Lessons need to be learnt from inquiry into football and child sexual abuse

18 March 2021

An inquiry into historical child sexual abuse in football has found significant failings at the Football Association and several clubs. It’s vital that all organisations, politicians, and society learn the lessons and take action to make child safety their default setting.

What happened?

Parents sending their children to football training, or to begin their professional career as apprentices from the 1970s to the start of the new millennium will have been unaware of the dangerous and complacent culture existing in the sport throughout that period. As with failures in the Roman Catholic and Church of England, institutional lethargy and lack of curiosity allowed a number of determined and deviant perpetrators to sexually abuse children with a degree of impunity.

The publication of Clive Sheldon QC’s report on the English Football Association is the latest in a series of institutional inquiries that highlights the value of prevention, education, functioning systems, and simple moral courage in responding to the sexual abuse of children. Sheldon has criticised the FA for acting too slowly and incompetently when cases of abuse were reported or suspected.

The brave and public disclosure of historic abuse by professional player Andy Woodward, who was seriously abused as an apprentice player by Barry Bennell whilst at Crewe Alexandra led to hundreds of other complaints by players in the professional and amateur game. Sheldon suggests a culture of indifference, ignorance, and complacency had created opportunities for coaches, physiotherapists, and scouts to sexually assault children with impunity.

A problem for football and elsewhere

These toxic ingredients and forces at work in football are similar in character to those in other institutions, be that the church, schools, or other sports. Powerful and charismatic figures in football have acted as gatekeepers to children’s and parents’ ambitions, and even those of the clubs they purported to serve. Suggestions of misconduct went unheard or unheeded, and oversight of some of the identified perpetrators was non-existent: they created fiefdoms without oversight by their own clubs.

When the FA was made aware of potential problems with named individuals, it did not follow its own guidelines or procedures, nor did it use the powers open to it to remove those individuals from the game. Various high-profile clubs, including Newcastle United, Chelsea, Aston Villa, Southampton, Peterborough – and at Manchester City, Crewe Alexandra, and Stoke City, have offered public apologies, and in many cases have paid significant damages for their failure to protect their own players.

Learning lessons to keep children safe

The willingness of institutions to believe children, and act decisively when they make disclosures is highlighted, but preventive measures need to be in place too. Adults working in the professional and amateur game need to take an interest in safeguarding issues and not to view them as irrelevant and intrusive. Children in football and in all sports and institutions need to have a safe route to disclosure. Clubs need to monitor and supervise their own staff, and not sacrifice the rights and dignities of children in the interests of their own reputation and corporate gain: some of the coaches and scouts involved found or developed valuable young players, who became assets the club might exploit.

The FA needs to provide leadership and guidance and to set standards that clubs and individuals in the game must meet. But this was never just a problem for football – other sports, sectors, and organisations need to take notice and step up their child protection game.

 


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