The world of football has been thrown into turmoil by revelations of historic child abuse involving thousands of children at numerous professional clubs in England and Scotland. Police forces across Britain have launched criminal investigations into hundreds of incidents. Over 80 people are under investigation.
The scandal broke when former Bury and Sheffield United player Andy Woodward spoke out about the abuse he had suffered while a young footballer at Crewe. His testimony was followed by that of Steve Walters who talked about the abuse he suffered at the same club under former coach and convicted paedophile Barry Bennell.
Their stories acted as a catalyst and soon numerous ex-footballers started to speak out about the abuse they had suffered. The NSPCC set up a sex abuse in football hotline. In its first week it received 860 calls. In the first three days they made 60 referrals to the police and children’s services. This was higher than at the height of the Jimmy Savile scandal.
Thousands of young children are picked up by football club scouting networks. Very few of them ever make it to become full professionals. Clubs “churn” children hoping that one or two will make it into the first team and facilitate multimillion pound transfers. That process means that vast numbers of young people are picked up and their dreams fuelled, before the majority are discarded onto the waste heap. The system is utterly callous in its treatment of all these children. But it also creates an environment where young people are vulnerable to the activities of abusers.
Generally the young people come from working class communities and the chance of a professional contract seems to offer a “way out and a way up” for them and their families. But with this shot at fame comes huge pressure. Ex-player Stuart James revealed his own story of abuse at Southampton.
He was under the guidance of Bob Higgins, a man who had a reputation and a record of “discovering and nurturing” young talent. Higgins often described himself as a “father figure” to the boys, their “guide to the big time”. But this gave him huge opportunities to groom the boys. He would dispense favours, insights about the game and make promises about their future. Eventually, for many, this led to abuse. If any of the boys dared to raise questions they would miss out on the next team trip or the next match, with the clear threat that their chance had gone.
The intensely competitive environment, the immensely powerful position afforded to some men within this system and the callous disregard for the humanity of the children in the football feeder system creates the conditions that allowed sexual abuse to flourish.
As the scandal broke it became clear that some in the game had known what was going on and had kept quiet. Crewe’s director Dario Gradi was suspended by the club pending an FA investigation into claims that he “smoothed over” a complaint of sexual assault in the 1970s.
In Scotland it emerged that a suspected paedophile, Hugh Stevenson, was allowed to continue working in football for years, despite being reported to the police and the SFA. Chelsea paid out compensation to abused ex-player Gary Johnson on condition that he signed a gagging order (which they later lifted).
In 2000 the FA required clubs to set up appropriate safeguarding policies and to hire suitably trained protection officers. This has led some to suggest that the recent cases of abuse are merely historic and couldn’t happen now. Yet there is concern that community safeguarding officers within the clubs are marginalised with no influence. They are part of a formalised response to concerns, not a real engagement with the needs of child protection.
The FA have announced an inquiry into the current scandal but their failure to deal with this issue in the past means that much more needs to be done and a fully independent inquiry is the least victims deserve.
Five previous FA chairs have used the crisis to raise concerns about the make up of the present FA (that it is dominated by old white men) and its ability to control the Premier League. They claim the EPL is a money machine that is out of control.
Their criticisms on both grounds are correct. The EPL since its foundation in 1992 has been steeped in a culture of greed. The latest television deal brings it £5.1 billion over three years; 14 EPL clubs are currently owned by overseas investors as the top league has become the play thing of the global rich.
But the criticisms from Greg Dyke and his colleagues ring hollow. These men did nothing to alter things when they were chairing the FA. They were as much a part of the problem as today’s FA or EPL leaders.
For football clubs, children are essentially commodities, a potential source of future profits. The scandal emphasises that clubs and the professional bodies that run the game cannot be trusted to act in a way that will put the interests of children first.