Thursday, 8 December 2016

Sexual Abuse: A Crisis for Football?

Following her CRFR seminar series on childhood sexual abuse, CRFR Associate Researcher Dr Sarah Nelson reflects on the recent disclosures of abuse in football.

In the space of a mere three weeks, since several former professional footballers spoke publicly about their sexual abuse as young players, more than 850 people have called a special NSPCC helpline. More than 55 professional and amateur clubs have been linked to allegations; in excess of 20 police forces are investigating; and helplines receive more calls daily.

Does this mean that football is somehow more prone to childhood sexual abuse than other sports? The answer to that anxious, understandable question is likely to be “no”.

Football is played more widely than any other sport among 11-15 year old boys, and thus the sheer number vulnerable to abuse is bound to be greater. In addition, it is not a particular sport, a particular religion, profession, or group within society which is most likely to have perpetrators of child sexual abuse (CSA) within it. It is the way in which particular values and other factors come together, encouraging abuse to continue in that particular setting.

Especially with respect to abuse from outside the family – as in this case - they include:

  • The extent of power the adult has over children (in football, control over the boy in achieving his longed-for, dream career);
  • The importance of children’s obedience to adults (in children’s sports, the coach’s role; in many other settings, strongly patriarchal values towards women and children);
  • The extent to which parents and community trust, or defer to, the abusive adult (in children’s sports the selfless, helpful coach; with clergy, supposed men of God);
  • The social stigma and low credibility faced by some children and teenagers (only relevant to some children in this case, but very relevant to abuse in care and child sexual exploitation);
  • The culture of the particular setting, in silencing, dismissing and/or disbelieving victims (“macho” male values and bravado in football, rugby, boxing or snooker; in some ethnic and religious groups, the power of shame).
It may perhaps seem surprising that opportunity is not included above. However, the factors described create it in themselves. Also, abusers rarely need special or additional opportunity. They skilfully create opportunities out of little, even in “plain sight” of others - as the prolific abuser Jimmy Savile demonstrated.

Football coaches are not somehow more dangerous than people elsewhere. It is not that most coaches are abusers, but that youth football is one ideal setting to which the minority of abusers against boys will gravitate. This is precisely why no-one involved in coaching should take personal offence at the need for clubs and schools to be extremely vigilant about their recruitment and monitoring.

Nor should men involved in coaching the sport now protest that they are not trusted any more, that children or parents will think they are unsafe, and that they are put off volunteering at all. There can be a defensive self-indulgence about this, though it may sound harsh to say so. Adults working in professions where there have been scandals can be assured that children and young people sense when the ways in which adults talk, behave and touch are safe or unsafe. Survivors of sexual abuse will confirm this. If you are a safe person, and with no sexual interest in young people, they will sense it.

It is still very understandable that parents will feel more anxious than before. They can find at least considerable reassurance in the children’s safeguarding initiatives, in football and other sports, which are now in place. They can take an active interest in what these are, and how they might be improved, in their own children’s clubs.

One of the greatest of safeguards lies in parents telling their children repeatedly to let them know straight away if anyone makes them feel uncomfortable in a sexual way, and that they will not be angry with them, will not dismiss nor blame them -whoever that person is - even a family friend, relative or respected member of the community.

When parents say this, they need to mean it too. So they should talk through with each other, or with a support organisation, any understandable difficulties they would have in taking on board difficult information about somebody they trust.

Amongst the genuinely disturbing scale of current revelations about football there are some very encouraging aspects. In a “macho” sport notable for silencing any issues of sexuality which do not involve boasting about women, numerous men continue to come forward publicly with courage and strength, to talk openly and angrily about an abuse which still fills many men with deep shame and humiliation.

They have set a striking example to others who remain silenced. They have spurred on inquiries about past, unacknowledged crimes – and a greater alertness to current ones.

Sarah Nelson is author of Tackling Child Sexual Abuse: Radical approaches to prevention, protection and support (Policy Press, 2016). Several chapters in this book describe research carried out at CRFR, including research with male survivors.

The Scottish Football Association urges anyone with any information relating to abuse or inappropriate behaviour – whether current or historic – to get in touch via the NSPCC’s helpline 0800 023 2642, or email

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