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9th March 2024

The not-so-secret epidemic of neglect in women’s football

The dismissal of Sheffield United’s Jonathan Morgan ripens the discussion regarding the safeguarding issues in women’s football
The not-so-secret epidemic of neglect in women’s football
Credit: Connor Coyne @ Unsplash

Sheffield United’s ex manager, Jonathan Morgan, was recently revealed to have been sacked by the club due to an inappropriate relationship with a player. As revealed by The Athletic only two weeks ago, the relationship started when the player was 17 and has since been described by the player’s mother as “inappropriate and immoral” due to her age and position in the power dynamic. 

Shocking as this news inevitably has been to the community of women’s football, there is a sinister yet unspoken recognition amongst those within the sport that it is not altogether surprising. 

A report published by the Guardian in 2022 detailed a comprehensive summary of many high profile cases of sexual abuse and grooming in men’s and women’s football across the globe. It must be acknowledged that the men’s game has additionally suffered with a similar issue, yet the vast majority of these allegations detailed abuse and bullying of women specifically. 

Familiar to fans and the wider community as well is the recent ‘Rubiales incident’, in which the former vice-President of UEFA forced a kiss on a female Spanish player in the 2023 World Cup final, and the dismissal of former Lionesses manager Mark Sampson after safeguarding issues with his players. 

It is apparent, therefore, that the Morgan dismissal is far from an isolated incident in the top flight, this is compounded by the extensive permeation of this safeguarding issue in lower leagues and younger age groups. Having spoken off the record to many women who have played or are playing football currently, it is clear that the frequency of incidents concerning inappropriate behaviour from coaches are both innumerable and ongoing. It is unfortunately not a wild exaggeration to say that nearly every player has a topical story from their experience or that of their teammates.

A basic level of enforced safeguarding seems to be missing from women’s football, leaving many female athletes without the security of feeling safe, let alone supported, whilst playing sport – the game is failing to meet what is a bare minimum. Vastly disregarded, it is not a problem which the sport is outgrowing and has been allowed to rest largely unexamined for too long. 

women's football
Credit: Jeffery F Lin @ Unsplash

In a way, however, there is a silver lining from the uncovering of Morgan’s inappropriate behaviour: it begins to raise more awareness for this conversation that needs to be had about the protection of female athletes. 

Part of this conversation inevitably, for the players, will concern speculation over the root causes of the problem as to why this issue is so prevalent, as well as raising important questions about how seriously women’s football is being taken. Has this arisen through a neglect of proper vetting when hiring coaches? Could it be put down to an inherent sexism within men who are entering the game? In all likelihood, a combination of the two is at play.

The first step to erasing it is speaking about it, raising the issue as a serious problem so that girls and young women are aware both of the danger and how to spot the first signs of grooming. Before that, and more importantly, an increased awareness of the frequency of these issues should stimulate those in power within football clubs to be more fastidious in their implementation of safeguarding measures and selection of coaches. 

Regardless, the women’s game continues to grow faster than ever before and there is a lot for supporters and players to still be excited about. Only last weekend Arsenal set a new attendance record for the Women’s Super League as 60,160 came to watch them beat Manchester United 3-1, selling out their men’s stadium – the 60,000-plus capacity Emirates Stadium – for the first time. The Sheffield United exposé is a reminder to us all, however, that there is much needed and anticipated growth to come.

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