The hidden World of Child Sex Abuse in Football

Football is the world’s most known and exercised sport and being part of the top players in the top leagues is a dream for thousands of boys. In a competitive environment like football, teenagers are sacrificing a lot of their time training in all kind of weather conditions, travelling miles to their games and perfecting their skills.

Though competitions at a young age has already led to many discussions and criticism towards football. Great Britain is now experiencing a new level of shock with the unveiling of the sex scandal.

In order to thrive at a top level, not only in sports but in any career environment, training and support from experienced people is needed. The unveiled exploitation of such power to satisfy ones sexual desire has raised many questions and concerns about the safety of football environment for children.

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Children playing football – Picture from Wikimedia 

350 men have come forward now to talk about their cases of sexual abuse and the scandal is far from being fully unveiled. While sexual abuse towards children is not a new issue, the extent to which boys have been victims has now reached a new level of awareness.

With the abuses happening years and years ago it will not be easy to solve each individual case. The reaction of victims has shown that they are now ready to step forward and do something against the coaches that have changed their lives.

The fact that the whistle-blower Andy Woodward has sparked such a development now is not a surprise to experts. According to the head of the psychology department at Middlesex University, Antonia Bifulco, such actions by individuals can trigger interesting mechanisms.

First it shows other victims that they are not alone, it creates a platform where they can come together and release a burden. While it is never easy to do that, especially on public platforms, a sense of community strengthens people in their willingness to tell their story. This theory is supported by Dr. Elaine Hunter, who is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist and who says that “the feeling of being a group empowers people to act”.

Some might be surprised that the players have not come forward earlier to talk about their abuse, Dr. Hunter highlights that a combination of things builds a huge barrier for these people. Starting with the imbalance of power that exists between coaches and player, especially at that age, and the dependency of the player on the coaches in order to fulfil their dreams. That combination of imbalance and dependency makes children rather stay quiet about their experience because they are scared that otherwise they might not be able to reach their goal of being a professional football player. This can be seen when these player speak out such as Andy Woodward did on BBC, where he said that it was “that control, that all I wanted to do was be a footballer” and that he created a mind-set where he told himself that he “has to go through it” because otherwise he will not reach his goal.

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Crewe Alexandra: The Club Andy Woodward played at when he was abused – Picture from Geograph.org

This is not the only barrier for people when it comes to telling others about what has happened. Fears of reprisal and a sense of shame play a huge role as well. Thinking that others might not believe it or direct threats towards people’s future, creates a surrounding where it seems to be easier to keep it to oneself.

Dr. Hunter points out that the effects of such a decision can be very harmful for individuals though, saying:

“It can result in literally every type of mental health problem. Particularly in terms of relationships but also in terms of drug use, alcohol use, sometimes self-harming behaviour and particularly for boys, a more acting out behaviour such as being aggressive for example”.

This is supported by Professor Bifulco who highlights the importance of treating victims as quickly as possible. He says: “The earlier you can intervene the better you can prevent long term damage to those people.” Again that is a very similar rhetoric to Woodward who spoke of having “depression and suicidal thoughts”.

The difference between abuse towards males and females can not only be seen in the awareness of the issue in both genders, but also in the reaction and consequences. One consequence that is rather experienced by men than women is that sexual abuse leads to them questioning themselves.

Especially at such young ages it would lead to big “confusion” among boys who are sexually abused by other men about who they actually are, according to Dr. Hunter. She says: “it makes someone question his own sexuality, whether he is gay or not and that also adds another barrier to actually speaking out”.

The issue, according to Professor Bifulco, have to be tackled at its core in order to avoid such things to happen in future. This includes creating a society where it is easier for children to step forward and report such things as soon as they happen.

Through this the children affected can be treated at an early stage making it easier for them to live their life without further serious mental health problems. In addition it will help to catch child sex abusers before more children are turning into victims. After all children should be able to live their dream without fearing that it will turn into a lifelong nightmare.

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