Two years of safeguarding scrutiny in sport: what does it mean for 2023?

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With two safeguarding reports published in as many years, the world of UK sport faces an unprecedented expectation for change as it enters 2023. Here, we explore the recommendations of the two reports into abuse of children and young people, and what all forms of sport should do next.

In March 2021, the first of two reports highlighting abuse and safeguarding failings in a UK sports organisation was published. Clive Sheldon KC’s Sheldon Report marked the conclusion of a four-year-long investigation into non-recent sexual abuse in football, with its publication heralded as “a dark day for the beautiful game,” according to Football Association (FA) chief executive Mark Bullingham.

In addition to recounting the experiences of 159 survivors, most of which took place between 1970 and 2005, the Report also gave recommendations on how UK football can, and must, improve its approach to safeguarding – sentiments that Mark Bullingham echoed after the Report’s release: “We must acknowledge the mistakes of the past and ensure that we do everything possible to prevent them being repeated.” 

Fast-forward to just over a year later, and this time it was British Gymnastics that faced scrutiny of its response to the alleged mental and physical abuse of children and young people at professional and grassroots clubs. Named after its author, Anne Whyte KC, the Whyte Review of June 2022 exposed the organisation’s “failure to put the welfare of participants at the centre of gymnastics, particularly elite gymnastics”, and presented its recommendations for more effective safeguarding practices.

Two sides of the same coin

Read together, these reports paint a picture of systemic issues, errors, and cultural imbalances that, not only hindered prevention of abusive behaviour, but in some cases even facilitated and normalised it. As such, the recommendations of both the Sheldon Report and the Whyte Review maintain similarities throughout, particularly in relation to the areas in which the greatest need for change and improvement is present.

There are, however, key differences in their approaches to these issues, whether that has been to consolidate, amend, expand upon, or remove certain related recommendations. As we will see, while one report advocates a more retrospective, itemised approach, the other mandates proactivity, monitoring, and regular intervention.

Nevertheless, the similarities within both Sheldon and Whyte highlight that the value of safeguarding – and the consequences for getting it wrong – are not isolated to one club, team, or organisation. It is a core responsibility of every stakeholder within the sporting community, and one that should be prioritised as highly as athletic excellence and sporting success. Indeed, the brave testimonies contained within both Sheldon and Whyte demonstrate the long-term consequences of a system that fails the children and young people in its care.

Why training is a powerful tool

Both Sheldon and Whyte place great importance on increasing safeguarding awareness and understanding for all key stakeholders. “Safeguarding is a complex concept,” Anne Whyte explains. “Identifying safeguarding concerns and distinguishing them from other, less serious concerns is not straightforward.”

Training and education is highlighted numerous times within the Sheldon Report, which places great focus on to whom such training must be provided, for example: parents, carers, senior management, and the board. “Child protection and safeguarding are not just the responsibility of a club’s child protection officer or the welfare officer,” it says. “For training to be effective it must be the responsibility of everyone involved with football: starting at the very top.”

Whyte’s focus, however, is less on the recipients of such training, and more on the approach to, and ownership of, training practices at all levels of the sport. This is, in large part, due to the Review’s findings that “responsibility for safeguarding training for coaches has fluctuated over time.” Its recommendations stress a greater level of long-term ownership of training, supported by the creation of a ‘Gymnast Handbook’, to which all stakeholders can refer regarding policies, procedures, and expectations.

It also recommends the appointment of an individual who would be responsible for the maintenance, development and improvement of training and education. The Director of Education would have, according to Whyte, “overall responsibility for the education and training of coaches and Welfare Officers and for ensuring that education is adequately co-ordinated with BG Standards and policy.”

Responsibility and accountability in leadership

“We have a sense that some of the Leadership Team think what we currently do is the Government’s/ social work,” commented Tony Pickerin, head of ethics and sports equity at the FA in the Sheldon Report. “[There’s a] possible sense at top level that we’ve ‘done child protection’. A common misperception is that if the FA have been doing it for a few years, then we must be able to ‘tick the box’ and move on.”

Lack of buy-in from management is a recurrent problem in safeguarding. In fact, it is usually the root cause of most failings. Whether due to lack of awareness and understanding, or greater focus on financial and reputational concerns, poor leadership prevents the development of a robust framework on which safeguarding initiatives can be built.

Both reports recognise the importance of leadership in safeguarding, but their approaches differ regarding to whom such accountability should be assigned. According to Sheldon, one member of the FA board should be assigned the role of Children’s Safeguarding Champion to “ensure that safeguarding children who play football is put at the forefront of the work of the FA”. Although Sheldon stresses that this does not remove safeguarding as a collective responsibility, it does raise questions as to how this individual will be chosen, and what values, qualities, and skills they will be expected to possess.

Whyte, on the other hand, highlights the importance of independence in safeguarding leadership. An individual with responsibility for spearheading safeguarding initiatives should, in Whyte’s view, have “relevant expertise in safeguarding and athlete welfare”, and be removed from anything that could conflict with the implementation of high safeguarding standards, particularly concerning finances and profitability.

Open communication

Closed training environments, secrecy and shame, and lack of reporting pathways have all contributed to cultures in which communication between victims and those with the power to help was difficult, if not impossible. For sport, this is frequently the result of a “coach-led culture” in which the dominant, skilled, and often charismatic personality of a coach is either effective enough to mask their inappropriate behaviour or intimidating enough to make the consequences of reporting incidents appear severe.

Whyte refers to athletes’ fears of deselection or ostracisation if disclosures were made, and even remarks that “problematic coaching styles” were so prevalent that “some gymnasts and parents assumed that they were acceptable and necessary to achieve success, when, in fact, they were not. In this way inappropriate or abusive practices were normalised and not deemed worthy of complaint.”

In Sheldon, the dominance of coaches and ineffective communication are also highlighted, but with greater weight placed on the age difference between coach and victim. In many cases, survivors were not aware that they were being abused and, even if they were, they “did not feel able to disclose the abuse until much later in their lives.”

It is interesting to note, however, that Sheldon’s recommendations for communication pathways focus on the provision of information relating to safeguarding, but do not identify ways in which individuals will be encouraged to engage with, and even contribute to, this information.

Whyte expands on this, identifying a need to “introduce effective governance pathways to ensure that the views and interests of athletes and parents; any patterns and trends in complaints; and BG performance in complaint handling, are known to the board and are taken into account in relevant decision making.”

A living policy

Regardless of context, safeguarding procedures are only effective if they are culturally embedded, constantly monitored and regularly reviewed. If not, they risk becoming a ‘tick-the-box’ exercise. Whyte comments that British Gymnastics presented little evidence of coordination in “monitoring how policy is being implemented both within the organisation and in the clubs”. It therefore requests that the board “publish at 6, 12 and 24 months the progress it has made to comply with the report’s recommendations”. It should also develop its case management system so that records can be kept of the “nature and number of complaints received in order that complaint handling performance can be (and is) monitored and patterns of behaviour identified”.

Transparency and accountability are referenced by Sheldon, which recommends publishing “a safeguarding report on an annual basis” covering identified trends in grooming and abuse, key developments in safeguarding and their level of success, and training records of key personnel. It also mandates the development of a regularly monitored five-year strategy “with specific intervention to support the voices of children”.

The rate and pace of review is noticeably different between Sheldon and Whyte. While Sheldon’s emphasis on annual reviews is positive in that it sets a target for all organisations, it does still feel like a box-ticking exercise that is driven more by hindsight and review. Whyte’s recommendations place greater emphasis on regular review, monitoring, and engagement, which would be more effective at embedding safeguarding into organisational culture over the long term.

What next?

Both reports have made a significant contribution to the promotion of safeguarding in sport, and their impact on empowering the voices of survivors cannot be understated. Sporting organisations should now use the recommendations contained in these reports to inform and underpin their own safeguarding initiatives, including the review of existing policies and procedures.

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