Football, Child Abuse and the law

// 20 September 2005

Prompted by this:

“Kate Coleman, the Premiership’s head of child protection, said she was unable to give the names of the clubs or individuals involved in the two ongoing investigations, but suggested that the incidents did not involve criminal behaviour.

‘It can’t be defined as child abuse unless somebody has been convicted. I would prefer to use the term “bad practice”. In all the cases that have been resolved, there was no conviction,’ she said.” (Quoted from the Observer article, Sunday 18th September).

Football has long been a source of concern for those of us working with issues of child and woman abuse. Poor practice regarding checking of those working with young people, an atmosphere of unchecked negative masculinity, and a whole series of sexual violence scandals. And now the Child Protection spokesperson for the Premiership claims it isn’t child abuse unless there is a conviction.

I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised. It isn’t rape unless there is a conviction, it isn’t a crime unless there is conviction… they are perspectives we are used to hearing about sexual violence. But for a Child Protection Spokesperson to say this? In an atmosphere where alleged group rape of young (under the age of consent) women is not unusual (and is indeed seen as a perk of the “job”), where clubs will offer pay-offs to prevent cases coming to court, where the word of a child is against that of an internation or national level player or coach.

What fitness for the job does a child protection spokesperson have if their measure of wrongdoing is whether it results in a conviction? In a society where only 5% of rape allegations of adult women end in conviction and where best estimates say that 60% of child abuse is never reported? Is conviction an adequate measure of wrongdoing? Of course not. But the Premiership will apparently not class something as child abuse unless there is a conviction.

Football offers young men a career where they are surrounded by “yes men”, where there is little comeback for bad behaviour (in fact where it is expected in some cases), where masculinity is lauded without boundaries and where the club will protect them and will re-employ them even if they are convicted of a criminal offence. Football offers young men “groupies” of young women who are awed by the media presence, by the money these men earn, by the cache of being a footballers girlfriend. Many liaisons are consensual. Some are not. Some blend between the two where a consensual liaison becomes coerced or forced. Football offers a way for some men to get unfettered access to talented, unprotected and trusting children, just as other sports, such as swimming, have already had to face. Football needs to face facts – its child protection procedures are sadly lacking and its record in demanding accountability from its players for their behaviour, whether sexual violence or other criminal acts, is lacking. Football needs to start taking responsibility.

I have a vision, a dream, that every time a player, players or coach or other members of a Football Club’s staff are implicated or accused of child abuse or sexual violence against women that next match day, early in the morning women will head over there and tie white ribbons to the fence. Imagine fans turning up and finding their club covered with white ribbons shaming them into acknowledging that footballs recent history of sexual violence will not be tolerated. I have a vision which I know will not happen, and if it does it may not have an impact. After all football doesn’t make it money from women, it is concerned with the concerns of men who make up the majority of those who support and spend money supporting them.

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