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From The Socialist newspaper, 11 January 2017

Football abuse scandal: Reclaim the game for justice and accountability

Professional footballers have opened up about their abuse as children, photo by Rick Dikeman (Creative Commons)

Professional footballers have opened up about their abuse as children, photo by Rick Dikeman (Creative Commons)   (Click to enlarge)

Matt Dobson, Socialist Party Scotland

Former football player Andy Woodward waived his right to anonymity on 16 November. His story of being sexually abused as a youth player by convicted paedophile Barry Bennell at Crewe Alexandra FC came out in the Guardian.

Significantly, several other footballers then felt encouraged to tell their horrifying stories. Like many victims of child abuse, they have suffered both in their careers and personal lives, carrying the burden of these horrors.

Offside Trust

After giving powerful testimony in the media, players from this group have set up the 'Offside Trust', an independent organisation to support players and their families who have suffered from abuse.

The actions and campaigning of these survivors have resulted in recognition of the huge scale of the abuse. As of 21 December, the National Police Chiefs' Council knew of 429 victims, ranging in age from four to 20 at the time of the abuse, and 155 potential suspects.

148 clubs, spanning all tiers of the game, have been "impacted". The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has received more than 1,700 calls to a dedicated football abuse hotline.

Outrageously, the Football Association (FA) and the clubs failed to act for decades, despite being presented with evidence.

As well as the eventual conviction of abusers like Bennell, Channel 4 aired a Dispatches documentary in 1997 which exposed abusers. Deborah Davies, the journalist who made it, has called on the FA to release a 2005 report which she said detailed 250 victims and was potentially related to dozens of clubs.

Abusers exploited the hold they had as coaches over players' futures. Also, struggling working families often lived long distances from clubs.

Bennell forced situations where players stayed with him - with the knowledge of clubs, who it seems turned a blind eye. There is real concern that Bennell and coaches from other clubs coordinated abuse on a wide scale for decades.

The players involved with Offside Trust have expressed frustration with the slowness of the police in interviewing those who have given testimony. The silence from many clubs, and their continuing attempts to cover up their knowledge of past abuse, should be condemned.

Disgustingly, evidence is building that many survivors have been forced to sign non-disclosure agreements with clubs in return for compensation.

As the courageous footballers who have come forward have demanded, all survivors of child abuse need justice and support. The wider 'Independent Inquiry into Child Abuse' continues to be widely mistrusted and rejected by survivors for being linked to the establishment.

Similarly, there is understandable concern at football's governing bodies being trusted to solely run inquiries, given their poor response when presented with evidence in the past.

Inquiries need to be genuinely independent, democratic and accountable - involving survivors' groups, players' union the Professional Footballers' Association, and the wider trade union movement.

They need to be fully publicly funded and have access to all documents held by clubs and governing bodies. The gagging orders must be lifted, and any intimidation of whistleblowers must be exposed and ended.

There needs to be real discussion in football at all levels about safeguarding in the future.

Football is big business-dominated, reflecting capitalist society. In this ruthless profit-driven system there are power imbalances and limited checks on those who wield power. This can be seen in football clubs and at the game's highest levels.

Community

Many coaches who want to contribute to children's development and improve the game are prevented by financial barriers and the undemocratic structures of the game. Fans and players need to reclaim the game.

Football clubs should be democratically run under community ownership. They should be non-profit, as should governing bodies, with the election of all officials and coaches, subject to recall at any time.

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