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Football Must Start Taking Domestic Violence Seriously

by : Hannah Smith on :
Football Must Start Taking Domestic Violence SeriouslyAlamy

As allegations against Mason Greenwood continue to be investigated, football must make a change in how it responds to incidents of domestic violence involving its stars.

For too long, serious allegations of violence and other misconduct against women have been swept under the carpet in order to protect the financial value that star athletes represent.

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That must end now. Over the past decade footballing authorities have made a concerted effort to promote women’s participation at both an elite and grassroots level. So what message does it send to those same women when they see male players let off the hook by their clubs and governing bodies for violence against our fellow women?

In the past year alone, two Premier League football clubs have continued to select players despite knowing those players had been arrested and remained under police investigation for allegations of sexual assault.

Manchester United, Greenwood’s club, has continued to allow one of its former players to sit in the director’s box, despite the fact that he is currently facing trial on allegations of assault and coercive control against a former partner.

Mason Greenwood (Alamy)Alamy
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It’s not just football. In tennis, allegations of serious domestic violence levelled against a top 10 player were initially met with platitudes from the sport’s governing body before an internal investigation was launched in October last year. The player in question denies the allegations and has continued to compete on tour, using official press conferences and post match interviews to paint himself as the victim – a sickening but all too familiar sight for many women who have had abusive partners.

Greenwood has not been charged, and he and those mentioned above are entitled to be considered innocent until proven guilty. Within 24 hours of the images and audio recording attributed to Greenwood emerging, and shortly ahead of Greater Manchester Police confirming a man had been arrested, the player was de facto suspended by his club, who said in a statement that he would not be returning to training or playing matches for the club until further notice. It remains unclear whether he will continue to be paid.

This is the bare minimum response that should meet these cases, and advocates are clear that more can, and should be done to make zero tolerance the default response to allegations of domestic violence.

In a statement provided to UNILAD, domestic violence charity Women’s Aid said, ‘Too often, domestic abuse is presented and discussed online as a matter of, ‘there are always two sides to the story’.’

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They added, ‘We must ensure authorities have processes in place that ensure women feel safe coming forward, and that their allegations will be taken seriously.’

There are examples football can follow from other sports. In the NFL, a similar turning point emerged in 2014 when a player was seen on CCTV beating his partner until she was unconscious, before dragging her out of an elevator.

Confronted with the shocking footage, the NFL had no option but to act, toughening its stance on domestic violence allegations by implementing changes to its player conduct policy. It is not a perfect system. There remain players – among them one of the league’s biggest stars – who have been found guilty of horrific violence against women, yet continue to play in the league.

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But the fact remains that the NFL has policies in place enabling it to act when serious allegations are made. The FA, which oversees player conduct, largely leaves those decisions up to individual clubs, and has yet to implement a specific policy relating to accusations of domestic violence – UNILAD has contacted the FA for comment on this point.

The lack of an official zero tolerance policy leaves clubs and those associated with the game attempting to find a midway point between the presumption of innocence and the desire not to be seen to be condoning domestic violence. This weekend, high profile figures who have been outspoken on a range of social justice issues in the past year have been conspicuous in their silence in the wake of the accusations lodged against Greenwood.

This silence is noted. Women’s Aid, whose Football United against Domestic Violence pledge the Premier League and FA support, warned on Sunday, January 30, that the ‘world is watching’ how football responds to the Greenwood allegations, stating ‘men, women, boys and girls who look up to athletes as heroes need to know that there is never an excuse for abuse, no matter who you are’.

Worse still is the response from certain sections of the football fan base, who see serious allegations of violence against women as an opportunity for likes and viral tweets. Search the names of any of the Premier League players arrested for sexual offences against women in the past year on Twitter and you’ll see the same jokes about ‘Prison FC’ and, in Greenwood’s case, lamentations about wasted potential and how upset fans are that a player they supported may have thrown away their career.

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Needless to say, this should be the least of anyone’s concerns.

‘Social media posts making light of the serious allegations surrounding Mason Greenwood are both inappropriate and dangerous,’ Refuge CEO Ruth Davidson says of the ‘banter’ that has cropped up in the wake of the latest allegations. ‘Trivialising sexual violence and domestic abuse seeks only to undermine the reality of violence against women and girls. Domestic abuse is not a joke; it is a serious crime and should be treated as such.’

We also must not kid ourselves that this is just limited to football, or even just sports. The behaviour of our sports stars reflects our society as a whole – a society in which one in three women is likely to be subjected to violence by a partner in her lifetime.

Davidson says:

Social attitudes to domestic abuse can make a real difference. We know reporting of domestic abuse is low as survivors feel they will not be believed or taken seriously. We need to be doing everything we can to challenge and change attitudes to domestic abuse and reassure women and girls that when they are reporting domestic abuse they will be believed, respected and supported.

Sports’ governing bodies have a responsibility to send the right message – that violence against women will not be tolerated – but that alone is not enough. It is society’s responsibility, and the role of men especially, to make it clear to all that domestic violence is never acceptable, no matter how famous you are, and that no matter how much money you make, or how many goals you score, you will not escape being held accountable for your actions.

If you are experiencing domestic violence, please know that you are not alone. You can talk in confidence 24 hours a day to the national domestic violence helpline Refuge on 0808 2000 247

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Hannah Smith

Hannah is a London-based journalist covering news and features for UNILAD. She's especially interested in social and political activism.

Topics: Featured, Domestic Violence, Football, Manchester United, Now, Sport