Commentary

Woodward's courage brings strength to those fettered by abuse

Andy Woodward, the footballer, did not defy injury or fight 15 bloody rounds, he did not return to a field after an accident or win a match from two sets down. He did not display courage in its conventional sporting sense but in its best sense. 

He spoke out amid the silence. He articulated the unspeakable. He, 43, stepped forward and detailed the sexual abuse he endured from a football coach from the time he was 11. In a planet of casual cruelty, and in a sports world where machismo is endemic, this qualified as bravery. 

To read Daniel Taylor's interview with Woodward in The Guardian is to understand suffering. And yet with every word he spoke, Woodward was standing up for others who had been violated. With every painful memory of suicidal thoughts and blackmail - "If I upset him (coach Barry Bennell) in any way, he'd drop me from the team" - he was helping others release secrets they'd carried for 30 years. 

Footballers, who had been similarly abused - many by the same coach - listened to him and equally bravely spoke out. When Steve Walters was asked during a BBC discussion if he would have spoken out if it wasn't for Woodward, he replied, "Not in a million years," and then added, "What (Andy has) done is so brave, inspirational". On the same programme, Chris Unsworth said: "I would have never come forward if I hadn't seen Andy on the telly." 

Andy Woodward is making us ask uncomfortable questions of ourselves. If the abused go quiet, isn't it because we've created a society where they feel they cannot tell anyone? When the victims are men it is even more complicated. Men are tough, we say; men must endure, we insist. The result, says Sudha Nair, executive director of Pave, a family violence specialist centre in Singapore, is that speaking out is harder for men. For sections of society believe "it's unmanly for them to seek help". 

The least we owe every child is vigilance and the protection of their childhood. The least we can give every sporting kid is a chance to chase a dream unmolested. The least we can tell every kid is to speak up because we'll be there in their corner.

It's even worse for athletes, for they are often surrounded by masculine gibberish. Toughness is fine, but we've made it into some non-negotiable virtue. Don't be a wimp, we say,  suck it up, tough it out, as if anything else is unbearable weakness. 

As Nair says: "It's definitely harder for athletes because we put out the message that they're strong and healthy and tough. Everyone looks to them, from the prime minister to a child and the shame issues are harder for them. Kudos to the footballers for speaking out." 

We need to pause and reconsider the stereotypes we promote: "Be a man" we keep saying, but they're just kids. We've got to halt and help our sons distinguish between bravado and valour. We've got to make it clear to our nephews and grandsons: Boys can be hurt, boys can cry and boys must know they can tell. As Nair rightly says: "We should make it normal to speak out, we should encourage it." 

Andy Woodward is making us confront an unseemly thread that runs through sport.  Let's not even say it doesn't happen in our cultures because denial is a form of blindness. Let's ask ourselves necessary questions: Did some football people know and look away? Did they think the game came before the dreams of boys? Has sport gone that far? 

Andy Woodward has done football a service for by speaking out he is diluting stigma. We look for role models in the famous and the skilled, but perhaps they are also found in the pained and the stoic. "I want to give people strength," he told The Guardian, and he has, for already nearly 900 calls have been made to a football sex abuse hotline in England in a single week. 

Young men, says Nair, their self-worth leaking away and powerfully ashamed, often think, "Maybe I allowed this to happen, maybe I deserve it". When they tell people, she says, "they are often either blamed or dismissed". Now Woodward has stood in the lights, and looked into the camera, and told them it is not their fault.  

Every now and then reports trickle in of abuse, from swimming, from tennis, from gymnastics, from American football and the Penn State scandal, and sport shrugs its shoulders and carries on. We think it can't happen and then again it does. 

And so the least we owe every child is vigilance and the protection of their childhood. The least we can give every sporting kid is a chance to chase a dream unmolested. The least we can tell every kid is to speak up because we'll be there in their corner. Have courage, we'll say. We know what that word means because we learnt it from Andy Woodward.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 04, 2016, with the headline 'Woodward's courage brings strength to those fettered by abuse'. Print Edition | Subscribe