Football's Darkest Secret: The Impacts of Abuse
TW: abuse, childhood sexual abuse, mental health, self harm, suicide
I have grown up in a family where football is a huge part of our life. I have had the most beautiful fortune of having travelled the country watching football. I am an Ipswich Town fan so I can’t say it’s always been pretty to watch, but it gave me some of the best memories I have had so far in my life. More recently I have engaged with local, non-league football and I still feel so much love for the game and what it provides in bringing people together.
Football for me involves my Dad, family members and friends that now basically are family. Football for me has always been a safe space full of fun, passion for the game and building strong relationships. I have learnt so much about life by going to football. That is exactly how football should be.
This is not the same for everyone.
A few years ago, when a collective of brave professional footballers chose to speak up about abuse in football it blew my mind. Not because I didn’t think these things happened, I was well aware of the abuse of children, but it just did not align with my experience of football. It devastated me to think that the purity of the love for the game could be so abhorrently abused by such awful people.
I recently finally watched Football’s Darkest Secret on BBC iPlayer. I thought I had missed it until someone told me it was available, and it is a piece of television that I think needs to remain accessible forever. This programme explored some of the most consistent feelings and narratives that childhood survivors speak of and the bravery and courage of these men to speak up should never be forgotten, nor should it be taken for granted. These men deserved better.
I have supported numerous survivors, of all ages and genders, and whilst what happened to them is of course different for each person, and their experiences and feelings as a result do vary, there are still key similar feelings that present. I intend to address some of the key themes I have observed in this programme that align with the general understanding from the support work I have done in my previous roles.
It is essential to highlight at this point that the impact of abuse is greater than can be summarised in one blog post. The ‘themes’ of experiences that I will explore will not be exhaustive. Impact varies in length, intensity, and variety which will be different for every survivor.
Firstly, I think is it is vital to quickly demonstrate what grooming is and how it works – I cannot presume that just because I have worked in it, that others are aware of the tactics used by perpetrators to harm vulnerable people. This information is from the research and ‘Grooming Line’ visual from Barnardo’s and is compiled of four key stages:
1. TARGETING – Identifying the young person, some initial contact, starting the process of befriending.
2. FRIENDSHIP FORMING – Build a friendship with the young person. Offering of gifts, time spent, kindness. Keeping secrets, being there for them. Testing out small displays of contact or affection.
3. LOVING RELATIONSHIP – Developing the relationship to involve affection, potential titles such as boyfriend/girlfriend, engaging in activities that are secretive or forbidden, establishing physical contact and often inconsistency with behaviours that are confusing for the young person.
4. ABUSIVE RELATIONSHIP – Removal of love, abuse increases, threats, manipulation and “you owe me” attitude, threats to share information about them based on activities they have engaged in and more.
This short overview is important as it helps to demonstrate the tactical order of perpetrators in making their methods effective. It is not just an overnight outcome and is certainly not one that a young person would be able to identify. Reading Lennox Rodgers book ‘Breaking Better’ recently demonstrates this clearly when he, as a childhood sexual abuse survivor, meets a paedophile in prison who explains the methods he uses to engage victims which aligns so clearly with the grooming line.
So with a quick overview of what grooming is we must look at the impact and the effects of what this does for people. Trying to group these key themes cannot be easy and, as said before, this list is not complete but are some consistent messages from the programme and the people I have engaged with in the course of my work.
1. FEAR OF NOT BEING BELIEVED
The most common reason I hear to not come forward. Who could blame them? When initial responses to anyone coming forward are all too often disbelief, questioning and doubt from others. The awful accusation of ‘you’re only saying it for attention’, the blame projected on to people or the ‘did you say no?’ response. As one player so clearly references, at that time an attitude existed o ‘kids should be seen not heard’ – children were not encouraged to challenge adults or report their behaviours to others so it is no wonder that so much stayed hidden.
2. FIRST ATTEMPTS TO DISCLOSE DON’T ALWAYS GO WELL
There is mention in one of the episodes of a young boy trying to tell a parent what happened to them and the response they got wasn’t good, so they kept their experiences in for longer. NSPCC research suggests this is not uncommon as young adults who experienced abuse and family violence as a child said 80% had to make more than one attempt to tell someone about their experience before they were listened to and taken seriously. 90% felt that when they told someone about what happened they had a negative experience – largely due to inappropriate responses.
If you consider attachment theory, which looks closely at how we form, engage in and develop our relationships, we can see that how our primary care givers respond to us in times of need ultimately shapes our future relationships with others.
What also haunts me about this programme is that there were ‘jokes’ about what ‘Barry’s boys’ were known for. There were rumours about these abusers’ behaviours, and they weren’t taken seriously. I appreciate that I am speaking in 2022, the awareness is better now (not great, but better) but it seems highly distressing that there legitimately were opportunities to stop this that were not taken.
This is a large reason for why I engage in my work trying to raise awareness on how to appropriately respond to people when they speak about abuse, or any other trauma or mental health need. When someone first takes that brave step to reach out, the response they get is hugely impactive for how they feel able to speak their truth in life for all areas and how they are able to recover. This is especially important for young people who are still so closely associated with adults for support, safety and learning about the world.
3. CONCERN FOR PARENT’S VIEWS AND SAFETY
Part of the ‘grooming line’, in the final stages, involves abuse and violence. This end of the process often involves threats – threats to harm the person, threats to spread information or videos/photos and of course threats to harm people they love.
The grooming methods allow the most subtle tactics at the start of the process that brings a great control and power once they have fully engaged the young person in their life.
One survivor speaks of his fear of his Dad finding out because he believed his Dad would hurt the offender. His concern for this would be that if Dad did hurt the offender, Dad could end up in trouble and Dad would go to Prison. What child who loves their parents wants this? It’s a pressure a child should never have to endure. You can start to see how easily a young person can be coerced into silence and secrecy, and how this secret can remain hidden for so many years. Some survivors speak about holding on to the stories of abuse until their parents have passed as they didn’t want to cause them pain either. The sacrifices that survivors make, frequently, to protect others whilst they are holding so much of their own pain will never cease to amaze me.
4. SELF HARM AND PAIN
Abuse is diverse in the harm it causes. It carries great emotional and physical pain. The types of acts carried out against children can often cause literal physical pain and for some survivors this can present even when the act does not. There is also the pain that may be inflicted on someone, through intended violence/assault for resisting the abuse – the ‘fight’ response is not a safe method of coping for many for this reason.
Carolyn Spring, a CSA survivor who offers incredible honesty and awareness into the impacts of child sexual abuse, speaks about the different types of pain she experiences as a result of what has happened to her. This includes that which has no initial explanation but for example she would feel incredible pelvic pain when she was faced with verbal communication with her abusers. The mind and body connection in trauma can be so intense it can cause some to feel no physical pain, some to feel highly increased sensitivity to it and others to feel pain that seems to come from nowhere*.
Self-harm and suicidal thoughts or actions are common amongst survivors as a means of coping with the intensity of the internal pain, some of the physical responses and trying to find an outlet that lets them focus on something else. I have heard survivors express how engaging in self-harm helped them to feel again when they were in a period of dissociation or numb-ness.
5. FEELING FROZEN
So many times in this programme, being ‘frozen’ was spoken about. This is a highly misunderstood area of our response to fear – we are generally educated from a perspective of fight/flight, as if these are our only options – fight the attacker or run away from them. Our brain’s response is not limited to these 2 options and some theories would suggest we have the 5Fs: Fight, Flight, Freeze, Flop, Friend. The purpose of these responses is to have one clear outcome: SURVIVE. Our brain makes a quick decision based on all the information it has available to it including what is the thing in front of us that causes fear/stress, what risks does it pose to me, what resources do I have to make myself safe, what past experiences and learning can I draw from to know what my best option is here. You do not do it consciously.
So what are their benefits, why do we use these methods?
Fight: to show your authority and ability to protect yourself, to push away or hurt the other person enough to allow you to leave or make them leave. This option may also draw attention to bring others in to help you protect yourself for example by shouting and being aggressive.
Flight: if your brain doesn’t think you can win the fight – it may opt to outrun. This is a generally easy one to understand as we can see a rational choice to leave a situation that we are not happy with. If we pause for a moment and think: in survival mode as a caveman (in our primal instinctive mind) if a sabre-tooth tiger appeared you know full well you cannot fight it and you also cannot outrun it. So these 2 options, the ones we speak of the most, cannot possibly be all we have?
So what else?
Freeze: This can be a highly ‘protective’ method in the moment that disconnects the person from what is happening – the mind and body both freeze. For some this disconnect gives them space from what is happening, and I have had people suggest they didn’t even feel they were in their body. It’s a version of ‘playing dead’ and is a highly difficult response for survivors to process. They couldn’t do anything, they couldn’t shout, scream, fight or say ‘no’. This is the danger of the ‘no means no’ approach to consent – what if someone cannot speak or act in the moment?
Flop/Faint: this can often be the last approach, when other methods are not available or successful, when the muscles in the body just go limp. The mind and body stop engaging fully and there is a level of compliance. This can also be an option that removes pain from the person as certain elements of our internal mechanisms shut off like our ability to feel pain.
Friend: It is human instinct – we reach out for connection. We engage in ‘friending’ from the moment we are born, developing connections in a way to get our needs met. This approach also works when faced with fear and stress. We can often lean to an appeasing and pacifying approach, regardless of our actual views of right/wrong/good/bad in the situation. Again, we opt for what we can do to get out of the situation alive and well and if this involves making the aggressor in front of us calmer or happier – anything that works will be engaged with.
Now, whilst you read this and are in your calm, rational thinking brain – you may choose which option you prefer. Please remember, before you judge scenarios: your brain’s motivation is to survive. If flop means you survive, regardless of the harm it causes later for you, the brain is going to consider it’s job done. Danger ‘gone’ and human survived. We of course know that the outcome is far graver and distressing than this in many situations. This is the same for abuse.
6. POWER AND CONTROL – THE ABUSE OF THE LOVE OF THE GAME
The young people spoken about in this programme who were faced with this awful abuse, if nothing else, had one thing in common: they loved football and idolised players/coaches. These abusers knew this and used it to their advantage – whether utilising the abuse as a mechanism to offer the players better opportunities or whether it was threats to prevent them being able to engage in the sport they love and ruin their chances of progressing in the game. These won’t have always been overt and direct threats, these will be implied, suggested, and subtly dropped in through methods that just embed and grow in worry for the young person. 7. PUBLIC PRESENTATIONS ARE VERY DIFFERENT
If you consider this in the loving relationship phase in the grooming line of the ‘inconsistent behaviour’, it causes such confusion for the person being abused. This is especially difficult if the abuser has started to change their behaviours in private – moving between affection and aggression. To the rest of the world this person could be seen as lovely, charming and a pleasure to be around with people oblivious to how they behave when on their own with the person being abused. One thing I was told repeatedly in my work with survivors of abuse – for both domestic and sexual violence – is how often other people would see this lovely, charming person in public and how impossible it made it feel to be able to speak up.
8. FAMILIARITY AND RELATIONSHIP WITH FAMILY
Most survivors of sexual abuse – regardless of age – know their offender. Statistics I have read from varying sources suggest between 85% and 90% of people who are abused/assaulted know their offenders. This familiarity is often what makes the 5Fs confusing – if you already have a trusting or positive relationship with someone, the change in behaviour, or progression of the abuse, can be so confusing and overwhelming that it does not bring the same responses you may have if a stranger was to come near you.
Imagine the difficulty when the abuser is not in your family, but befriends them at such a level that he then marries one of your family members? This is what Andy Woodward, the first of the footballers to come forward, had to endure. The realisation that not only has this man impacted his football life and his own personal life, but he would now be present in family occasions and celebrated offering no escape from the memory of what was done to him.
9. COVERING UP THE ABUSE
One player speaks about them covering up the abuse by being the joker, the life and soul of the party. Many speak about use of drink or drugs to ‘cope’, masking who they are to fit in to what is needed from the environment around them and ultimately not being themselves. The internal lack of interest or joy at tasks they should enjoy – for example, playing in the Premier League or for your country. When these young players started their journey in to football, they would never have imagined that their coaches – who they initially adored and often idolised - could impact their lives in a such a negative way that playing football at a professional level would one day not feel like the ecstatic dream they had thought of.
Hiding abuse and holding on to the experiences for years can have devastating effects. What is also so important is knowing that just because someone has spoken out doesn’t mean they suddenly feel better and it goes away. There can be relief, of course, but many people I supported said that opening up the memories was traumatic, exhausting and confusing. Healing from this type of trauma can take a long time, especially if you don’t have appropriate support in place.
10. TRIGGERS ARE NOT ALWAYS OBVIOUS & EFFECTS ARE LONGLASTING
You don’t have to see the person physically to feel the trigger or relive the memories. The way our brain codes and associates so many elements of our experiences to a memory or emotion is deeply embedded within us, for example, there is mention of the smell of public toilets reminding one survivor of the crotch of his abuser.
Some survivors can experience taste and scent hallucinations. For example, I have heard of when a window would open and the person would suddenly be flooded with the scent of the abuser’s home that felt instantly real. The smell that was actually coming in was just fresh air but they would experience this overwhelming taste and scent of the past memory which would then place them in to extreme flashbacks and long periods of depression.
11. GUILT AND SHAME
Even as adults, many try to find fault, reason or excuses for what happened. Many try to rationalise the behaviour so that it makes sense – humans do this all the time, when inexplicable things happen, we try to find a reason so it makes sense in our mind. I can only explain this simply as the ease of the mind to find a fault somewhere than there just being a statement of fact that people can behave in such cruel and heartless ways. We are brought up largely to believe that there is cause and action, reasons for why things happen. This is not always the case or the reason is one that does not sit well with us.
To have an adult man suggest he felt that speaking up at court let down his perpetrator, because he didn’t keep the secret – well it brought me to tears. He can recognise now that he knows the perpetrator let him down, that it wasn’t his fault – but those thoughts still existed for him.
12. THE ANTICLIMAX OF A GUILTY VERDICT
Court cases do not bring justice for everyone. Justice suggests, by definition, “fair treatment” – there is nothing fair about a person having to experience abuse in the first place to seek justice, so the term used in association feels incongruent to the experience. Having sat in many court hearings and seeing what survivors of abuse are exposed to in questioning – I can confidently say that court is not a big relief of justice. It of course brings positives for many but it is not as easy as some may consider.
Firstly – the level of detail that someone must go through in disclosure is so intense and distressing, for many it causes re-traumatisation.
Secondly – if you have your case reach a court case, you are cross examined by someone whose job is to ultimately imply and demonstrate that your version of events is wrong, misunderstood or a lie. Imagine spending your whole life holding on to a secret because of fear of not being believed, to then enter a process where a significant element of it is basically going to try tell you that you are wrong?
Thirdly – you can go through all of this and still get a ‘not guilty’ verdict because the requirement is ‘proof beyond all reasonable doubt’.
Lastly (but there are more reasons) – you can end the justice process, receive a ‘guilty’ conviction, and the trauma does not disappear. There can be relief, there can be a feeling of being believed, but to expect that survivors automatically will feel better ‘now it’s over’ is incorrect. As a support worker, I saw a variety of responses to the outcomes of court cases, and I can honestly say that it didn’t frequently bring about the feelings you would expect.
The strength of character and courage to remain in the process is one I will always have admiration for. I do not say this to put people off of reporting as there are many benefits to reporting and so many positive outcomes, but I have experienced comments in the past that imply someone should feel joy now because it’s over. But it’s not over.
And as Steve Walters says “Now, what?”. A new recovery journey starts again.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Once you have considered the impacts and the outcomes there can be fluctuations of feelings that leave the question of “But, what can I do to help?”.
My suggestions are as follows:
· Above anything else – LISTEN. Properly. Listen to hear someone’s truth and not to fight it.
· Speak up when you are concerned
· Challenge inappropriate things you hear
· Watch the series “Football’s Darkest Secret” to understand the experiences of a survivor fully
· Report your concerns – You can call NSPCC for support and guidance 0808 800 5000, report to your local safeguarding hub (google your county and safeguarding) and you can call the Police (101 for non-emergency or 999 if you have immediate concerns)
· Raise awareness: fundraise, share posts, share articles
· Don’t let the conversation end hide from what is happening – it makes a larger space for the abuse to be hidden and for more people to remain at risk
Below is a short list of some wonderful support services you, and others can contact, for help if any of the content discussed above has caused you concern or upset:
· NSPCC 0808 800 5000
· CHILDLINE 0800 1111
· SEXUAL ASSAULT REFERRAL CENTRES SARCs offer emotional, practical and medical support following rape, sexual abuse or assault: https://www.nhs.uk/service-search/other-services/Rape-and-sexual-assault-referral-centres/LocationSearch/364
· INDEPENDENT SEXUAL VIOLENCE ADVISORS (ISVAs) ISVAs provide emotional and practical support following a disclosure of rape, sexual abuse or assault. To locate your nearest ISVA service google your county and the abbreviation “ISVA)
Thank you to the brave men who spoke their truth, who continue to fight against all of the setbacks, who exposed the ‘football’s darkest secret’ and amongst all of your own personal battles, for setting up such a wonderful organisation as the ‘Offside Trust’ to continue to protect as many people moving forward as possible.
Lastly, rest in peace Billy Seymour.
*For anyone who wants to read further Carolyn Spring has a really interesting blog about pain here: https://www.carolynspring.com/blog/its-a-pain-the-physical-impact-of-trauma/