Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
1 December 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 2:04pm

Abuse victims have broken football’s culture of silence – now we must act

The words of politicians are not, on their own, enough. 

By Gavin Newlands

Bravery within sport is an overused phrase. Players and teams are regularly heralded as being “brave” for a heroic performance or a result that they’ve managed to secure in a crucial and difficult game.

However, over the past couple of weeks we have witnessed courage on a level that is truly deserving of that accolade.

The men who have come forward to speak about the abuse they have suffered have shown an incredible level of the stuff. Their stories are undoubtedly horrific. Indeed, as somebody who has played in a team sport from a young age and who entrusts my own children to coaching from others, I find their stories particularly poignant and heart-breaking. But we owe it to these brave individuals to ensure that appropriate action follows the warm words of politicians. We must help right the evil wrongs visited upon them and learn from the haunting experiences that they went through as children to ensure it never happens again.

Former Bury and Sheffield United defender Andy Woodward was the first player to come forward to speak about the abuse that he experienced as an 11 year old at the hands of one of his coaches, serial paedophile Barry Bennell. During Woodward’s interview with The Guardian he spoke about the masculinity in the changing room and how this culture makes it difficult for players to come forward and speak about the abuse that they’ve experienced. He hopes that his actions will serve to break down the stigma that leads many to remain silent and hopes that others will now feel empowered to come forward to speak about their experiences.

Since then, more than 20 former footballers have come forward with allegations of historical child sex abuse in football. Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People, Tam Baillie, fears that “we are on the brink on many more revelations”. Former Tottenham and Liverpool midfielder Paul Stewart, who has also spoken about his abuse, suggested that sport could face allegations on the scale of the Jimmy Savile scandal.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

These allegations have rocked the political, sporting and footballing world and it’s now incumbent upon all of us to ensure that we put the proper safeguards in place to ensure that this cannot happen again. I look forward to the review in to Duty of Care in Sport – led by Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson – which is due to be published shortly. Having met her recently and discussed this, I know she will leave no stone unturned.

Since the allegations have come to light the English FA have announced an internal review of the situation. The Culture, Media and Sport select committee chair Damian Collins MP has said that this inquiry should have a much wider scope and look to assess whether there is a cultural problem within sport. It is difficult to argue with Mr Collins’ approach. We need to ensure that monsters like Bennell cannot abuse the trust that we place in them.

Police Scotland have released a statement which confirms they “have received reports in connection with non-recent child abuse within football” and are working with the relevant authorities as part of a UK-wide approach.

Content from our partners
Helping children be safer, smarter, happier internet explorers
Power to the people
How to power the electric vehicle revolution

The Prime Minister has praised the bravery of the men who have come forward. The England captain, Wayne Rooney, has spoken of his horror and urged anyone who has a similar experience to report it and not suffer in silence.

For anyone who has been affected in any part of the UK, I would strongly urge you to seek help and support.

These revelations encapsulate one of every parent’s worst fears. The allegations are abhorrent and deeply tragic. Anyone who abuses their position of trust to prey on young children must be brought to justice. This is the way that we protect our children from harm and respect the bravery of those who have come forward to report their experience.

The NSPCC have set up a dedicated helpline (0800 0232642) for victims of sexual abuse in football. The Scottish Football Association have also setup a dedicated email address – – for people to get in touch confidentially.

Gavin Newlands is the SNP MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire North, and the SNP spokesman for sport.