Kick sexism out of football

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Adam Johnson

Last month saw yet another football crisis. Former England international and Sunderland player Adam Johnson was found guilty of grooming and engaging in sexual activity with a child.

Johnson had groomed the young girl via social media, exchanging over 830 WhatsApp messages with her. He admitted grooming and kissing the under-aged girl before the trial but after a court case he was additionally found guilty of sexual activity with a child. He was sentenced to six years imprisonment.

In the aftermath of the trial the odious Katie Hopkins poured a torrent of abuse on the young victim claiming, as a 15-year-old, she “knew what she was doing”. Hopkins was not alone. Friends and relatives of Johnson were cautioned as they took to social media to defend Johnson and attack his victim.

Much of this had echoes of the case of rapist and ex-Sheffield United footballer Ched Evans. Evans raped a 19-year-old woman. Afterwards his friends and family ran a campaign to “out” Evans’s victim and plead his innocence. The Johnson and Evans cases have some other features in common. Neither man apologised to their victim or admitted their guilt. And both found significant backers within the game.

Taken together they indicate that football isn’t taking the question of sexual violence seriously.

Sunderland came out of the Johnson case particularly badly. The club is trying to rebuild its reputation after appointing fascist Paolo Di Canio as its manager in 2013. The club initially suspended Johnson when he was charged. But the suspension only lasted two weeks after which he reappeared in the first team.

There is a degree of uncertainty over how much Sunderland knew — but it does admit to knowing that he had kissed the 15-year-old and that he had sent explicit text messages to her. At that point the club had a safeguarding responsibility which it simply avoided. According to the NSPCC, football clubs don’t take safeguarding issues seriously and few have appropriate policies in place.

Johnson got back in the team and earned an estimated £3 million while awaiting trial. That earning power indicates that Johnson was a valuable football commodity. Sunderland invested £10 million to buy Johnson from Manchester City and, on top of that, it paid him £60,000 a week. It was an investment it wanted to exploit when it could, and that meant playing him, even after he had been charged.

Clubs invest huge sums in players. They buy them, pay them huge wages and set up a back room team of experts to work on them. Sports scientists, nutritionists, sports psychologists and trainers are all involved in preparing the players for match day. The training day is short but intensive, leaving long periods when players are expected to return home, rest their muscles and prepare for the next day.

The sums they earn and the routine of their day move them away from the experiences of family and former friends. Their lives become routinised but highly abnormal. They are given attention by fans. They regularly appear — both as heroes and villains — in the media. They are surrounded by agents and sycophants — many of whom make their livelihoods servicing the footballer’s every whim.

It’s an alienating life and many top level players flaunt their wealth on flash cars, massive houses, gambling, heavy drinking and, for many, in a routine of sexually reckless and abusive behaviour.

In court Johnson described the routine sexual encounters he would take advantage of. But he was not alone in this. Leicester City may be currently making the headlines as a small team taking on the Premier League big boys, but last May it sacked three young players who had filmed themselves having a sex act performed on them by prostitutes. There are night clubs in Manchester and London which have designated rooms for footballers to meet and have sex with young women and “fixers” whose job is to gather and deliver the women to the clubs.

But these examples of sexual violence need to be placed in a wider context. There’s a huge problem with how women are viewed within football. Last year, after the England women’s team had performed better than their male counterparts at recent world cups, the FA tweeted that the “lionesses” would now return to their lives as “mothers, partners and daughters”. In 2014 Rani Abraham took out a legal case against the Premier League after she was sacked as a PA for its boss Richard Scudamore. She was a whistleblower who revealed the sleazy emails that Scudamore and his colleagues exchanged at work, describing the FA and the Premier League as “old boys clubs” that were institutionally sexist. More recently women employed by clubs, such as doctor Eva Carneiro at Chelsea, have found that the expectations placed on them are different to men doing the same jobs.

Institutional sexism is part and parcel of football’s structure. It creates an environment where women are devalued and objectified. In turn that creates an atmosphere where some young players think that any woman is fair game. The “good old game” has a deep lying sickness; it needs to be confronted.