Abuse in sports silences our champions | Chris Bonett

It is clear that the problem of abuse in sport is real, but pan-European action is possible, and Malta also has the dynamics to emulate best practices in this field

Patrice Evra was abused at the age of 13 by his head teacher
Patrice Evra was abused at the age of 13 by his head teacher

It’s not every day that one gets to meet footballing greats like former Manchester United captain Patrice Evra... even after having myself spent almost four years at the heart of UEFA disciplinary structures and mainly as European football’s Integrity Officer.

But what is rarer is witnessing this professional footballer, who has won it all, giving an honest and authentic testimony, as a survivor of sexual abuse, to a group of experts and ministers in London convened by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Gathered with so many of my European counterparts, I listened to this astonishing account from one of the world’s topmost footballers, who was abused at the age of 13 by his head teacher... and yet, it was only at the age of 38 that he was able to tell his story to his wife.

My question to him was: how do we get abuse victims to speak out, right away, to prevent this abuse from turning into a monster? What do we do as governing bodies, politicians, and law enforcement authorities to get victims to talk at the right moment, not decades later?

Patrice Evra’s honesty was gutting: not even his mother was willing to see his painful experience being spelt out in his biography, such is the extent of the shame that sexual abuse can visit on families. “But I said, ‘mum, it’s not about me – I’ve been successful in my life – it is about billions of children.”

What Patrice Evra’s words have shown is the unfortunate reality of sexual abuse, and impunity, within the world of sports and clubs.

Trust – does that exist in the institutions that should be protecting our children and athletes in sports? That is one challenge Evra threw at politicians’ feet. “When you get abused, for whatever reason, you don’t talk... it’s not easy to talk because you feel guilty, you feel shame about yourself and also you don’t know if people will believe you.”

And another challenge is the culture of toxic masculinity in sports that punishes or disrespects the expression of emotion, or crying. How can communication take place when a culture that punishes emotional honesty is allowed to thrive? Again, that is a big challenge for politicians, sports administrators, coaches and leaders in sports.

In my experience of European football, sports integrity was not merely an administrative field of action for governance of clubs – today I can report on how fostering human rights is at the very centre of this mission. Football, and sport in general, cannot only be about business – it also has to be about values.

That is why European politicians in the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly have in the last five years been active in placing human rights in sport on the agenda of governments and sports organisations. The keywords here are: values-driven sport. Just as we expect a standard in international sports that upholds the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, so must we expect that clubs steel their structures with a framework of protection for children and young athletes against violence and abuses in sports.

The Council of Europe has already worked hand in hand to create the FIFA Guardians programme and toolkit, and UEFA’s “uefa-safeguarding.eu” digital platform. These initiatives can make a real contribution to create a safer environment for children and teenagers who play football. UEFA, together with the European Club Association, and players’ union FIFPRO, is also in the process of setting up a European research project to map existing standards for the protection of minors in elite academies.

It is clear that the problem of abuse in sport is real, but pan-European action is possible, and Malta also has the dynamics to emulate best practices in this field: indeed, recent action taken by the Malta Football Association shows why protection of athletes and footballers, through child and athletes welfare officers, is so essential.

FIFA today is considering setting up a safe sport centre or agency that will act as a multisport, inter-institutional and intergovernmental body that deals with cases of abuse in sport, providing expertise that could assist stakeholders to eradicate such abuse, putting the needs of victims first. This global initiative could enable Maltese sporting bodies a financially viable solution that will also help national authorities combat cases of abuse in sport and help the victims of such abuse.

But the key to progress here is that we listen to the victims of abuse. Only by learning to be attentive to the pain and fears of victims, can we nip this grave problem in the bud.

Evra was a champion all his life out on the football field. He played over 700 games – yet by his own admission, the trauma of his pain cast a dark shadow over his career.

By giving victims the platform they deserve, we pave the way for a society that not only acknowledges their pain but actively works towards preventing it. Let us heed their call, honour their resilience, and create a future where the echoes of abuse are silenced, and compassion reigns.