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​The UK Soccer Child Sexual Abuse Scandal, Explained

With 248 clubs and more than 500 potential victims so far, this scandal will rock soccer in the UK to its foundation.

by Brian Blickenstaff
Jan 23 2017, 7:20pm

Photo: Lachlan Fearnley

In mid-November, Andy Woodward, a 43-year-old former professional soccer player in the UK, shocked the nation by revealing that, as an 11-year-old at a respected youth academy, he'd become the victim of sexual abuse. Woodward, it turns out, was not alone. What started as a single case has become a full-blown national scandal. While the scandal is daily news in the UK, it has generated surprisingly few headlines in the US. As it continues to grow, that's likely to change.

Read More: Sexual Abuse in Soccer: How a Flawed System Still Places Youngsters at Risk

Who is Andy Woodward?

Woodward was born in 1973 in Stockport, England. While playing for a local team in Stockport, an 11-year-old Woodward was spotted by Barry Bennell, who worked as a scout and a youth coach for several teams. Eventually, Bennell helped Woodward get a spot in the youth setup at Crewe Alexandra, one of the teams where Bennell worked.

Prior to making his professional debut for Crewe in 1992, Woodward said he suffered years of sexual abuse at the hands of Bennell. According to Woodward, he was not the only boy abused during this time. Woodward said Bennell manipulated the boys he abused by threatening them physically with a pair of nunchucks and by threatening to kick them out of the soccer academy.

In a particularly cruel twist, Bennell started a relationship with Woodward's older sister, and the two married in 1991. Woodward retired from soccer in the late 1990s at the age of 29. On the field, he said he frequently suffered panic attacks related to his years of abuse.

What happened to Bennell?

In 1994, Bennell took a youth team to a tournament in Jacksonville, Florida. In the US, he was arrested and later pled guilty to charges of lewd and lascivious behavior and sexual battery for, as the Guardian put it, "raping a British boy." He was sentenced to four years in prison, but was released early. But shortly after returning to the UK, he was arrested on several charges of "indecent assault, buggery and attempted buggery." In 1998, he was found guilty of nearly two dozen offenses against six boys and was sentenced to nine years of jail. In 2015, he received a two-year sentence from yet another case of abuse that dated to the 1980s. In late November, 2016, he appeared to have attempted suicide, and was taken unconscious to the hospital after what UK authorities called a "fear for welfare incident."

If Bennell was a known pedophile and youth coach as far back as 1994, why is this scandal only unraveling now?

This is a frustrating part of the story, for sure. Part of the answer is that, prior to Woodward, Bennell's victims did not publicly come forward. But that's not an entirely satisfying answer. At Crewe, Woodward remembers the abuse as a kind of open secret. Here's Woodward describing the atmosphere at Crewe, as quoted by the Mirror: "That club has been never been held accountable. It must have been well known within the club that he had young boys staying over.

"I was at a professional football club who had a duty to protect children, and there were hundreds of children running around that place.

"Throughout those years at Crewe, so many people used to talk about it.

"Other players would say directly to my face, 'I bet he does this to you, we know he does that.'

"There was all that dressing-room bravado. Then, outside the club, it was never discussed."

Another part of the answer, of course, is that clubs appear to have covered it up; some even paid off the accusers.

What happened after Woodward came forward?

A week after Woodward's account ran on November 16th in the Guardian, another former Crewe player, Steve Walters, came forward with his own story of abuse at the hands of Bennell. Since then, several more players have come forward with accusations against Bennell. But the scandal doesn't start and end with just one youth coach.

Before the end of November, former players at Newcastle United and Southampton came forward to accuse staff members at those clubs of wrongdoing.

On November 29th, Chelsea issued a statement, saying the club had "retained an external law firm to carry out an investigation concerning an individual employed by the club in the 1970s, who is now deceased." That employee has since been named as Eddie Heath, the club's former chief scout. Days later, it emerged that Chelsea had paid off former players so they wouldn't publicize their accusations against Heath.

Since then, the scandal has continued to grow. BBC's sports editor Dan Roan posted the latest numbers as of last Wednesday.

What's being done?

Numerous investigations have been started by the Football Association, by individual clubs, and of course by the police. The bulk of this story continues to center around now-retired players and staff members, but real questions remain about whether children currently involved in academy soccer are adequately protected.

The subject is obviously extremely taboo, and it's telling that, with the exception of a few players, like Wayne Rooney, current professionals have been slow to even express public support for the victims who have come forward. The silence doesn't mean sexual abuse is no longer an issue. It could mean that victims who are still playing are staying silent because they might feel as though stepping forward might harm their careers or public lives.

The Football Association has set up a hotline for potential victims. So far this has resulted in more than 1,016 referrals to authorities. "The majority of these referrals relate to football," reads a recent update in the Guardian, "but victims from 22 different other sports including rugby, gymnastics, tennis, swimming and golf have been identified."