By Matthew Ayibakuro
In the past couple of weeks, there has been widespread shock over the revelations of child sex abuse in British football clubs dating back to the 1970s. The scandal started on 16 November when former Bury and Sheffield United player Andy Woodward, 43, waived his anonymity to tell the Guardian of sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of Bary Bennell, a convicted paedophile who worked for football clubs Crewe Alexandra, Manchester United and Stoke City in the 1980s and 1990s. Following his revelations, more than 20 former footballers have come forward with stories of historical sex abuse in various clubs in the country. As of 1st December 2016, about 350 victims had reported cases of abuse to the police with a helpline set up for this purpose estimated to have received 860 calls within its first week.
The scandal has been described as shocking, appalling and potentially worse than the revelations in the Jimmy Saville affair. But in the midst of the shock and widespread condemnation, many have stopped short of describing the scandal in terms of ‘corruption’. This is a fact that speaks of a broader issue about how corruption is conceptualised and understood globally; one that needs to change.
The reaction to the scandal has been swift as it should be. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has since set up a new helpline and five police departments in the UK are investigating the growing allegations. On its part, the English FA has announced an internal review with individual clubs also carrying out their own inquiries. FIFA has also released a statement confirming its awareness of the allegations and that it was monitoring the situation.
However, these processes have made little mention of the obvious role of corruption in precipitating these crimes and especially in the concealment of such abominable acts for decades. As the official inquiries by the FA and clubs continue, preliminary explanations by officials that they were simply not aware of such large-scale abuse cannot suffice. Neither will claims of negligence be enough to explain why so many football clubs failed to protect youngsters in the game. The FA will also struggle to exonerate itself in failing to detect, investigate and punish such crimes for over 30 years.
One particular piece in The Times has sought to downplay the significance of the scandal by noting the fact that one of the main perpetrators, Barry Bennell was convicted and sentenced multiple times for his crimes. However, it is this very fact that raises serious questions as to why the FA and clubs did not initiate further inquiries on the matter until the recent revelations. The growing narrative on the scandal shows that some clubs and officials were aware of these abuses and either ignored them or deliberately took action to ensure that they were concealed from the public. It has been revealed that Chelsea football club for instance, paid off an alleged victim after he threatened to go public with claims that he was sexually assaulted by a club official in the 1970s.
Corruption is generally defined as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. Hence, instances where particular officials or the clubs were aware of abuse and decided to ignore or conceal it for their purposes amounts to corruption and this should be a central element of the ongoing investigations. There are wide range of reasons why such indifference or concealment might have occurred: to protect friends who are the perpetrators; to protect the image of the club and its financial interests; to avoid the stress and cost of a public inquiry, etc. In any of these cases, the officials or clubs involved would be putting their personal interest above that of the victims, thereby abusing the power entrusted in them. This is corruption and should therefore be called what it is.
The fact that the word corruption is not being used or used only passingly in this situation is an indication of the economic foundations of the global fight against corruption. It is not so long ago when the media went berserk over allegations of corruption in FIFA. The headlines were easily about corruption because it was about money. The obvious economic bias of the global anticorruption movement is such that cases where entrusted power is abused with grave human consequences, as compared to finances, are rarely seen as corruption. In fact, just two months ago, corruption made the headlines when revelations of financial impropriety against then England manager Sam Allardyce and other club managers surfaced.
However, in this case when the outcome is that most children might have actually suffered abuse or continue to suffer unnecessarily because some clubs or officials decided to protect their selfish interest by covering up cases of abuse, the media and the institutions concerned are weary to use the word corruption.
Perhaps the historical use of the word corruption to bedevil countries in the global south is quickly unravelling and after FIFA, the Panama Papers, the Sam Allardyce affair and others in recent years, countries in the global north like England are now struggling with an identity crisis over the reality of corruption in their countries and how best to conceptualise it.
The fact is that this is as much a case about abuse as it is about corruption. Granted the crime is sexual abuse but the only logical explanation for its continuation in the English game all these years has to be corruption. Remarkably, neither the global office nor the UK branch of Transparency International has issued any statement on the scandal. This is quite regrettable but not surprising, considering the financial focus of the global anticorruption movement.
However corruption is defined and wherever it is being tackled, the underlying objective must be one that, at the barest minimum, is wide enough to protect the interest of vulnerable youngsters who just want to play the game we all love. And any inquiry that fails to consider the corruption component of this scandal is not only incomplete but hypocritical and shameful. It is important to get this right at these early stages and avoid the type of corrupt cover-ups witnessed in the Hillsborough inquiry.