubs at Norwich and University College, Swansea, between 1976-91.

In the United States, Jerry Sandusky, the retired American football coach at Penn State University, was found guilty on 45 counts of sexual abuse of young boys over a 15-year period from 1994-2009. Rick Curl, a swimming coach at the University of Maryland, was sentenced to seven years in prison for child sexual abuse in 2013. In Canada, Graham James, a successful youth ice hockey coach, has served two separate prison sentences for sexual abuse of three professional hockey players when they were children.

Complicity by other individuals has been common in all of these cases. In regards to Curl, the University of Maryland were aware of his offences 25 years before he was charged by the police. Sheldon Kennedy, the hockey player who first spoke out about James, was regularly taunted as James’ ‘little wife’ by rival players.

Sheldon Kennedy, the NHL player who spoke publicly about the abuse that he suffered. | ©flickr.com
Sheldon Kennedy, the NHL player who spoke publicly about the abuse that he suffered. | ©flickr.com

Hamilton Smith, a board member at Crewe in the late 1980s, raised his concerns about Bennell to other officials at the club, yet they allowed Bennell to continue to work. It is thus becoming increasingly difficult to believe individuals involved in football weren’t helping facilitate a cover up.

In terms of what needs to be done, Hartill says, “All thoughts about protecting reputations need to be dismissed, there is always a disposition towards that. We need to urge for an independent investigation, not simply into what happened in football in the 1970s and 80s, but across all sport until the present day.

“It is essential to undertake some robust prevalence research until we have a baseline. It will be difficult to do, but I’ve seen no indication that it will actually happen. All governing bodies need objective research. Football clubs or the FA investigating itself is a normal reaction to this type of thing, but it isn’t objective enough.”

The amount of publicity has been high because the victims of the abuse are male and because of football’s position as the UK’s national sport. Unfortunately, if the victims had been women, and competed in rowing, for example, the level of interest is likely to have been far less.

Everybody involved in football, from grassroots to the very top, needs to harness the sport’s power and influence to aid the investigation and research, with other sports following suit. The story has become far too public to be ushered away and ignored again, but the test will be when the media narrative moves on.

Mike Hartill is part of the team currently undertaking ‘Voices for Truth and Dignity’, EU-funded research to generate crucial data for the European sport community. For more information, head here.