Disclosures by a number of former professional football players1 in recent weeks that they were victims of sexual abuse as children have highlighted the challenges which sports organisations face in trying to keep young participants safe. This demonstrates that real damage can be done if sports organisations are unable to prevent abusers from coming into contact with children through sport. This problem seems unlikely to be confined to football, and other sports may well become the focus of media attention over the coming weeks and months.
For a long time, sports organisations (clubs, teams and governing bodies) have not been heavily regulated when it comes to safeguarding children and vulnerable adults. As a result, there are significant variations in their practice in this field. Some sports organisations are highly sophisticated at dealing with safeguarding matters and others are only starting out on their journey to understanding and implementing sound safeguarding practices.
Regrettably, the recent disclosures demonstrate that, for some sports organisations, safeguarding simply has not been as important as it should have been. The FA has now published2 full Terms of Reference for its review into issues arising from the recent allegations of historic child sexual abuse in football. While investigating the specifics of what has gone wrong in the past is crucial in identifying how to avoid the same situations arising in the future, this article aims to give sports organisations ten more general tips on how best to safeguard the welfare of children participating in sport.
1. Make safeguarding a priority
Safeguarding the young and vulnerable participants and spectators in our sports should be a priority simply because it is our responsibility as a society to ensure that the wellbeing of these individuals is at the forefront of what we do. In addition, however, sports organisations should be aware that if they fail properly to protect the young and vulnerable, they can be legally liable for this and the reputational damage they can suffer as a result could be catastrophic. For these reasons, sports organisations must, as a matter of good practice and risk management, make safeguarding a priority.
One way to do this is for an individual on the board or management committee to be nominated to be responsible for safeguarding. Whilst this cannot (and must not) take away from the whole board or committee's legal responsibility for safeguarding, it is helpful to have a designated conduit for the passing of information and instructions to and from the operational level.
In addition, safeguarding should form part of the fabric of the organisation. Whether that means including it in the organisation's values and mission statement, making it a standing item on the agenda of board or management committee meetings or making specific provision for it in budgets and strategic plans, it should be evident that safeguarding is crucial to how the organisation operates.
2. Conduct an honest assessment
In order to work out where work is needed in relation to safeguarding, sports organisations need to conduct an honest assessment of where their practice currently sits. There are various ways of doing this: self-assessment tools3 exist, internal reviews can be carried out by senior management or external audits can be conducted by boutique advisors or large consultancies. What is crucial is that any review is frank and paints an honest picture of where things stand at the moment. Once this has been done, areas for development can be identified and a plan to achieve this can be put in place.
3. Embed a culture of safeguarding
The goal for sports organisations should be to move away from a situation where safeguarding is dealt with on a reactive basis, through the phase where safeguarding issues are tackled proactively and into an era where good practice in safeguarding is embedded in their culture.
It is only when this is the case that they will attain the ideal status: one where would-be offenders against children and vulnerable adults are deterred from joining the organisation because they perceive that its culture is not one where they will be enabled to offend in the way they wish.
4. Engage professionals
The business of safeguarding on a day-to-day basis is usually undertaken by a safeguarding lead or welfare officer whose role it is to receive concerns and refer them on where appropriate. It is crucial to ensure that the person dealing with safeguarding matters has sufficient training, skills and experience for the role. Ideally, someone with the requisite background should be recruited (either internally or externally) specifically for the role.
Safeguarding involves making many tough judgment calls and the right background is tremendously important to being a successful safeguarding lead or welfare officer. In general, the best safeguarding leads come from sectors where they have been in the front line of making safeguarding decisions on a day-to-day basis. Professionals such as current or former teachers, police men and women and social workers tend as a general rule to have a good grounding in the basics of the role.
5. Listen to the safeguarding lead/welfare officer
Whatever the background of your safeguarding lead or welfare officer, (s)he should have the confidence to speak up when necessary and should be sufficiently senior to devote whatever time and resources are necessary to ensure that safeguarding is carried out effectively. In practice, this is often one of the toughest areas.
For example, coaching elite junior or vulnerable athletes does not mean safeguarding takes second place to achieving sporting success. All too often, particularly in the sports context, safeguarding leads give sound advice but this is not followed at senior level. Organisations therefore need to ensure that their safeguarding experts have the wherewithal to raise the profile of a matter when necessary and that they will be listened to when they do.
6. Deal with cases as they arise
In the course of our work we have come across organisations where concerns/allegations about abuse/neglect are not tackled for the wrong reasons: a child or parent does not lodge a formal complaint, the alleged perpetrator threatens litigation or, far worse, the person against whom an allegation is made is considered “untouchable” by virtue of being a star player, a long-serving employee or a seemingly indispensable coach/manager. One only needs to look back at the Jimmy Saville cases4 to see the damage that such situations can cause.
Indeed, it is worth remembering that many organisations that interact with children and vulnerable adults will face situations where concerns about safeguarding are raised. It is not the fact of the concerns being raised that can damage the organisation’s reputation; it is how those concerns are dealt with. If they are referred, investigated and sanctioned appropriately, the organisation itself (as opposed to the perpetrator(s) of any abuse) will face relatively little criticism. If, however, there is any suggestion that the organisation has ignored, or worse, covered up, the concerns, then the organisation will face serious criticism from the media, the public and the courts. For the purposes of safeguarding no one, no matter how valuable, long-serving or favoured, should be above due process.
Safeguarding procedures should give clear ways of raising concerns about concerning behaviour by staff, volunteers, parents and children, should provide contact details for external referrals to statutory child protection agencies and should make it clear that no one who raises a concern in good faith will suffer any detriment as a result.
7. Learn from past cases
When safeguarding cases do arise in your organisation, use them as a learning tool. Conduct a review of what happened, how the organisation responded, what was done well and what could be improved upon. Take the opportunity to review your procedures in light of the case in question to see whether any amendments are in order.
8. Review procedures regularly
Whether the organisation has a recent past case to consider or not, regular review of policies and procedures is very helpful. In many sports organisations, the genesis of a safeguarding procedure is often the disciplinary or complaints procedure.
If not adapted for specific use in a safeguarding context, such a procedure can be actively unhelpful (by, for example, not setting out an appropriate menu of sanctions or becoming procedurally unworkable). Regular review in light of both past cases and the particular characteristics of safeguarding matters can make all the difference.
9. Learn from other sectors
Other sectors can be a huge source of learning for sports organisations looking to improve their practice when it comes to safeguarding. For example, education is a sector that has much more highly regulated for much longer. As a result, there is a strong awareness in schools of what constitutes good and bad practice in relation to safeguarding. Sports organisations can apply this in many ways, such as referring to Department for Education guidance (including "Keeping Children Safe in Education"5) when developing policies and procedures.
Similarly, religious organisations necessarily have to tackle two difficulties that are also faced by sports organisations: (i) how to manage large cohorts of volunteers from a safeguarding perspective; and (ii) managing the involvement of individuals who may pose a risk to children or vulnerable adults. Sharing knowledge and ideas about how these common challenges are most effectively tackled could be very valuable.
10. Make links
Sports organisations face some challenges in relation to safeguarding that are common to other sectors and others that are specific to sport. Whatever the challenge, making strong links to national sources of information and advice (such as the Child Protection in Sport Unit6 and other relevant charities) and local safeguarding children's boards is essential to achieving good safeguarding.
Sports organisations should also take advantage of any opportunities to learn directly from other organisations, perhaps by forming an informal network of safeguarding leads to meet and discuss best practice.