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Has sport got a problem with abuse?

Alison Millar and Adam Lamb on the recent football abuse scandal and why all sports could have an inherent problem with abuse

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Alison Millar (pictured) is partner and head of the abuse team at Leigh Day. Adam is a trainee lawyer working with Alison and the abuse team on legal action on behalf of survivors brought against individuals including teachers, carers and sports coaches as well as the institutions in which the abuse took place.
During the past fortnight over 20 former football players have come forward to disclose details of alleged abuse that they suffered during their childhood.

Eighteen police forces have confirmed that they are investigating over 350 allegations of non-recent child sex abuse within football in England, Wales and Scotland.

The NSPCC has said that there has been a “staggering surge” in the amount of people calling their dedicated football abuse hotline. The Professional Footballers Association (PFA) has called the allegations the ‘tip of the iceberg’.

The allegations follow revelations by former Crewe Alexandra player Andy Woodward, who decided to waive his anonymity and share his story with the Guardian newspaper.

Since the disclosure, Paul Stewart, David White, Steve Walters and Chris Unsworth have also revealed details of abuse they allege they were subjected to as youth players.

Whilst the focus of this unfolding scandal is professional football, the abuse in question could have easily extended to other sports clubs and federations.

So what is it is it about sport that makes it an opportune environment for child abusers?

In an environment with little or no regulation, abuse has the opportunity to thrive. Many children and young people are left unsupervised and alone with an adult. Promised with opportunity, triumph and stardom within their chosen sport, it is easy to see how a predatory paedophile can groom and take advantage of their young protégés.

After the abuse has taken place, the sports coach often uses the imbalance of power to silence his protégé by imposing control using threats and blackmail.

Faced with the fear of the premature end of their sporting career, the young sportspeople are silenced. It is extremely difficult for an active sportsperson of any age to disclose child abuse due to a worry of how fellow players, managers, fans and sponsors will react.

The abhorrent reaction on Twitter of former darts champion Eric Bristow to the recent disclosures shows how ignorance can flourish within a macho culture, where prominent people still think survivors are ‘wimps’ and the remedy is to ‘sort the poof out'.

Reports suggest that some football clubs were aware that the abuse was taking place in the 1980’s yet failed to take any action.

It has been alleged that survivors of football abuse were paid off and forced to sign confidentiality agreements that prevented them from ever publically discussing details of the abuse they were subjected to. If this is proven to be true, it will be evident that there is a cultural problem rooted within the sport in the way it responds and deals with allegations of child abuse.

Greg Clarke, Chairman of the FA, has said that football had a "total unawareness" of safeguarding children in the 1990s.

The FA has announced that it will conduct an internal review at what information the FA was aware of at relevant times, which clubs were aware and what action was, or should have been, taken. Many football clubs named in the scandal have also announced that they will hold their own internal reviews.

Whilst the internal review is welcome, there are questions in relation to the independence and accountability of an organisation investigating its own failures.

Although the FA has instructed counsel to carry out the investigation, it would be far more appropriate for independent and transparent investigation to take place or for Professor Jay to extend the scope of the Independent Child Abuse Inquiry to allow for the investigation of child abuse within sport.

Had mandatory reporting legislation been in place and applied to sports clubs, many abusers may have been stopped sooner. The law must force organisations to report any allegations to the authorities to ensure abusers cannot move around the system.

This would eliminate any temptation by football clubs to put commercial reputation before the safety of children.

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