Sexual abuse and professional sport

Sexual abuse in the world of professional football has hit the headlines over the last few days.

Last week former professional footballer, Andy Woodward, bravely spoke publicly to The Guardian about having been seriously sexually abused by football coach and scout Barry Bennell whilst a youth player at Crewe Alexandra. Woodward, now 43, did make a career in professional football but believes that this ended prematurely at the age of 29 because of depression, anxiety and panic attacks caused as a result of the abuse.  He believes there are many more victims of Bennell.

Following the interview with Woodward, Steve Walters became the second former professional footballer to confirm that he too was sexually abused as a youth player at Crewe Alexandra by Bennell.

And now the former Manchester City, Leeds and England player David White has come forward as the most high profile victim of Bennell to date – he is currently writing a book in which he details the abuse that he sustained.

The former Tottenham, Manchester City and Liverpool player Paul Stewart has also revealed that he turned to drink and drugs during his career after suffering sexual abuse by an unnamed youth coach.

Bennell was involved with junior football teams in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. As well as working with Crewe Alexandra he was closely associated with Stoke City and Manchester City as well as youth football teams based in Derbyshire, Staffordshire, Cheshire and Greater Manchester.

Bennell was sentenced to nine years in prison in 1998 after admitting 23 specimen charges of sexual offences against six boys aged 9 to 15. He was jailed for a further two years in May 2015 for another historic offence, involving a 12-year-old boy on a football course in Macclesfield.  He has also served a four-year sentence in Florida after indecently assaulting a 13-year-old British boy on a football tour to the USA.

The pattern of abuse as described by Woodward, White and Walters appears to have followed a period of grooming whereby Bennell would promise football stardom and glamour and then threaten the boys with violence and blackmail including promises to sabotage their careers.

As a result of the recent publicity, Cheshire police’s investigation has grown significantly as numerous further people have come forward wishing to speak with them.  Detective Inspector Sarah Hall of Cheshire police’s Public Protection Unit has stated that they “have now been made aware of a number of people who have come forward wishing to speak to the police. At this stage we are in the process of making contact with them, and to date no arrests have been made and no one else is under investigation.”

The NSPCC has also launched a dedicated 24 hour football hotline for anyone who may have been affected. The Football Association has backed this initiative.

There is a very real feeling that the matters that have recently come to light are just the tip of a very large iceberg.

Sadly it is not just football where there has been sexual abuse of young people. Other sports where there have been past allegations include swimming, gymnastics and golf. Safeguarding is a central tenet of large sports clubs and national sports associations but ensuring that the message is clearly understood and implemented at all levels, including vital community grass roots clubs, can be less straightforward. The fact that football attracts so much publicity generally and that these former players have bravely spoken out and waived their anonymity may be just the impetus needed to ensure that the message is heard, understood and acted upon by all.


David Milton, Associate, BLM


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