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Football could be the conduit for breaking down barriers to tackling child abuse

Football could be the conduit for breaking down barriers to tackling child abuse

Just over two weeks ago former footballer, Andy Woodward, broke his silence and on national television graphically described how he had been sexually abused as a child by his football youth coach, Barry Bennell. 

A week later he was joined in the same television studio by three of his former team mates who, prompted by Woodward’s frank revelations, also spoke, some for the first time, about their abuse.

And as they revealed the agonising details of the depravity they had endured at the hands of Bennell, even the words ‘sexual abuse’ managed to sanitise what amounted to hundreds of acts of rape committed against boys who only wanted to follow a dream.


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Watching four grown men, former footballers, weeping on television about the violation they had suffered as children and seeing them so broken, so utterly bereft, was heart-breaking. 

And curiously, perhaps because of some of the conflicting messages about assumed definitions of masculinity, power and victimhood, but also because of the mainstream nature of football, their tears brought a resonance to the revelations of abuse that is sometimes absent from other cases where victims are often, sadly, not so readily believed.

There are few sports as macho as football and in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s when these abuses occurred, being a footballer was the epitome of masculine swagger. It remains a sport that is so often portrayed as intolerant of minorities, is homophobic, sexist, and one in which its so-called elite players are often splashed across the tabloids as the focus of some of the worst sexual debauchery and excesses that we care to see.

It is also a sport that has, metaphorically, kept what happens in the locker room, in the locker room. One only needs to trawl the reports on how some of these cases were kept quiet to see how the corporate culture overtook a need to embrace the welfare of the young.

And in a sport where discipline, hierarchy and an adherence to an almost old-fashioned sense of club loyalty, where there is such a gulf in power between coaches and young aspiring players, then the opportunities for sexual predators are clear. 

Woodward’s courage in publicly speaking out about what happened to him has allowed others to come forward. More than 20 former professional footballers have now spoken out and 14 police forces, including Police Scotland, have said they have received allegations of historical child abuse in football.

The FA chairman, Greg Clarke, has said it is the biggest crisis he can remember for the organisation.

And the NSPCC, who set up a hotline following the revelations, said that in the first three days alone it had made 60 referrals to police and other children’s services. In contrast, after the Savile phone line was opened, the charity made 17 referrals in the same timeframe. To date, it has received almost 900 calls from footballers wanting to talk about the abuse they were subjected to by their coaches.

These were football-daft kids whose parents were also following a dream. Largely working class parents wanting the best for their boys, led by a blind faith that put their children’s destinies into the trust of men they knew little of. Parents willing to up sticks and move to support their children in their ambitions and parents who invested heavily – financially and emotionally – in this working out. Children knew that and so did the men that abused them.

When asked why he hadn’t talked to anyone about the abuse, one of Woodward’s team mates said: “You didn’t discuss things like that because the dream would have been burst.”

Football is just the latest ‘institution’ to become the focus of historical child abuse. But what makes this so different is the way there has been such a swift sense of collective outrage. As adults telling their stories, these players have been instantly believed. This so sharply contrasts with other cases such as the Catholic Church, the BBC, local authority care homes, or Jimmy Saville, where the focus has, disappointingly, been on the credibility, or not, of the victims.

I personally feel uncomfortable about that but regardless, it could also be used as a force for the good.

Football speaks across cultural and class divides and to the many. It is mainstream and popular. And could now be a conduit for breaking down taboos and barriers that have frustrated attempts to address the power imbalance that is at the core of all cases of institutional sexual abuse.

Bennell is a paedophile who likely became a coach to get access to victims. The same is true of paedophiles who become scout leaders, priests, teachers or care workers. It’s their actions that are reprehensible and not the institution per se.  

Inevitably, there will be the calls for another inquiry. But whose purpose does that serve? With various inquiries into historical sex abuse already underway and beset with their own difficulties, isn’t it time to ask, ‘what is the point?’

Last week, Andy Woodward said: “If we can prevent anything else happening to any other young children… I’ll die a happy man.”

Wouldn’t a better use of the current media momentum be to recognise the popular value these footballers have in getting their messages about sexual abuse across and into the mainstream and turning that recognition and acceptance into a national commitment to better protecting children for the future?

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