Men’s football must set example against sexual assault

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On September 9th 2021, a Munich court found former Manchester City and Bayern Munich centre-back Jerome Boateng guilty of assaulting his ex-girlfriend. His brother, fellow footballer Kevin-Prince Boateng, said in a recent interview, ‘I’ve already distanced myself from Jerome for a long time. I appreciate and respect German law. I despise violence against women. I don’t identify with the actions of my brother and therefore I have nothing to do with him anymore.’

However, the footballing world hasn’t been quite so damning in their condemnation of the former World Cup winner. Boateng had signed for French side Lyon just eight days before the ruling. He’s appeared in all games they’ve played since and there seems to be no formal sign of punitive action from his new club. Even when his own brother has drawn the moral line, his club don’t appear to care.

In the eyes of the law, Boateng’s is the least serious in a string of recent cases involving sexual abuse or violence against women by current or former footballers. Manchester United have signed Cristiano Ronaldo and hosted Ryan Giggs in their Directors’ Box within the last month. The pair are accused of rape and numerous counts of domestic violence respectively.

As revealed by Der Spiegel in 2018, Ronaldo admitted that Kathryn Mayorga, his accuser, “said no and stop several times” during sex. Giggs, a man whose own father refuses to say his name, is charged with actual bodily harm and common assault by two women. These are certainly not baseless accusations. However, it’s clear that United consider the victims to be less important than their need for another striker, or Ryan Giggs’ desire to watch his former team with a good view and a comfy seat.   

Ronaldo admitted that his accuser “said no and stop several times” during sex

On the other side of Manchester, City defender Benjamin Mendy is currently awaiting trial in prison, accused of four counts of rape and one of sexual assault. The entire board of the Icelandic FA, the KSI, resigned over sexual assault accusations against several of their players, including striker Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, which date back to 2017.

Alongside these, Schalke 04 came under heavy criticism for their attempts to sign Spanish striker Sergi Enrich, who holds a two-year suspended prison sentence for filming a sex act without the woman’s consent and then posting it online, causing it to go viral. They ended interest in Enrich due to the public outcry.

Schalke terminating their interest in Enrich follows a disturbing pattern highlighted by some recent cases. The Icelandic board resigned because they had seen the accusations of sexual assault against their players in 2017 and chosen to ignore them, until an accuser went on Icelandic television and discussed the incident. Manchester City knew about the accusations against Mendy for a year, before he was eventually suspended by the club after being publicly arrested.

Alongside these, Sunderland’s CEO at the time, Margaret Byrne, resigned after it was revealed that she’d had access to a lot of evidence about the case against Adam Johnson and still allowed him to keep playing. This included having seen police transcripts of him admitting to sexual acts with a minor and having access to 834 WhatsApp messages between Johnson and the girl.

Now, there’s also a very valid argument that blindly believing accusers could lead to a system which could easily be abused. Other clubs, or their fans, could relatively easily attempt to damage the reputation or quality of an opposition side, which could undermine the whole system.

However, there is no sign of any of this affecting any of the aforementioned cases, in which there are varying degrees of substantial evidence and even some convictions. An ‘I’m sorry I was caught’ culture is very clear within a lot of footballing organisations. The wilful ignorance to accusations against players is indicative of a total lack of respect and support for victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence in men’s football.

Men’s football clubs have a moral responsibility to lead by example in how they handle sexual abuse and domestic violence cases

This must change. Given their incredibly significant social and emotional impact on society, men’s football clubs have a moral responsibility to lead by example in how they handle sexual abuse and domestic violence cases. Whilst ‘innocent until proven guilty’ is an important tenet of our legal system, football clubs following this principle sets an incredibly dangerous example.

The failings of our legal system in handling sexual abuse cases are clear. In the year between March 2019-20, 58,856 cases of rape were recorded by police forces in England and Wales. From these, there were just 2,102 prosecutions, a much lower rate than the year before.

Football clubs can afford to suspend players at the first sign of accusations and doing so would send a clear signal that they stand with victims and genuinely care, rather than only care because the accusations have gone public. It would suggest that moral issues take precedence over Premier League points. A hard-line stance on the perpetrators of sexual abuse and violence against women could have a massive impact on male views of it.

However, when people can see Cristiano Ronaldo running away from the American justice system and still being regarded as one of the greatest footballers in the world, as well as one of the most significant male role models of the modern day with it, the underlying message is that rape and sexual abuse are fundamentally accepted and acceptable. When they see that Benjamin Mendy played for a year after accusations against him were first made, it seems like bad luck that he’s now sat in a jail cell.

Whether we should appreciate the music of Michael Jackson, or the films of Harvey Weinstein, are up for debate because they produced them before accusations against them came to light. When there are accusations against footballers that we still see on our pitches every weekend, there should be weekly public outcry. But there isn’t. Only we can change that. Believe Kathryn Mayorga and force football to lead by example in how it handles violence against women.

Image: Oleg Dubna via Wikimedia Commons

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