THE BLOG

We Must Blow The Whistle On Child Abuse In Football

06/12/2016 10:17 GMT | Updated 07/12/2017 10:12 GMT
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Revelations of abuse that went on in our national sport have escalated in recent weeks, as more and more footballers have found the courage to speak out about horrific experiences they endured as children.

The police have identified 350 victims of abuse within football, and hundreds of calls have been made to the NSPCC's football hotline, which is supported and funded by the Football Association. The sport is rightly now asking some very difficult questions of itself.

In the first days of our helpline going live, the NSPCC made three times as many referrals to police and other agencies as it did in the first three days of its Savile helpline opening in 2012, not surprising perhaps, considering we are comparing calls about one individual with calls about an entire sport.

I have been staggered by the speed with which those who want have their voices heard have done so through the football hotline, but I am not surprised. It is partially a testament to the work done in recent years to create a climate whereby people are confident that in coming forward their testimonies will not be dismissed offhand. But it is also thanks to the swift action by the FA in approaching the NSPCC to set up this helpline that we have been able to offer a trusted outlet to those that are coming forward.

So far 92% of all referrals by the NSPCC's football hotline have been to police and we know that over a quarter of UK police forces are now investigating reports of abuse within football.

All this has raised questions within the world of football, and in sport more generally, about what went on during times when attitudes to sex abuse were different from our attitudes today. But it has also sparked conversations about whether the thousands of children up and down the country are safe today going to their after-school clubs and weekend matches.

Whilst our alarm about the scale of non-recent abuse is entirely justified, we should guard against the risk of marrying these revelations with a sense of hysteria that sees sex offenders lurking in every locker room and on every sports pitch. This is of course far from the case and we must be careful to remind ourselves that the majority of coaches do a fantastic job working with children and young people to develop their sporting ability, inspire and encourage them, and help them learn values such as good sportsmanship.

As a society we want our children to be active, healthy and to participate in sport. Events like the Olympics this summer show us how inspirational sport can be and the ambition and drive it can instil in our children. However, there is no room for complacency and alongside this we need to know that our children are as safe as they can be.

The NSPCC's dedicated Child Protection in Sport Unit has worked with 200 sports organisations including the FA for over 15 years, offering them the opportunity to equip themselves with the tools they need to help keep children safe - including providing training and helping them set up safeguarding policies and ways of handling incidents if they arise. In football, dedicated safeguarding officers in clubs are now a feature that was not typically present prior to the establishment of the CPSU. Ensuring that organisations, both in sport and elsewhere, take individual responsibility for the safety of children and more importantly are equipped to do so, is the rock upon which child protection rests.

Well over 90% of counselling sessions held through our football hotline have been about non-recent abuse. But none of us can afford to be complacent. We know that the culture of the sporting environment can be a high risk setting for abuse which is why a real and sustained focus on safeguarding is so essential. And the identification of sexual abuse is on the rise up and down the country, not just in sport.

This week it was revealed that around 80 cases a month are being referred to police by the Independent Inquiry on Child Sexual Abuse. It essential that we continue to emphasise and support organisational awareness and action, but also help parents and carers act in an informed manner where they can also help encourage good child protection. The NSPCC will also continue its systematic work in schools to help develop a resilience in children that helps them speak out and stay safe.

The NSPCC's football abuse helpline can be contacted 24 hours a day on 0800 023 2642.