Sexual Abuse In Soccer: How A Flawed System Still Places Youngsters At Risk

Sexual Abuse In Soccer: How A Flawed System Still Places Youngsters At Risk,

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

Allegations of historic child sexual abuse have become football’s biggest talking point in recent months, but the issue of institutional exploitation in the sport is not a problem of the past. There is evidence to suggest that young people could still be vulnerable to predatory paedophiles targeting youth set ups.

It is clear that football has failed in its responsibility to prevent endemic and institutional abuse. A disclosure by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) at the end of 2016 revealed that 155 potential suspects have been identified in connection with allegations of historic sexual abuse in the sport, with 148 football clubs impacted. The indicative number of victims stood at 429 when this report was published, with the age range for potential victims at the time of the abuse spanning four to 20 years of age.

A slew of allegations have emerged since former Crewe Alexandria player Andrew Woodward waived his right to anonymity for an interview with The Guardian in November 2016. These claims of child sexual exploitation are certainly not restricted to an era where predatory paedophiles were free to carry out their abuses in plain sight. In fact, some of the referrals reported by helplines and law firms are far more recent, sparking further concerns that children playing in youth teams in 2017 could still be at risk.

Read More: The UK Soccer Child Sexual Abuse Scandal, Explained

Steven Walters was the second former footballer to reveal the abuse he suffered. Now 45, Walters became Crewe Alexandra’s youngest debutant in 1988. He is one of the survivors behind the Offside Trust, an organisation launched in December to support players and their families who have suffered from abuse.

Steve Walters, photographed at the launch of the Offside Trust // PA Images

Asked whether he thought children were still at risk of abuse in the game, Walters told VICE Sports: “We know for a fact there’s still some form of abuse going on now within football. We know there’s one or two people who are being investigated now.

“You hear people keep saying, ‘Oh, it was all these years ago, it was the eighties, blah blah blah’, but people need to open their eyes.

“There’s loads of cases going on now from the nineties and after the millennium. It’s ongoing all the time. People are very naive if they think it was just historical.”

Worryingly, it seems that Walters may be right.

When we spoke to Charles Derham, head of the abuse team at Verisona Law, he echoed the view that abuse is an ongoing concern. “Unfortunately there’s always going to be an individual who has an unhealthy interest in children and who will find a way of attempting to gratify themselves. They focus on locations with easier access to children: schools, youth clubs, sporting clubs and so forth. These are targets for these kinds of individuals.”

Mr Derham also suggested that lower-level clubs were more likely to see these kinds of abuses. He spoke specifically about a claim Verisona Law is currently pursuing against the FA regarding Daniel Gersh, the former director of Essex-based Southside Juniors’ Football Club, who was jailed in 2007 after admitting 60 child sex offences. Mr Derham told me that Gersh was an FA-registered coach running a small club, and these grassroots groups could be more vulnerable today.

Walters echoed these concerns in our interview, adding that the Offside Trust aims to protect children from the top all the way down to grassroots football: “The Premiership is that eerie silence football’s carrying on now. They’re not going to come out and say anything because they’re going to be scared they’re going to feel let down by the game of football.”

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The problem of child sex abuse is certainly not specific to football, but there are a number of factors that make youth academies and grassroots kids’ clubs particularly susceptible to exploitation. With the rise of hyper-professionalisation, football is more competitive than ever before. Only a minority of young players will go on to play at the top level and, for ambitious children with dreams of success, this places a tremendous amount of pressure on tender shoulders.

Children from humble backgrounds in small towns up and down the country rely on coaches and scouts to steer them through an aggressive and economically minded machine. The desperation to succeed, determination to impress and deference towards authority figures is still a deeply dangerous combination for child players. Considering the manner in which youth talent is trained, and the power of scouts and coaches to make or break a child’s future, it seems young players are still placed in a vulnerable position in football’s youth system.

If we are to feel confident in the assertion that children are totally safe from sexual abuse in youth football, then governing bodies, clubs and grassroots organisations must be made subject to legal requirements that prevent exploitation. A rigid, uniform system of checks and balances is the only way to make the processes of vetting and recruitment open and transparent. Past failures make it clear that whistleblowers should be encouraged to come forward, to prevent the kinds of clandestine cover-ups and suppressed secrets which abounded in Woodward and Walters’ era in the youth system.

As football continues to catalogue the incoming stream of historic abuse claims and authorities begin pursuing justice for survivors we must not neglect to make the current system safer. Openness, transparency and mandatory safe-guarding measures are the best way to do this.


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Emilia Bona For VICE Sports

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