When Andy Woodward bravely opened up about sexual abuse he suffered as a young footballer at the hands of a coach who should’ve been paving the way to a bright sporting future, he asked: ‘How many others are there?’
In the weeks that followed, more than 1,700 people called NSPCC’s football hotline, funded and supported by the Football Association, triggering a long-overdue public conversation among sportspeople who had previously felt unable to speak about the hidden horror sexual abuse.
That conversation must not, however, just be about the past. We must now ask ourselves how best to protect children in future from being targeted, groomed or abused.
We must ensure that we have organised sports operating within a system fit to keep children safe, and look at checking on more adults in order to protect more children.
It must not be forgotten that in the time since Andy and other players suffered the abuse that our helpline has been hearing about, professional football has indeed improved its policies on protecting children. The FA has worked with the NSPCC since the 1990s, and since 2010 it has met the charity’s highest recommended standard for safeguarding. The FA is subject to our annual safeguarding review, clubs have dedicated safeguarding officers, and stringent checks are in place for all those working with children at FA-approved locations.
Now is the time to reflect upon how we can better protect our children when we entrust them to the fantastic sports clubs up and down the country working so hard to help them to have fun, keep fit and learn the important lessons that playing sports can teach.
Parents can play a part. They must have the confidence to ask the right questions about clubs and adults who are supervising their children. Knowing who they can chat to if they have a concern, knowing what procedures the clubs have in place and satisfying themselves that the coaches have had the right checks are all vital factors in keeping children safe. These simple questions are not pushy – they are reasonable and necessary.
And we need to make sure we establish a culture where children feel able to talk to adults they trust about anything that’s bothering them at their sports club – whether that’s day-to-day worries about not being picked for the team, or more serious concerns about inappropriate behaviour.
The NSPCC seeks to protect children wherever they are. Within sport our Child Protection in Sport Unit is actively engaged with 200 national sporting bodies helping them develop the tools necessary to foster safeguarding systems that will keep children safe. This work has never been more important if we are to prevent abuse before it happens.
We offer supportive services to help victims of sexual abuse or anyone who wants to talk about concerns – young people can call Childline, adults can call the NSPCC Helpline and since November our football hotline has been set up to handle calls about sex abuse in football.
Laws must be strengthened to make sure all coaching staff are properly vetted – not just those who are left alone with children – and to ensure that those working in sport are held to the same clearly understood and consistently high standards we should expect from all professions where adults are in a position of trust over young people.
The overwhelming majority of coaches do an excellent job, and work tirelessly with children to make them healthier, more confident and more skilled on the pitch. Sport was a huge part of my own childhood and I know how important it is to children up and down the country today. We want to work with coaches and their sports clubs, with families and with the government to ensure that our longstanding sporting tradition continues towards a safe and positive future, and that we continue to improve the protection of children and young people across the country.