Since Andy Woodward disclosed publicly that he had been sexually abused by a coach when he was a youth player at Crewe Alexandra Football club, the Professional Footballers' Association (PFA) chief executive, Gordon Taylor, has said that more than 20 former footballers have come forward regarding allegations of sexual abuse. It is now known that …at least "six or seven clubs" including Crewe, Manchester City and Newcastle United were connected with "particular individuals”.
Whilst the media focus is on football, and to some extent on DBS checks, as this story unfolds three things are clear: first, that abuse of this nature in sport is unlikely to be unique to footballers and football; second, abuse will not be limited to those participating in or offering sporting opportunities at premiership/championship level (children and adults (including those with disabilities) are encouraged to engage in sport at every level as sport is increasingly promoted as a method of social inclusion for the most disadvantaged and to promote improved health and well-being); and third, that DBS checks alone are not sufficient to protect children.
The last point is particularly pertinent; DBS checks, though essential, only pick up those individuals who have already committed a crime. It is far more important for the protection of children to ensure that the values and behaviours that underpin a club or team recognise the importance of safeguarding and there is a shared belief that ‘it could happen here’.
So what puts children at risk?
Reviews (including Serious Case Reviews) into failures in other organisations - such as schools – have identified particular vulnerabilities to professional (as opposed to familial) perpetrators of abuse. Particular risk factors include the power imbalance created by adults being in a position of trust, organisational cultures where it is difficult to challenge inappropriate behaviours and opportunities to remove a child or children from their families and peers.
In sport the particular risk factors are:
- Children having high aspirations to become professionals in the sport and where having the attention of an expert coach, or being identified by a talent seeker, can be critical to success as a player. This immediately gives the coach or scout a position of considerable power and trust.
- Coaches having a prima facie reason to have one to one contact with a child as well as opportunities to take children away from their homes, for example for fixtures and training.
- Coaches being respected figures in the sports and often wider community – even those working on a voluntary basis - will have put dedicated time and energy into the club/game. In some cases this means that perpetrators are, in effect, ”grooming” the community, making them more difficult to challenge if something goes wrong.
- Coaches grooming children for example, by having favourites and demanding complicity in return for favours.
An example of how a coach can abuse their position of trust and exploit their relationship with children is the case of tennis coach Claire Lyte. Ms Lyte was jailed in 2007 and banned from working with children for life for molesting a 13-year-old girl. The Judge in Ms Lyte's case stated that she "welcomed her [victim's] attention and encouraged it and then manipulated what had become her infatuation with you and did that for your own selfish sexual ends." In the same case Detective Inspector Grisenthwaite, of Merseyside Police, said: "The case is particularly disturbing as Ms Lyte hid behind her role as a tennis coach, which placed her in a position of trust with young people."
What are the risks for those providing sporting opportunities?
Clearly the biggest risk for any organisation which works with children is that a child or children are harmed whilst in their care – and the welfare of the child must always be paramount in their considerations.
However, it would be naïve to believe that the risk stops with clubs. For example, in addition to the damage to reputation for the particular clubs involved in this case there has already been criticism of the FA for failing to act sooner. Moreover, it is not just those directly involved in a sport who can become embroiled in a serious safeguarding incident; corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes have increasingly looked to sports sponsorship (including providing volunteers) as a way in which to deliver key objectives – in part because sport can impact on people’s lives in a positive way for both participants and spectators.
Sports clubs can also become caught up in safeguarding issues outside their core sporting functions. Just like other businesses, the big sports clubs have their own CSR agenda, involving, for example, initiatives to help disadvantaged children (and adults) improve their health and education. To pursue CSR goals, sports clubs have set up charitable foundations in both the UK and abroad, which in turn engage with hundreds of thousands of children, vulnerable adults, professionals and volunteers. The scope of safeguarding concerns, and the potential risks to organisations involved in sport (whether they be National Governing Bodies, clubs or businesses with a commercial or CSR interest), are considerable.
How can sports organisations protect children and themselves in the future?
In terms of the cases currently in the media, the FA have appointed Kate Gallafent QC to oversee an internal review of the circumstances which allowed several footballers to have been abused when they were youth players. It is perhaps now time for sports organisations to take stock of what their own risks and failures in child safeguarding might be.
The FA review will look into what information it was aware of at the relevant times around the issues that have been raised in the press, what clubs were aware of, and what action was or should have been taken.
However, clubs and organisations where there have been no reported concerns may well feel this is an opportune moment to reflect on their own organisational culture and the procedures in place to promote safeguarding. In the reports of abuse so far there appears to have been a presumption that concerns about adults abusing children could be dealt with ‘in house’ rather than recognising the potential for abuse and referring to the appropriate local agencies (police and children’s services) and seeking advice. There is also evidence that the low-level indicators of abuse (concerning behaviour and lack of boundaries between adults and children) were known, but either not recognised as potentially abusive or grooming behaviours or not reported, allowing the abusive relationships to continue and develop. We have already seen, earlier this year, the way in which footballers (and other sportsmen and women) might exploit the celebrity status of their position. See, for example, the Adam Johnson affair which led to the footballer being sentenced to six years in jail for sexual activity with a child.
Whilst there is little doubt that the policies and practices of safeguarding, particularly in the larger governing bodies and clubs, have developed hugely in the last 15 years, history in other sectors demonstrates that the risk of abuse remains even in highly regulated sectors such as schools.
Wider lessons beyond the sporting arena
There is nothing unique about the sporting environment. The issues of trust, power imbalance, organisational culture and opportunity to remove children from their families arise in many other settings, though perhaps not always to the same degree. So, the questions facing football are questions which all other organisations should pose themselves. And the answers are often not sector specific. The types of measures which a school may introduce to address situations where higher risk factors are present may be equally relevant to a football club and vice-versa. In short there is a real opportunity to learn from each other and level up in the area of safeguarding.
It appears that the football abuse scandal is one which will take some time to reveal its full extent, and there are real safeguarding and reputational risks if it is confirmed that some clubs have in fact paid compensation to victims of abuse with gagging clauses and, at the same time, failed to refer the allegations to the appropriate statutory body.
It has already been noted that the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse is watching developments closely and we would expect it to include football within its investigations.
Jane Foster is a consultant in the Child Protection Unit. She was previously Safe Organisations Manager and Local Authority Designated Officer for a large local authority in London. She has almost 10 years' experience of managing allegations of abuse by adults working with children and was a panel member of the Serious Case Review re William Vahey.
Robert Lewis is a member of the Child Protection Unit and the firm's Sports Group.
This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.
© Farrer & Co LLP, December 2016