The last few weeks have brought more headlines of sexual harassment and coercion within football, this time within the US and Australian soccer leagues. Following the dismissal of North Carolina Courage head coach Paul Riley in the midst of abuse allegations dating back over a decade, US Soccer has appointed a former Deputy Attorney General to lead a wide ranging investigation. FIFA too is said to be conducting its own enquiries. Meanwhile in Australia, Sport Integrity Australia has been tasked with undertaking a similar investigation prompted by sexual assault, harassment and bullying allegations made by former international Lisa De Vanna.
This is a scandal that will not go away. It is of course not the first time such allegations have been made within sport and it certainly won’t be the last. In recent years there has been growing momentum of players and athletes of both genders being prepared to come forward and speak out (although many say they have tried doing so for years but were ignored or had their complaints quietly swept aside). What remains to be seen is whether there will be a cultural momentum shift within sport, especially football, to confront these historic abuses more vociferously and to implement wider ranging measures to avoid them happening in future. That task will potentially need to be embraced at every level of the game from governing bodies and national associations to clubs and individuals.
No doubt the many ongoing investigations will make recommendations for change. There are many ideas to ponder. In sports where coaches, scouts, agents and others can wield enormous power, governance becomes especially vital. Training and education. Clear zero-tolerance policies. Proper whistleblowing procedures. And creating a cultural expectation that abusive or unlawful behaviour will not only be outed but will be taken seriously and dealt with. Interesting comparisons could be made too with the financial services industry where a system of regulatory checks and mandatory candid references seeks to prevent unfit individuals from moving quietly from one organisation to another. All of this is of course easy to say and much harder to do in highly competitive multi-billion dollar sports but these headlines will keep coming until significant efforts are made. Fans, sponsors and the media will demand it; and at a time when there is rightly a massive spotlight on racism in football, clubs and governing bodies need to ensure they don’t take their eyes off the other equally important balls of sexual abuse and bullying.