Changing the Game: the Invisible Child and Culture of Abuse in Sport

Changing the Game: the Invisible Child and Culture of Abuse in Sport

Natalia Farmer, Chris Green and Jameel Hadi

The recent disclosures of historical sexual abuse in professional football have led to heightened awareness of safeguarding within sport. However, the terms of the debate have been limited – exemplified by the FA’s current investigation, which was set up in December 2016. Led by Clive Sheldon QC, the FA’s research is undoubtedly extensive with some 65,000 of its member clubs canvassed. However, the focus is solely on sexual abuse and restricted mainly to procedural probity. Most worryingly for those concerned about wider abuse in sport, the subject is being treated as a historical anomaly. The FA’s investigation is restricted to pre-2005 abuse – implying problems are safely consigned to the past, mainly the pre-academy days when English professional clubs couldn’t sign players below the age of 14.

Yet since elite academies were introduced in 1997, England’s professional clubs have been able to sign children from the age of nine-years-old to their academies and commonly trawl and recruit children as young as five-years-old. Not only does this mean clubs coach far greater numbers of children – collectively some 10,000 a year from the ages of 9 to 18 – but have them in the care for longer. Although the FA have implemented stringent child protection procedures within academies – indeed failure to adhere to safeguarding criteria can lead to clubs losing their licence to run an academy – the potential for abuse has increased hugely. This complacency suggests that child protection procedures, policies and structures within sport are now so perfect that the incidents which triggered the Sheldon Enquiry couldn’t happen now and that sexual abuse in sport is primarily confined to unscrupulous individuals who target vulnerable children rather than wider forms of abuse which can be many and varied. This dominant narrative is undermined by the fact that Operation Hydrant has received 46 disclosures of sexual abuse, covering each year from 2006 to the present day.

Questions therefore need to be posed about the wider environment in which children’s sport takes place. This can include: the role of professional sport; the relationship between sexual abuse and emotional abuse; the invisibility of children in determining how they experience taking part and how this can lead to institutional silences resulting in a mismatch between what is known and what is openly debated. As the current concerns highlight, children continue not to reveal abuse, which means disclosures invariably only come to light in adulthood.

The most recent study of 642 child abuse cases in sport show that in only five episodes did a child disclose abuse at the time (Rhind 2015). It also revealed widespread under reporting of emotional abuse, which accounts for 75% of all reports of abusive experiences in the major prevalence study undertaken (Alexander and Stafford, 2011). Given this context it is not sufficient to concentrate on strengthening procedures and laws as has been argued by the NSPCC. This, and the call by Mandate Now for compulsory reporting of concerns by individuals, fails to address wider cultural issues and institutional silences as seen in recent cases involving the Catholic Church and the BBC.

The call to strengthen procedures is based on how children being viewed as objects of concern and socialisation rather than as social actors. It means their participation in sport is mediated by adult values. Therefore, ‘risk of significant harm’ (Children Act, 1989) takes precedence over wider duties to promote their welfare and voice. It is precisely this ‘invisibility’ that creates a culture and environment in which abuse from adults can take place and children’s involvement is marginalised. This is illustrated by the failure to address emotional abuse and the role of professional sport in shaping the grassroots and recreational experience.

An auto narrative account from a former elite junior tennis player illustrates how emotional abuse is normalised within elite sport and cultures of silence are created which sustain and reproduce fear. This demonstrates how ‘emotional abuse’ and subsequent techniques are cultivated, reproduced, sustained and silenced.

Emotional abuse is defined as “a pattern of deliberate noncontact behaviours experienced directly by an individual within a critical relationship role that has the potential to be harmful to the individual’s emotional well-being” (Stirling & Kerr, 2014). Power and control dynamics are instrumental in creating and normalising an abusive environment. For example, it was common for the coach-player relationship to mirror manifestations seen in domestic abuse. This included economic abuse such as ‘threatening loss of scholarship’. Or intimidating verbal abuse by stating: ‘you will go back home’, ‘you are a disgrace and embarrassment’. It was also routine to use isolation by giving players the ‘silent treatment’ as well as shifting blame by stating ‘this is because you are not a team player’.

Such power and control was performed and repeatedly reinforced as players were often humiliated and demeaned in front of their teammates. The power dynamic of the coach creates the normalisation of an environment in which discipline, disclosure and authority are entangled. It becomes difficult to identity unacceptable behaviour in a culture which values competition as the first and foremost goal. The athlete is left feeling that everything is their fault as the coaches’ power permeates all areas of life such as diet, dating and what you think. Gervis & Dunn (2004) highlight this concern and state: “Coaching methodologies that are centred on a ‘‘win at all costs’’ approach are problematic and create a position of vulnerability for the athletes. So much emphasis can be placed on winning performances in sport that little attention is given to the methods involved in achieving them”.

The wider environment and unwritten but widely accepted sport ethics helps to explain how abuse is normalised. As one former elite tennis player recalls “It still blows my mind that everybody always knew! Countless parents hitting their kids, coaches in relationships with players or other awful behaviour… we knew but we were kids so we didn’t know better… but the adults knew and they should have done something!

This sort of emotional abuse – fear, lack of self-worth, secrecy and shame – creates the conditions for sexual abuse to flourish and even to be tolerated. Children are valued solely as competitors so they meet the needs of others that abuse their position. As in the case of Sheldon Kennedy (2006), a Canadian Ice Hockey player who disclosed systematic sexual abuse over a period of years and revealed that parents, players and spectators, had shared these concerns in respect of his coach Graham James.

However, abuse isn’t restricted solely to professional sport – but also shapes the experiences of children and expectations of coaches and parents within grassroots sport. Chris Green’s analysis of the English football academy Every Boy’s Dream reveals how expectations are distorted so children become viewed as commodities, with language such as ‘culled’ being used to describe how children are spurned and churned. Green notes how club scouts prowl grassroots junior matches seeking talented children to shoo towards the development centres of professional academies. It is precisely this environment and culture that needs to be challenged and changed.

A frequent gripe is the blame apportioned to ‘pushy parents’ by professional coaches who sometimes feel their authority is undermined by parents seeking answers to questions about coaching regimes and the commitments they are being asked to make. Clubs can even view children as their property. Abuse in this context is the exploitation of the child’s talent for financial gain – commodities clubs can barter players between themselves with the moral justification of fees received being ‘compensation’ for the time and effort spent coaching the children concerned. This even extends to clubs seeking to prevent ‘their’ players participating in school sport or ‘dangerous’ activity such as rock climbing. In the process, they isolate the child from their peer group. An alternative starting point recognises that children are a distinct social group with their own interests and priorities. So what does a children’s model of sport look like?

Participation Through Sport (PTS) developed as a service informed by the leadership of young people. This disrupted the way young people normally experience sport and positive activities controlled by adults. This responded to the priorities of children and young people when taking part in sport. PTS also undertook consultations on behalf of the FA and British Judo within elite and grassroots sport. This found that most children who take part in sport had very little understanding of the term child protection, the procedures or designated person structure.

Children’s more holistic view of child protection is shaped by their more inclusive values when taking part. They have a very clear view as to how they wish to be treated by adults and peers, disliked racism, sarcasm and being belittled or humiliated by adults.  They are conscious of competitive values taking precedence, recognising ‘coaches who only see the better players’ and prioritise the quality of experience and relationships over winning. They also had a clear wish to be more involved in decisions, such as, selecting; the captain, shirt numbers, positions and rotating substitutes. The issues of how children experience and are involved are not separate from promoting their safeguarding.

A film produced as part of the research identified that children were more likely to open up and share concerns and trust the coach if they were involved in a wide range of decisions. Child sexual abuse is based on power, control and cultures of silence that inhibit trust. Therefore addressing the environment in which children take part in sport and reflecting their priorities will create a more positive culture; enabling them to contribute to their own safety and enjoyment.

This article is based upon the presentations at a Making Research Count Event, held earlier this year, entitled Understanding Abuse in Sport and Safeguarding Children. The film of this event will shortly be available.

Alexander, K, & Stafford, A. (2011). Children and Organised Sport Dunedin Academic Press: Edinburgh.
Gervis, &Dunn, N. (2004). The Emotional Abuse of Elite Child Athletes by their Coaches. Child Abuse Review Vol. 13: 215-223. Published online in Wiley InterScience.
Green, C. (2009). Every Boy’s Dream. A&C Black: London.
Kennedy, S. (2006). Why I Didn’t Say Anything. Insomniac Press: Canada.
Rhind, D., McDermott, J., Lambert, E., Koleva, K. (2015) A Review of Safeguarding Cases in Sport. Child Abuse Review Vol. 24: 418-426.
Ashley E. Stirling & Gretchen A. Kerr (2014) Initiating and Sustaining Emotional Abuse in the Coach–Athlete Relationship: An Ecological Transactional Model of Vulnerability, Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 23:2, 116-135.


Natalia Farmer is a PhD student in Social Work at Glasgow Caledonian University. She was a junior elite tennis player who witnessed the culture of silence, which enabled the emotional and sexual abuse of young players. Chris Green is an award-winning author, broadcaster and media consultant whose distinguished career includes editing the official Beijing 2008 Olympic Games website, co-producing the British Radio Academy’s 2007 Speech Programme of the Year, BBC Radio 4’s The Reunion, and author of five highly acclaimed sports books, including Every Boy’s Dream – England’s Football Future on the Line, which was nominated for 2010 British Sports Book of the Year. Chris has written for The Sunday Times, The Observer, Times Educational Supplement and FourFourTwo and is managing partner of communications agency, Chris Green Media. Jameel Hadi is a lecturer in Social Work at the University of Salford. Previously, he developed the nationally acclaimed, Participation Through Sport, (PTS) 2003 to 2013. This organisation included Community Clubs and the development of a children’s model of sport; informed by the priorities and leadership of young people.  PTS undertook ‘listening to children’ consultations that produced workshops and training materials endorsed by Safeguarding Boards and sporting organisations.