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Football's latest scandal shows it's still living in the past

Thursday 24th November 2016
Just days after Andy Woodward, along with Steve Walters, courageously gave harrowing accounts of years of sexual abuse to The Guardian - abuse suffered at the hands of Crewe Alexandra coach and convicted sex offender Barry Bennell – it appears now more footballers are coming forward to seek justice.

Paul Stewart, former England midfielder, is the latest to go public about his childhood dream being tainted beyond recognition with four years of sexual abuse at the hands of an unnamed coach. Another six players have also approached police (at the time of writing this) and the press anonymously, to name coaches who abused their position to the most heinous degree over the years. Woodward himself believed his own case to be the tip of the iceberg and it seems he is right.
There are disturbing echoes of the disgraceful cover-up at Penn State University, in the USA. When the overwhelming thirst for success in sport – in this case College Football - allowed Jerry Sandusky to commit at least 45 counts of child molestation over a fifteen-year period. Journalists and investigators who uncovered the abuse believe the real number to be far higher.

The question is: How is anyone surprised by this?

Yes, we are outraged and repulsed. Any sane person will be and should be, but surprised? Not at all, at least we shouldn't be.

When you consider the ludicrous, hypermasculine culture that persists in football, even today, it should be no surprise that a young boy suffering the life-changing trauma of rape feels he cannot report his abuser. In an environment where professional players cannot come out publicly as gay, misogyny is rife and managers lay into their players as soft for being injured, a vulnerable boy is scared into silence.

What adolescent boy is ever going to feel comfortable reporting his abuser in such poisonous milieu? Especially an abuser who threatens to take away a boy's childhood dream as Bennell did to Woodward before raping him ‘hundreds of times.' Indeed, when Bennell was first linked with sexually abusing child footballers back in 1997, the FA did nothing but twiddle their thumbs. Not even basic screening processes in the grassroots game. Just as nothing was done when Justin Fashanu was hounded out of the game for coming out as gay.

If anyone ever asks what use men have for feminism, this is a very good case study. Men's football is an environment so dripping with misguided machismo that it is to the detriment of its players. Much like American Football, the desire for success and to prove one's manliness means the physical and psychological wellbeing of men is being forgotten. Not because of women, but because of their fellow men.

It's the same as it ever was with the beautiful game. The testosterone-driven dressing room culture still rules the roost from the training pitches to the stands and it's as toxic as ever. Balls out bravado, nailing birds and getting hammered are the order of the day.

A serious and forthright period of reflection, re-evaluation and reform is needed in football. In all honesty, it has been needed for many years. The game has needed for a long time to reassess its attitudes to sexism, racism, homophobia and mental health and it has failed to do so. Beyond a few cursory measures designed to satisfy moral panics, football's powerbrokers have seen to it very little has actually changed down the years.

Women are still not fairly represented in executive roles, despite the fact stuffy old white men who run the game in England, have failed to institute any meaningful reform that has improved anything. Even on the most superficial level, where the country is failing to produce players capable of competing successfully with their peers from abroad.

Case in point on this inertia is the response of Crewe Alexandra who failed to even bother apologising over the Bennell case. Despite the fact, it happened under their auspices. Considering the length of time this abuse went on, it would be naïve to think the club didn't know what their man was doing and that this is an isolated case.

While the likes of the Professional Footballers Association and Tony Adams' Sporting Chance clinic have been doing excellent work, without sufficient concrete support from the game as a whole, it will amount to a drop in the ocean.

This house of horrors opening its doors to reveal itself grimly before our eyes should be a call to action for everyone concerned with the sport. The time for silence and virile bluster is over. Football needs to step up to the plate and into the 21st century, otherwise, it will continue contributing to the maiming and deforming of the psyche and character of young boys for generations to come.
Mike Knight
Writer, maker, candlestick baker. Pens articles on Football, film and politics.

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