Content Warning for sexual assault and child abuse.
FA chairman Greg Clarke has said England’s governing football body will stand by victims of sexual assault after several former footballers went public with their stories of abuse and exploitation.
Last week, former Bury and Sheffield United defender Andy Woodward gave an interview to The Guardian in which he detailed years of sexual abuse he suffered while signed as a youth player for Crewe Alexandra. The 43-year-old said that, between the ages of 11 and 15, he was repeatedly abused by former coach Barry Bennell, who has since been convicted of pedophilia charges in an unrelated case.
Since then, several more retired footballers came forward with similar stories of assault, all around the same period at Crewe Alexandra, all with Bennell named as the attacker. A lengthy pattern of abuse has emerged, one in which the victims felt tremendous pressure to stay silent.
Woodward explained that the abuse was rooted in the toxic atmosphere that permeates the dressing rooms at football clubs throughout Britain, in which asserting dominance is vital and any sign of weakness is brutally punished.
”It was [Bennell’s] way of finding out which players were the weaker ones or the softer ones. It started within a few weeks. Initially it was sexually touching but it rapidly got worse and he raped me. I don’t want to put a number on how many times it happened, but it was over a four-year period.”
Clarke told the press yesterday that the FA’s priority is to stand by the victims and ensure that there isn’t “a new generation of victims.”
”I’d like to share my regret at the pain victims suffered. We will make sure no stones are left unturned in making sure there isn’t a new generation of victims – and victims that have been hurt are truly helped.”
Manchester United and England captain Wayne Rooney, who also serves as an ambassador for the British children’s charity NSPCC, offered assurances that victims of sexual abuse would have support.
”It’s awful that some of my colleagues have suffered this way whilst playing the sport that I and they love. It’s important that people know that it’s OK to speak out, there is help available and that they don’t need to suffer in silence.”
Meanwhile, the police inquiry into football academy assault is being expanded in order to grasp the full scope of the abuse, and Cheshire Police have indicated that Bennell may not be the only predator operating in youth football. The NSPCC has also set up a hotline and has received more than 100 calls so far. A BBC report suggests that as many as 5% of young boys who train at football academies are abused, and that some experts are already suggesting this could end up being a larger scandal than the Jimmy Savile case.
In addition to the NSPCC hotline, there are several resources available in the UK for survivors of sexual abuse, including Rape Crisis England & Wales and The Survivors Trust. In the US, RAINN offers both a telephone hotline and an online crisis support chat.