More than 20 ex-football players have come forward with reports they were sexually abused as children by coaches. The revelations have sparked an investigation by five police forces, as well as an internal investigation by the Football Association. An NSPCC hotline has already received over 100 calls.
The scandal unfolded after former Sheffield United player Andy Woodward waived his anonymity and told the Guardian that he had been abused by coach Barry Bennell while a youth player at Crewe Alexandra. Woodward’s testimony prompted other former players to come forward with allegations against Bennell, as well as others who had been abused by other coaches at different clubs.
Gordon Taylor, boss of the players’ union, the Professional Footballers’ Association, told the BBC that sexual abuse had taken place around at least “six or seven” clubs, including Blackpool, Leeds and Stoke. Operation Hydrant, the police operation investigating historic sex abuse claims, is currently investigating 17 sports people.
Barry Bennell was sentenced to four years for the rape of a boy at a football camp in Florida in 1994, and then in 1998 was sentenced to a nine year sentence for 23 offences against boys in England. According to his victims, Bennell exploited his power over the young players under his care, threatening to end their footballing careers if they spoke out. Woodward told BBC’s 5 Live: “It was that control — that all I wanted to do was be a footballer.”
Other victims say that Bennell also threatened boys’ familes and with slandering them to their peers. The testimony of those who suffered his abuse paints a grim picture of a power relationship in youth football and broader society which makes it extremely hard to report an abuser. “Back in that day and age if you came out with accusations, would anybody believe you?” said ex-Crewe player Steve Walters. Paul Stewart, former England player and victim of Bennell, added that “it was a taboo subject, nobody spoke about it. It was brushed under the carpet if it was happening. I don’t think there was anywhere to turn in those days.”
The many players who have come forward have done a great service to football and society by forcing a discussion about a culture that has provided very favourable conditions for abuse and exploitation. It is shocking that it took so long for the various authorities to investigate.