Written by Jen Offord


Abuse in sport: “It’s in the mentality of football that nothing comes out”

As the headlines are flooded with football sex abuse allegations, Jen Offord wonders how and why we didn’t see it coming.

Photo by S Plaine, via Wikimedia Commons.

Photo by S Plaine, via Wikimedia Commons.

It has always seemed at odds to me that, for a society that has at times bordered on hysterical with regards to cases of paedophilia (remember the infamous episode of Brass Eye on the same topic, which in itself is rumoured to have spawned its own filing cabinet worth of complaints at the Department of Culture, Media & Sport), we seem so frequently to care more about the crime itself rather than the victims of it.

We want to be able to vilify the perpetrator, but would rather not acknowledge how their crime came to pass, or the effects on the lives of those the crime was perpetrated against.

It struck me again this week, as four former footballers waived their anonymity to speak about historic abuse endured while playing on the youth teams at several clubs.

After Andy Woodward came forward last week to say he was raped countless times over a four-year period between the ages of 11 and 15, he was followed by another former Crewe Alexandra player, and the youngest ever to debut for the club, Steve Walters.

Days later David White, arguably a better known player, also went public. Their accusations are against former coach Barry Bennell who was convicted of abuse against six boys in 1998 and served a sentence of nine years for those crimes.

Paul Stewart, who played for Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester City, also spoke out about abuse he said he endured at the hands of an unnamed coach. All three highlighted the devastating effect of the abuse on their lives, and their cases hinted that this may just be the tip of the iceberg.

Speaking to the Victoria Derbyshire programme last week, Woodward said of the lack of support he found at the time: “With regards to the sport – there was nothing; it was brushed under the carpet. It’s in the mentality of football that nothing comes out.”

He said he had remained silent on the issue because of a fear he would never realise his dream of being a professional footballer if he spoke out. And the lack of support Woodward addressed, that encouraged him to stay silent for so long, is easy to believe in the football community as we see other issues like sexism and homophobia go unaddressed.

“These are not isolated incidents: earlier this year an investigation in the US found that USA Gymnastics had received more than 50 sex abuse complaints.”

It is a world in which we see the crisis in men’s mental health and society’s expectations on young men play out on a very public and often damaging stage, and I often wonder how much support they actually receive in terms of their emotional and mental health.

It is easy to wonder the extent to which this issue might have gone ‘unnoticed’ in the same way as others. So much so, in fact, that the NSPCC say they have received more than 50 calls since the revelations were made.

Of course there have been other high profile cases, and I was reminded of a BBC 5 Live special report on abuse in sport, broadcast earlier this year, presented by the very brilliant Elly Oldroyd.

It was a subject matter I’d never really given much consideration to, if I’m honest – it hadn’t occurred to me that the world of sport would be the obvious place for a predatory paedophile, though the testimony of Gloria Viseras, a former Olympic gymnast for Spain, gave me pause for thought.

Viseras also spoke of the her dream of becoming a gymnast, when she joined the Spanish national team as a child, a career that ended aged just 15 after she competed in the 1980 Moscow Olympic games. Her father withdrew her from the team shortly afterwards, sensing that all was not well with his daughter, though it was many years before she was able to speak out.

Viseras recalled how the coach of the men’s national team took over from a departing female coach and played “games of seduction” with the girls. Though before long, his charm waned as he began to humiliate them, she said, recalling how he had called her a whore – aged 10 – to test the girls; who, for example, would go to their parents?

Of course sport revolves around a culture of control – control of what you eat, control of when you train, what equipment you use, but Viseras said her coach’s control went well beyond that including, for example, forbidding the girls from speaking with the boys on the men’s team. Because you trust your coach with your life, she said, a child would do anything that was asked of them almost without question.

Viseras only spoke out a few years ago after other teammates revealed the abuse they too had suffered, and out of concern that the man in question – who was still coaching – may still be abusing girls in his care.

“The lack of support Andy Woodward addressed, that encouraged him to stay silent for so long, is easy to believe in the football community as we see other issues like sexism and homophobia go unaddressed.”

Katherine Starr founded Safe 4 Athletes, an organisation aimed at providing a voice for victims of abuse in sport, after suffering years of abuse on the British swimming team in which she competed in the 1984 and ‘88 Olympics as Annabelle Cripps.

In the same 5 Live special, she described an incident in which she was interviewed for a local television channel in her swimsuit, aged 13. Her coach, who was later convicted, began rubbing her legs while the interview was recorded.

She described the feeling of total exposure as her coach touched her in broad daylight and said at that point she felt “all the doors had been closed to communicate.” She simply did not trust that anyone would believe her.

These are not isolated incidents: earlier this year an investigation in the US found that USA Gymnastics had received more than 50 sex abuse complaints, and two days ago a former doctor with the organisation was charged with sexual abuse.

Though the circumstances around the incidents will vary, there are some common themes: the lack of support within organisations and particularly outside the management structure of individual clubs; the closed world of sporting communities which make confidentiality problematic; and the fear of failure in a world based on competition.

Speaking about why she remained silent for so long, Viseras said: “You are raised to be a role model and being a little slut isn’t being a role model.”

These are the words that have stuck with me since listening to the interview in May this year, and the words that continue to shock me. How could this be anyone’s response? And yet sometimes it is – the victim of Adam Johnson, for example, was branded a “slag” by a national newspaper columnist.

Viseras said she wanted society to look at the violence on the pitch, or the locker room, or gymnasium, not in the stands. It is not for the child victims of abuse to speak out but for adults to provide a safe space for them in the first place and to recognise the signs – which she says are always there. The sporting community clearly has a huge role to play in this.

The NSPCC’s hotline can be reached on 0800 023 2642.


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Written by Jen Offord

Jen is a writer from Essex, which isn’t relevant because she lives in London, but she likes people to know it. As well as daft challenges, she likes cats, cheese and Beyonce. @inspireajen