Tommy Beale, Senior Associate, AO Advocates
Football teams are known for being very male-orientated environments. Players are encouraged to be brave, competitive, and avoid showing any signs of weakness. In this type of environment, it can be very difficult for victims of sexual abuse to disclose what has happened to them. They may worry about how their teammates will react, be fearful of upsetting the team dynamic, or afraid to speak out about abuse by a coach if the coach is particularly well-liked and respected by the team.
For many victims, the abuse takes place at a time when they are just beginning to discover their sexuality, which can be extremely damaging and confusing. They may be concerned that they did something to cause the abuse to happen, or confused that what they thought was a friendly, supportive relationship with a coach or mentor turned into something unwanted. It is important to recognise that it is never the victim's fault; any adult involved in their athletic training has the responsibility to ensure players are safe and healthy and not to behave inappropriately toward them.
However, some coaches do take advantage of the position of power they hold. They do this by 'grooming' players - trying to get to know them on a very personal level, spend time with them away from the team, and encourage their dependence on the coach for support and validation. This is easier than you might assume. Becoming a footballer is such a powerful dream for many young men that coaches may use this as a way to control players, by threatening to drop them from the team if they disclose being sexually abused, or fail to cooperate with the abuse.
I know from experience what it can be like when a coach takes inappropriate advantage of his position. I was never abused myself but I will never forget the day I was interviewed by the police because my football coach had been accused of abusing some of my teammates. I was shocked, because we spent so much time with the coach and respected him, but also grateful that the police had found out early enough to prevent him from abusing others. I felt terrible that some of my friends were being abused while I was on the team with them, and that they hadn’t felt comfortable speaking to me about it.
In recent years, athletes have been taking more and more steps to report their abuse, and athletic organisations have started to take these reports more seriously. In 2012, Jerry Sandusky, an American football coach, was convicted of abusing 10 young boys from 1994 to 2008 after one of his victims finally told his parents. Mr Sandusky's abuse had been reported to officials at his university multiple times since 1998, but it took 10 years and multiple reports for them to find enough evidence of wrongdoing to prosecute. In 2016, Adam Johnson, a professional footballer in the UK, was convicted of having sex with a 15 year old after he used his celebrity status to groom in what a judge described as a "calculated, considered, carefully orchestrated" way for sexual activity.
As societal attitudes toward the reporting of child abuse change, football players and other athletes are realising that disclosing abuse is not a sign of weakness or a roadblock toward building a cohesive team; it is a necessity for holding abusers accountable for their actions, and preventing the abuse of future players.