A number of former footballers have shown such courage over the past weeks by talking about how they were sexually abused as children by their coaches. But the most courageous of all has to be Andy Woodward. His willingness to waive his right to anonymity gave others in football the strength to go public.
It is seeing those big, tough men gasping for breath, in floods of tears, struggling to make sense of their shame that is most shocking. Paul Stewart, David White, Chris Unsworth, Jason Dunford … and on it goes. It turns out that we’re not just talking about one isolated case, one perpetrator. Far from it. Now we know about the Newcastle coach George Ormond, and what he inflicted on Derek Bell and others. And there will be more to come.
Police have said they are now investigating reported attacks on 350 individuals. The Met alone has received 106 allegations. Soon this number will be in its thousands. This is the way with child sex abuse. Once one person is brave enough to come forward, others do too.
It’s a horrific story, brilliantly reported by the Guardian’s Daniel Taylor and others. But it’s also a story that poses many uncomfortable questions about football, masculinity, sexuality, cultural norms, and abuse in the larger sense.
For the world of sport in general, and football in particular, is one that has long been divorced from regular standards of sexual behaviour. Attitudes within football to sex, and sexuality, have been abusive, and primeval, for as long as I can remember – if not in the devastating way we are hearing about now. And the wealthier football has become, the more toxic its attitudes.
Sex has long been a currency in football, and when sex becomes a currency, abuse is never far behind. Many footballers don’t feel they have to play by the same rules as regular civilians because they are loaded and famous, and money and celebrity buys access. So it became the norm to read about rape allegations when football teams were away holidaying together, or even when it was consensual, to hear about players “spit-roasting” – two players or more having sex with one woman.
Last year Leicester City sacked three players who were filmed taking part in an orgy where racist language was used. While Ched Evans was found not guilty of rape in his retrial this October, even he would admit his behaviour was unsavoury (having sex with a woman he had never spoken to). In March this year, former England player Adam Johnson was jailed for six years for sexual activity with a schoolgirl.
The same distorted values that led Johnson to think his behaviour was acceptable (a fair exchange; my celebrity, posh car and money for her underage body) seems to be shared by the coaches who abused child footballers (another fair exchange; the possibility of sporting success for their underage bodies). And like all abusers they have preyed on the most vulnerable – youngsters who admired them, who had everything to lose by reporting it, and who might well not be believed anyway.
Now it has been revealed that Chelsea tried to hush up the fact that their chief scout Eddie Heath was a paedophile who preyed on Gary Johnson by offering their former player £50,000 hush money. Shocking, undoubtedly. But is their conspiracy of silence that much more morally bankrupt than Sunderland allowing Johnson to continue to play for the club – even though he had, in private, admitted to them that he had kissed the child?
Sexual abuse and sexism is rife throughout football – from players to professional observers of the game to the fans. Richard Keys resigned from his role as presenter at Sky in 2011 after the sacking of Andy Gray for being unwittingly caught on camera making lewd comments and gestures to a co-presenter. Keys himself was caught referring to women as “it” – as in asking pundit Jamie Redknapp, in reference to a former girlfriend, whether he’d “smashed it” – and suggesting Redknapp would be found “hanging out of the back of it”. Vile.
The bone-headed machismo of sport soon descends into abuse on the terraces. Arsène Wenger was labelled “a paedophile” by rival fans because he was urbane and French, back when that was unusual in English football. After Sol Campbell moved from Spurs to Arsenal, Spurs fans sang, “He’s big / He’s black / He takes it up the crack / Sol Campbell, Sol Campbell” and, worse, to the tune of Lord of the Dance, “Sol, Sol, wherever you may be / You’re on the verge of lunacy / And we don’t give a fuck if you’re hanging from a tree / You Judas cunt with HIV.”
Campbell was wrongly rumoured to be gay. And that, of course, is still the great taboo in British football. And British sport in general. Last week, the words of former darts player Eric Bristow, for which he has since apologised, made that abundantly clear when he tweeted: “Might be a looney but if some football coach was touching me when I was a kid as I got older I would have went back and sorted that poof out.”
There is still no bigger insult in football than calling somebody a poof. There is not one “out” gay footballer in the Premier League. It is still a shameful fact that the only top English footballer who came out was Justin Fashanu, in 1990. After that, he never played top-flight football again, and in 1998 he killed himself.
It is to be hoped that the spate of revelations about child sex abuse in football will make everybody in the game sensitive to all forms of sexual abuse within football – from the predatory coaches to the predatory players, to the fans who hurl homophobic slurs at players, to the clubs who pay out money to silence the victims of abuse.
If there is one thing to learn from this scandal it is that sexual abuse is endemic in football (as it is in society). And it must be rooted out in all its forms.