The current claims of sexual abuse in football dominating news bulletins would appear at first glance to be rooted in a historical cover-up and conspiracy of silence.

But are they really?

A closer look reveals less a conspiracy, more a sea change in the press and public’s reaction and perception to allegations of sexual abuse in a post-Jimmy Savile era.

Former Crewe Alexandra coach Barry Bennell was jailed in 1998

Former Crewe Alexandra coach Barry Bennell was jailed in 1998

There was no cover up when football coach Barry Bennell was jailed in 1998 for offences against young boys. The investigations of Channel Four’s Dispatches which preceded it were both aired and reported on at the time. Leading football figures of the day took part in the programme. Bennell and other coaches were exposed in it.

The news was reported on by the press, but it was deemed worth just a few paragraphs rather than the double page spreads it commands today. The news made some waves, but not the tsunami that we have seen in recent weeks. As a result, there was not the “who knew what, when and what did they do about it?” inquest we are now witnessing.

What has changed, however, is the victims’ propensity to step forward.

In 2016, there is no longer shame in being a victim. Quite the opposite – support and sympathy is now available in abundance, as was evident to the response to the NSPCC’s helpline. Those who don’t offer sympathy and support (step forward Eric Bristow) are now the ones who face public opprobrium.

If any good did come out of the Savile scandal, any guilt or shame often felt by victims of abuse has been dissipated by the positive action taken to expose his crimes. Victims are significantly more confident of being taken seriously.

Courageous footballers speaking out on the Victoria Derbyshire programme

Courageous footballers speaking out on the Victoria Derbyshire programme

To have four formers footballers, now middle aged men, appear on daytime TV to talk openly and emotionally about their ordeals as occurred on the recent Victoria Derbyshire Show was probably unthinkable in the 1990s. Today, while certainly newsworthy, it is less extraordinary. Even football reporters, expected to be more at ease with match reports and transfer gossip, are turning in daily exposes and interviewing victims.

While many of the perpetrators of the abuse have either been brought to justice or since died, it is now the clubs and the authorities being called to account. How were they not aware? Did they not take the rumours seriously?

This is deeply uncomfortable territory for any football club or governing body.

So, what should they do?

  • Ensure the victims are always considered in responses and actions
  • Review safeguarding standards, past and present
  • Get good specialist legal advice from outside, independent, counsel
  • Commit to openness and proactivity
  • Reassure current stakeholders, especially the families of current players, about current safeguarding standards
  • Ensure there are no blurred lines between past and present
  • Make clear, unambiguous, statements and comment to the media
  • Have well-trained and well-briefed spokespeople

In what the FA’s own chairman describes as the biggest crisis the organisation has faced, rarely has the game needed a stronger defence. That defence does not need to come with a star player’s fee attached.

  • Steve Double was Head of FA Media Relations 1994 – 2001.

Alder advises sporting and educational institutions on the communication demands arising from abuse allegations.  For a discreet, no-obligation conversation, please call us on 020 7692 5675 or email us at [email protected].