For many children that pursue their hobbies and take part in extracurricular sports, the experience is enriching and has few issues. It is unfortunate that very public cases have appeared in the press where children have been unwittingly exposed to abuse by coaches and other members of staff.
Taking part in sports often sees children spending extended periods of time away from their parents, and as background checks on coaches and other staff have sometimes not been extensive, sports clubs can become a breeding ground for child abuse.
Those working at clubs can use their position to manipulate and abuse children, as they make children promises and try to exert psychological control over their victims. This is a form of institutional abuse.
Victims can feel like they do not have a voice and cannot speak out against their abuser; it is only once survivors of abuse break this mentality and reach out for support that they can begin to process their experience and seek closure from their past.
In instances of abuse at a sports club, it is the duty of the club owner to ensure that children in their care are safe and protected. It has been found that many sports clubs fail in this duty of care and expose vulnerable children to abusers; those who have been let down by this failure have the right to seek justice.
Conditions for abuse
Sports clubs have all of the factors that can harbour abusers, as they can take on a role of authority and use their position to influence, manipulate, and ultimately silence victims.
Unfortunately, any cloistered environment that allows children to be away from their parents for extended periods can lead to abuse, and sports clubs are no exception. Most sports requiring regular training sessions, long trips away to competitions, and trusted members of staff who can manipulate their position.
In many instances, those who have been abused by staff in a sports club have been shown favouritism by their abuser and are made promises of stardom or progression in the sport if they do not object to, or report, their actions.
The way in which abuse can take place in sports clubs is much the same as those in other institutions, with abusers often:
- Targeting particular children as favourites and showing them special attention
- Making promises that they can make the child a star
- Exerting control over victims by threatening that they would jeopardise their future career if they were to report, object to, or speak out about their actions
- Inviting victims to their home, often under the pretence of doing extra practice so that their victim can fulfil their potential
- Buying gifts for their victims, so that they feel wanted and loved
- Offering lifts to victims, so that they can be alone with them while transporting them to and from training, matches, and other competitions
- Intimidating victims, so that they are either too scared to report abuse, or feel like no one will believe them if they did make a report
- Looking after children, who have become injured, without supervision and alone.
Effects of Abuse
As with any other type of child abuse, the effects of abuse at a young age can be complicated and long-lasting. Victims can often fall into a deep depression which can cause complex emotional responses that can affect every aspect of their later life.
In sports, abuse can eventually lead to victims being unable to pursue a long sporting career, as the mental scars caused by their abuser can be too overwhelming.
With children often scared into silence during the period of abuse, the effects of abuse remain until later life. When survivors finally feel like they can break their silence and speak out about their abuse, they are often seeking the justice that can provide some semblance of closure on the darkest period of their life.
Unfortunately, many adults still feel that they cannot speak out about their abuse in later life and it is only when someone else exposes their abuser do they feel that they can come forward, which is one of the main reasons that an introduction of mandatory reporting is so important in the UK.
Even when they have spoken out about their abuse, victims can be haunted by their past experiences, which can have an everlasting effect on their personality and relationships.
Abuse at football clubs
Abuse in sports clubs was brought into the public spotlight after former footballer Andy Woodward waived his right to anonymity to reveal that he had been abused by a coach, convicted serial paedophile Barry Bennell, when he was a child.
Woodward's brave admission led to a number of other former footballers, both professional and amateur, to come forward and report abuse at the hands of coaches as they were coming up through the ranks as young stars.
After concerns were raised that the sport could have been infiltrated by a paedophile ring, the Football Association (FA) responded by working with the NSPCC to set up a hotline for footballers who had been abused by staff at clubs – it is claimed that the hotline received more than 50 calls within its first two hours.
With evidence suggesting that abuse was widespread in football youth clubs, especially as background checks were not as thorough as other professions that worked with children, it is expected that many more children were abused by football staff.
Speaking out and beginning a case against a former football abuser can lead to others feeling able to report abuse, meaning that other abusers are exposed and brought to justice.
While the disclosure of abuse by former footballers was the first time that the public spotlight was shone on the failure of sports clubs to care for children on their books, it has long been established that all types of sports – not just football – can harbour abusers.
Our abuse law specialists have helped many clients who were abused by coaches and other members of staff at a sports clubs. Swimming, karate, athletics, and rugby have all been identified as sports that are especially susceptible to fostering an environment for abuse.
The media attention that was paid to abuse in football caused questions to be raised across other sports, as all youth sports club share th
e same characteristics that can lead to institutional abuse, namely:
- A figure of authority, who can use their position to manipulate and influence both children and their parents
- A sense of trust from parents, who are unlikely to suspect that their child is susceptible to harm while they are partaking in a hobby
- Opportunities for an abuser to be alone with victims, often overnight when taking part in competitions or meets
- Unfettered access, without extensive background checks, to children
For those who suffered abuse at the hands of coaches or other staff while partaking in sports as a child, it is never too late to seek justice and report an abuser.
Disclosing abuse and talking about their past experiences often helps victims come to terms and process what happened and often helps survivors understand the effect abuse has had on their later life.
With over two decades of experience helping victims of abuse, our team understand the nature of abuse and its effects on victims; we also understand how difficult it can be to reach out and make that first admission. We help connect our clients with the best available support networks, so that they can feel comfortable discussing their experiences and eventually try to get their life back on track.
As one of the founders of the Association of Child Abuse Lawyers, Peter Garsden, Head of Abuse Law, is well respected in this field and has managed many group actions where an organisation's failure in their duty of care has led to group actions that delivered justice to a group of survivors.
If you suffered abuse at a sports club you are encouraged to contact our team of compassionate and understanding specialists, who will detail all of the steps involved in bringing a former abuser to justice.
The NSPCC and Football Association have set up a helpline for potential victims. The hotline will be available 24 hours a day on 0800 023 2642.
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