Silence over football’s links with sexual and domestic violence is deafening | Soccer

There are lots of problems in football. And there are lots of conversations about the problems in football. Yet there’s a chasmic silence when it comes to the game’s disturbing links with sexual and domestic violence.

Why? Why aren’t there hundreds of opinion pieces about this? It’s difficult and pointless to rank all the bleak aspects of the game – from racism to sportswashing, from homophobia to corruption – but those conversations exist.

There isn’t a hot take, there isn’t searing insight when it comes to sexual assault or domestic violence. Both are just horrendously grim crimes. They’re unpleasant to read about and legally virtually impossible to write about. Is there a link between the lack of any meaningful discussion and some football fans seemingly being OK with applauding and cheering on an alleged rapist? Defending their own suspected wife beater, but booing their opponent – just using it as another trivial part of tribal rivalry?

Even court proceedings become internet memes, and WhatsApp fodder – without any mention of the seriousness of the crime. Any Sunday league footballer will have heard the verb rape to describe a winger beating a defender. Nostalgic TV and radio shows often just erase that difficult bit of someone’s life – because well, it brings the mood down, doesn’t it?

Football and sport sits in a curious position in our lives. It is close enough to dictate your emotions, some of your most open displays of passion – yet far enough removed from day-to-day life that you can approach it in some sort of moral vacuum. Between three o’clock and five o’clock your normal ethical code need not apply – especially if it’s a really good player we’re talking about. Yeh he might have done that, but boy can he break up the play. If your best mate raped someone, or was charged, it would presumably affect that relationship – yet a footballer can be guilty of assaulting the mother of his children and it’s quickly forgotten.

How should we talk about it? Sky can hardly flash up a player’s stats before the game: Games 38, Goals 14, Assists 4, Average Kilometres 13.2, suspected rapes: 1 (don’t Google these facts to check if it’s a nod to any player, it’s not). Your EFL roundup can’t drop it in casually, “but new signing [redacted] [redacted] – recently questioned by police after accusations of beating up his wife – pulled one back with 15 minutes to go”.

This column has no mention of any specific case. It is very difficult to talk about the subject for a variety of legal reasons. Of course a column without specifics, without a story, without names is less interesting. As a result no one writes it, and the conversation never happens.

Janey Starling is from a group called Level Up, a feminist campaign group that wants to see a world where everyone is loved and liberated from gendered violence. Earlier this year, along with The 3 Hijabis and End Violence Against Women Coalition, Level Up sent an open letter to the Premier League and FA, demanding mandatory consent training and disciplinaries for players who cause harm. It has carried out high-profile campaigns on this subject, with the help of fans who do care. The aim – “to break the silence around rape in sports. We’re targeting football because we know that it’s a huge space that so many people are in. But the conversation on sexual violence isn’t really happening.”

In the UK two women are murdered by a partner every week. At the same time only one per cent of charges lead to a conviction for rape. “We need to see clubs taking responsibility for players and not just leaving it to the failing criminal justice system, which rarely serves justice for rape victims,” says Starling.

Recently the Premier League announced mandatory training on sexual consent – something Level Up supports: “A lot of these players are coming up through academies. The clubs are responsible for informing their worldview. We know that actually training more broadly across society on sexual consent is what happens in schools, it’s happening in workplaces. So why would football be any different? We know that sexual violence is an act of power and control. It’s something that we see a lot in industries like film and in government. Wherever there is power and control in society, there will be sexual violence. Sexual consent is really important and football is a really important place to be confronting that.”

So what should happen to players accused of these crimes? They are, of course, innocent until proven guilty. But since the conviction rate is so low, this kind of all-or-nothing solution feels inadequate. Should football’s authorities become some kind of civil court – on the balance of probability rather than reasonable doubt? Clearly this isn’t what the Premier League or any other governing body was set up to do. “Where there have been allegations there needs to be a serious investigation. And I do think it has to come from an independent ombudsman because the clubs will protect their own, and not every woman wants to go to the police. It is about the clubs taking allegations seriously. And then when there are ongoing investigations, the players shouldn’t be on the pitch.”

The extent of the problem within the game is clearly hard to quantify. “There are footballers who are brilliant men who have families and just do their job and behave. So, what’s the excuse?” says Starling. You do wonder how teammates – not to mention physios, coaches, managers and anyone else employed at the club – feel about having to work alongside alleged rapists.

Football isn’t the only place where people hide behind money and lawyers to avoid justice – there will always be questions about whether football is just a mirror to society. The rule of law matters. But as Starling concludes: “Football needs to have the guts to have this conversation. Because I think there’s a real lack of courage to confront the complex reality that footballers can be absolutely excellent athletes and also hurt women. And it’s not one or the other. It’s just the fact that both exist, and their professional expertise should not protect them from consequences if they cause any harm to anyone, just like anyone else in society.”

It is complex, but football’s governing bodies will act only if people care and if people talk about it. Sometimes we have to confront things we’d rather ignore. Only then will football and sport really be for everyone.

In the UK, Rape Crisis offers support for rape and sexual abuse on 0808 802 9999 in England and Wales, 0808 801 0302 in Scotland, or 0800 0246 991 in Northern Ireland. In the US, Rainn offers support on 800-656-4673. In Australia, support is available at 1800Respect (1800 737 732). Other international helplines can be found at

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