One of the worst child sexual abuse scandals in sports history just keeps growing in scope.
Last month, the National Police Chiefs’ Council in England released the latest numbers in an ongoing investigation into a child sex abuse scandal in British soccer. As of that report, 560 alleged victims had come forward with allegation against 252 suspects.
So far, 311 football clubs from all ranks, amateur through premier, have been impacted by the investigation.
This week on HBO Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, former Chelsea soccer player Gary Johnson talked to journalist David Scott about the abuse he suffered.
Johnson was scouted for Chelsea’s elite youth program when he was only 13 years old by Eddie Heath. One day, after Johnson had a bad day at school, Heath invited Johnson back to his house. Once there, Heath put on a porn movie.
“The next thing I know my trousers and underwear are around my ankles and he started masturbating me to the point of ejaculation,” Johnson said.
Johnson kept the abuse a secret for over 40 years, but decided to come forward after seeing another former soccer pro, Andy Woodward, talk with the BBC about the sexual abuse he experienced as a child at the Crewe Alexandra football club.
“Why would I want to tell anyone? I don’t want to have that stigma of going to a game and people laughing at me,” Johnson said, explaining why he was silent for all of those years.
Woodward’s BBC interview triggered floods of other victims to come forward, and caused the Football Association to launch an independent inquiry into sex abuse in British soccer between 1972–2005.
While the FA has promised reforms, many are skeptical. One anonymous former football executive whom Scott interviewed said he reported allegations of abuse to the FA back in 2001, and received a letter back saying: “The Football Association has investigated the issues and is satisfied there is no case to answer.”
A few years later, the FA abruptly terminated a study on child protections citing budget cuts.
But it’s a promising sign that the FA has launched such an intensive independent investigation —even though not everyone is cooperating with it. Earlier this month, Daniel Taylor of the Guardian reported that eight professional football clubs contacted by investigators have failed to respond to the inquiry.
The FA is considering imposing sanctions if the clubs continue to refuse to cooperate.
“The fact that clubs continue to ignore the FA inquiry and fail to cooperate is deeply concerning,” Dino Nocivelli, a lawyer who is representing a number of the former footballers, told Taylor. “It clearly shows their disregard for survivors of childhood sexual abuse within football and serious questions have to be asked as to the reasons why these clubs have decided not to engage.”
Now, the survivors who have come forward are hoping to get more support from the soccer community at large, and to create ways for victims to get the help they need. Last fall, Woodward and two other victims, Steve Walters and Chris Unsworth, founded an organisation called the Offside Trust to do just that.
However, the organization has seen some turmoil — Woodward is no longer a member of the board of directors and the split was reportedly not amicable — and the men have been frustrated by the lack of support from today’s soccer stars.
“Initially we just presumed we would get the support of every single player and every single club within the country, even global,” Walters told the Guardian in February. “That would be the right thing to do for the sake of humanity. I can understand if they are not sure what the Offside Trust is all about — what its aims and objectives are — so might have been tentative. But we still need more modern-day footballers to support us because there are about 10 to 15 and that’s it. It does disappoint you a little bit.”