On 17 March, Clive Sheldon QC reported on the investigation he chaired into the sexual abuse of boys in football between 1970 and 2005. Five days later, the BBC began broadcasting its three-part documentary on the subject. Both the report and the documentary revealed the horrifying extent of abuse, the authorities’ failure to protect the boys, and the long struggle for justice.
Many working-class lads dream of becoming footballers. They love the beautiful game, they know they are good at it while doubting they are good at anything else, and they aspire to be the heroes they cheer from the terraces (or, these days, the seats). Prolific abusers exploited that craving for success on the field, aided by a football establishment that could not – or would not – see what was going on in the dressing room, the coach’s car or back at his house.
Barry Bennell, Bob Higgins, Eddie Heath and others systematically molested and raped young footballers, abusing the power they held over them. Their victims – now survivors – have waged a courageous battle which, after far too long, saw perpetrators jailed and now the Sheldon Report revealing how the system failed them.
In November 2016, former footballer Andy Woodward gave interviews to journalist Daniel Taylor and TV presenter Victoria Derbyshire, giving his account of being abused as a boy. The floodgates opened, with many footballers coming forward to tell their stories.
The report and documentary show why the boys did not speak out at the time. They were in awe of their coaches. They saw boys who managed to repel the abusers’ attentions find their career prospects suddenly ended. One survivor explained that he didn't tell anyone because he knew that his dad would have attacked the abuser and gone to jail, and he couldn't face losing his dad. Parents – perhaps especially fathers – often say that if they found out that their kid was being sexually abused, they would deal with it like this. But, understandable though that may be, it makes it harder for victims to speak out.
In the 1980s and 90s, we cheered players like David White and Paul Stewart, then wondered why their careers burned out and their lives spun out of control. Now we know. The report and documentary show the wreckage that the abuse caused. They spoke of drug and alcohol abuse, damaged relationships, and inability to show affection and trust. One man told how the abuse had made him a strident homophobe for years before seeing the error of his ways.
Some of those speaking to the camera were captioned "former footballer", with the name of the club/s they played for; but some were captioned "former youth player", suggesting that they never went on to the professional success that they wanted so much.
Sheldon’s report states that the Football Association (FA) "could and should have done more to keep children safe". The FA delayed significantly before launching a comprehensive child protection programme in May 2000, and made mistakes even after that. Where abuse was reported to football club authorities, the responses were "rarely competent or appropriate". Clubs brushed aside suspicions about youth coaches who were "delivering the goods", i.e. producing skilful young footballers who bring revenue to the club.
Much has changed in the last two decades, in football and in wider society. Concepts such as "grooming" have entered the vocabulary as child sexual abuse has become better understood, and "safeguarding" has become the expected practice of organisations. Child sexual abuse still happens, but the scale of the change is very significant.
Last month, a report commissioned by the Scottish Football Association revealed similar evidence of child sexual abuse and institutional failure. Last year, a BBC documentary told the story of serial abuser Peter Ball, former Bishop of Lewes, revealing how he had been protected by people as high up in the British establishment as Prince Charles and the then Archbishop of Canterbury. That documentary exposed "the Church’s darkest secret", just as the late-March documentary exposed "football’s darkest secret". Maybe we will see more documentaries exposing the "darkest secret" of other public institutions.
Things may be better now, but we cannot afford to be complacent. And there is still a reckoning to be had with the crimes of the past.