Two Premier League footballers playing while facing abuse investigationson November 30, 2023 at 12:33 pm

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Alleged victims tell the BBC top clubs prioritise commercial interests over the safety of women.

Generic picture of footballers celebrating

Premier League clubs have continued to play two footballers, and kept a boss in post, while knowing they are under police investigation for sexual or domestic violence.

Alleged victims told the BBC that the Football Association (FA) and Premier League prioritise commercial interests over the safety of women.

They describe a culture of fear associated with speaking out.

The football bodies say they take sexual misconduct very seriously.

Seven out of 20 Premier League clubs have had players or bosses investigated by the police for sexual offences since 2020, the BBC investigation found.

The celebrity status of top footballers has led to calls for footballers who become embroiled in criminal allegations to be suspended from playing until it has been fully investigated.

One senior MP told the BBC their public role-model position means it is crucial any allegations are handled appropriately.

Some of the women said when they reported their allegations – which included a historic report of child sexual abuse – to the FA and Premier League, they experienced delayed responses, a lack of transparency, or no action.

However, the bodies only have regulations on how to respond to allegations of this nature if they occur within a football environment, or if concerns relate to children or vulnerable adults.

This contrasts with the approach in the US, where the National Football League (NFL) and Major League Baseball (MLB) have publicly-available policies for players, or staff, who have been accused of sexual or domestic violence.

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If you are affected by any of the issues in this story, contact BBC Action Line for details of advice and support.

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One woman said the FA and clubs’ lack of action when she reported a player for rape contributed to her decision to attempt to take her own life.

“I didn’t want to exist in a world where I’m constantly reminded that rape allegations can be ignored as long as you’re talented enough,” she explained.

Another woman, who spoke to the BBC, says if the FA and club had acted when they were first alerted to a rape allegation by a different woman in 2021, she wouldn’t have later gone to the house of the same player where she alleges he sexually assaulted her.

All the women, who are speaking for the first time, say they decided to share their stories because they are concerned that while the men remain in position, other women may be at risk or too scared to come forward.

Privacy rules regarding the identification of suspects means the BBC is not naming some of the individuals concerned.

This month the introduction of an independent regulator for football was outlined in the King’s Speech. The government has said this body will aim to “protect clubs’ and fans’ interests”.

Dame Caroline Dinenage, chairwoman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, is calling for the new regulator to ensure the football world tackles its lack of response to allegations of violence against women.

She said the BBC’s findings were of “huge concern”, as footballers have an “incredible amount of influence”.

“There are generations of young people that look up to them,” she added.

“As part of the new regulator’s role setting licensing conditions, we want to see it have the powers to take clubs to task for their approach and lack of progress when it comes to improving every aspect of equality, diversity and inclusion.”

Player X

Treated picture of a footballer and a football

The BBC has spoken to five women who have accused a Premier League footballer, whom we are calling Player X, of rape, sexual assault or controlling behaviour since April 2021.

Like all women quoted in this article making claims of abuse, their names have been changed to protect their anonymity.

As well as speaking to the women, the BBC has also spoken to other people they shared their accounts with at the time of the allegations, as well as seeing messages.

In July 2022, Leah reported Player X to the police for rape and he was arrested at his home. Shortly afterwards he was also arrested for an earlier allegation of rape from a second woman, Kira.

Both Kira and Leah claim they were raped by Player X and experienced controlling behaviour by him.

“It was clear that he thought he was that important, you don’t get to say ‘no’ to him,” Kira says.

After first going to the police in August 2021, Kira emailed the FA, Premier League and the club about her allegations the following month “in desperation”, as she was worried about him continuing to play on such a big platform while he was being investigated.

She believed that while he was being promoted by his club his influential position would allow him access to more women, who would not be aware of his alleged behaviour.

“I hoped that they would intervene in some way to prevent it from maybe happening again,” she says.

The club told her it couldn’t discuss her allegations for legal reasons. Shortly afterwards, Kira saw a social media post from the club celebrating the footballer. The Premier League directed her to the FA.

But she says it was the response from the FA that shocked her most. More than four months after contacting it about her allegations, it told her in emails that it could take “no further action” as the alleged behaviour did not breach its regulations.

It stated there was “no evidence” to suggest that Player X “poses a risk of harm to children or adults at risk”. It sent her a PDF document that was titled “Football’s Safeguarding Children policy” – which did not apply to her.

“They were hiding behind their lack of policies whilst knowing that the regulations they did have set up were meant to protect profits, not victims,” says Kira.

The FA told the BBC it is comfortable that Kira’s complaint had been dealt with appropriately.

A third woman – Mia – told the BBC the pair had begun talking after Player X had messaged her on Instagram in February 2022. She visited his house with friends, where she alleges he sexually assaulted her.

She reported him to the police in July 2022, after she learned that a footballer had been arrested for rape and thought it might be him. She says this made her feel less scared to come forward as she felt she wasn’t alone.

Speaking about the club and authorities’ response to Kira’s earlier complaint, Mia said if the footballer hadn’t been seen playing for his club, it would have raised a red flag when he reached out to her.

“If they had decided to take the first allegation seriously… if they had suspended him, I never would have been in that situation that I was in that day,” she added.

“Their decision caused me to suffer,” she said.

Player X was questioned by police in February 2023 about Mia’s allegation and released under investigation. He remains under police investigation for rape allegations against Kira and Leah. The BBC understands Player X has denied all allegations.

The women have expressed finding the criminal process stressful, as they wait for charging decisions to be made.

Another woman, Emma, says she experienced controlling behaviour from Player X earlier this year, including pressure to have sex. She accuses him of forcibly continuing sex by pinning her hands after she tried to push him off because she was in pain. She recently reported her account to the police.

Emma says when she first started talking to Player X she dismissed rumours of allegations against the footballer because he had not been suspended by his Premier League club.

“Him playing was the absolute thing that made me think they were fake and not true,” she said.

“It sent the message of we don’t believe them and we support him.”

“What happened to me could have been prevented.”

The fifth woman, Bella, told the BBC Player X forced himself on her at a party by pinning her to a bed and trying to pressure her into having sex, while in a room with others, in April 2021. We have also spoken to someone else who says they witnessed the incident. Bella did not report what happened to the police.

The footballer’s club and the Premier League told us they were unable to comment on an ongoing police investigation.

A spokesperson for the FA added: “Our safeguarding policies and procedures allow us to support and protect children and adults at risk within a football-related environment.”

The Premier League boss – ‘putting children at risk’

Picture of a woman's legs and hands

Kate says she was 15 when she was raped by a man who is now a boss at a Premier League club.

“He’s a very powerful man who threatened me into silence,” she told the BBC.

She reported it to the police in the early 1990s, but as she was “terrified”, said she only wanted to proceed if other women came forward.

Kate says she didn’t hear anything more from the police until she decided to make a historic report in 2021 – after seeing other victims of high powered men being taken seriously following the Me Too movement. The man was questioned about her allegations in June 2023 and released under police investigation.

The boss was also investigated in 2021 after an allegation that he sexually abused a different 15-year-old in the 1990s. No further action was taken in that case because of legislation which stated that if an offence of “unlawful sexual intercourse” took place between 1956 and 2004, and the alleged victim was a girl aged 13 to 15, she had to make a complaint within a year.

Kate says a month after the boss was questioned by police she contacted the FA and Premier League about her allegations, after learning that major football clubs in the UK trained children as young as nine.

“I really started to worry about young girls at the academies and women employees and players that might not know,” she told the BBC.

The FA and Premier League have clear policies relating to safeguarding children. But Kate feels in the case of this man they have failed.

It took the Premier League over two months to acknowledge her report to its safeguarding email address – claiming the email had been lost in its inbox.

The FA told Kate that despite her safeguarding concerns she won’t be informed of whether any action is being taken as it does “not ordinarily comment publicly about individual safeguarding cases”.

“I’ve been unable to relax not knowing if any precautions have been taken. As far as I know they are still putting children at risk,” Kate says.

We have been unable to establish if any action has been taken by the club and it did not respond to requests for comment. Since June, the boss has appeared to continue his prominent role and has attended club games or events within the past month.

Kate says she has repeatedly reached out to organisations and government ministers, including the NSPCC and relevant police commissioner, urging them to protect children and women within football. Her last request to all of these, seen by the BBC, was sent on 10 November.

The BBC understands the boss has denied the allegation.

The BBC has spoken to another woman, Lisa, who says in the late 90s she was locked in a room by the boss as he attempted to coerce her into sexual activity. She says this took place during a job interview when she was in her early 20s.

The police are investigating her account.

Regarding its safeguarding policies the FA told us they were “regularly reviewed by the NSPCC’s Child Protection in Sport Unit”.

It added that the Premier League is responsible for its clubs.

Inconsistent responses

While the FA has detailed policies in place for players accused of betting on the game, there isn’t anything similar for players accused of sexual or domestic violence that takes place beyond the football environment.

Clubs’ responses to players and leading figures under police investigation for such offences are varied.

A second Premier League footballer, Antony, has continued to play for Manchester United after his ex-girlfriend made allegations of domestic violence in June – the police in Manchester and Brazil are investigating. He denies all allegations and has not been arrested or charged.

In September, the club announced Antony was taking a step back following an accusation from another woman, and Brazil’s decision to drop the player from international duty. But a few weeks later he was back playing.

The inconsistency of responses from clubs to players under police investigation for such offences can be seen in additional cases collated and analysed by the BBC.

Manchester United suspended Mason Greenwood on full pay in January 2022 when allegations of rape and domestic abuse were shared online and he was arrested.

When charges were dropped by the Crown Prosecution Service, the club conducted its own internal investigation. After fan backlash about his potential return, the club and Greenwood, who denied the allegations, mutually agreed to part ways in September.

In July 2021, Everton suspended an unnamed player who had been arrested for sexual offences. But Brighton and Manchester City have previously continued to play footballers who have been arrested.

In contrast, the system used by the NFL and MLB in the US allows them to investigate and discipline allegations of violence against women even if they haven’t gone through the criminal justice system.

However, both sports’ systems have faced criticism for implementing punishments that are too lenient.

Some lawyers in the UK have noted the many legal difficulties facing football clubs when considering how to deal with a player facing allegations of sexual or domestic violence, without overarching rules in place.

This month, Benjamin Mendy filed a claim suing Manchester City over his unpaid wages during his suspension, after he was charged with rape and sexual assault in 2021 and later found not guilty on all counts.

‘State of fear’

Some of the women said concerns about the extreme reactions from devoted football fans had contributed to their reluctance to speak out.

Kira says she was left “in a constant state of fear” after she shared her allegations and received graphic and threatening abuse.

“It was scary the amount of people willing to defend someone they don’t know, solely because they’re good at football,” she says.

She also received a number of direct messages from people saying although they believed her, the team was more important.

Many of the messages told her to take her own life.

Another woman, Daisy, who spoke to the BBC, alleges she was raped by a different Premier League player. She says this kind of online abuse and indifference from football authorities is why she does not think she will report it to the police or the football bodies themselves.

“If I said anything, I’d be going against a whole team – millions of people around the world,” she says.

Gender justice campaigners at Level Up, told the BBC they are demanding the introduction of a violence against women and girls policy.

“The football industry has constructed a fortress of silence around its deep-rooted culture of sexual violence – players are protected, but women are not,” a spokesperson added.

“As [the Premier League, FA and clubs] all continue to pass the blame, women continue to be violated in an industry that has the means to meaningfully address the issue but refuses to.”

Since this article was published, the FA has contacted BBC News with a new statement. They added: “Regardless of where the incident took place, if the individual has a role within football, we always carry out a thorough safeguarding risk assessment and take the appropriate action if we believe there is a risk of harm to children. We are unable to comment on specific cases, but that does not mean that we haven’t taken the required action or applied appropriate safeguards within our jurisdiction.”

Images by Matt Thomas of the Visual Journalism Team

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