Football Violence

Jude Wanga

On 30 January 2022, images, audio and video were released online by a woman who claimed she had been assaulted by the 21-year-old Manchester United striker Mason Greenwood. The same day, Greater Manchester Police announced that Greenwood had been arrested and he was suspended with immediate effect by United.

Following a further arrest on suspicion of attempted rape and for allegedly breaching his bail conditions by contacting his accuser, Greenwood was eventually charged in October 2022 with a trial date set for November 2023. His accuser, however, who has a right to anonymity, later withdrew her co-operation from the investigation and the CPS dropped all charges in February, citing a withdrawal of key witnesses and new evidence. Manchester United announced an internal investigation. After months of dithering, they said on Monday that Greenwood would be leaving the club.

Football finds itself once again at the centre of a storm about how to deal with rape and domestic abuse. It isn’t a new problem. George Best, loved and exalted by United fans since the 1960s, was arrested for assaulting a waitress in 1972. He was successfully defended in court but went on to assault both his wives. Paul Gascoigne, England’s darling at Euro 96, had admitted two years earlier to beating his partner, Sheryl. She went on to become an activist speaking out against domestic violence. In 2003, the former Arsenal player Paul Merson accepted a caution for assaulting his partner, Louise, following a row about his gambling addiction.

In the here and now, a Premier League player – neither he nor his club can be named for legal reasons – has been arrested on suspicion of rape three times since July 2022. He has not yet been charged (his bail has been extended repeatedly) and he continues to play for his club.

Clubs tend to let the legal system make their decisions for them: Benjamin Mendy was first arrested in November 2020 but continued to play for Manchester City until he was charged in August 2021 with four counts of rape and one of sexual assault. More charges followed. He was found not guilty on six counts in January, and on two final counts at a retrial in June. City didn’t have to make any difficult decisions about what to do with him after his acquittal because his contract had expired. He has now signed with Lorient in France.

On 11 August, Aymeric Magne was sacked as president of another French club, Troyes, after a conviction for domestic violence was upheld following appeal. The same day, French prosecutors charged Wissam Ben Yedder, who plays for Monaco, with rape, attempted rape and sexual assault. Monaco have made no comment on the charges, and Ben Yedder scored the third goal in their game against Strasbourg on 20 August.

There are severe questions to be asked of senior Manchester United executives, not least the CEO, Richard Arnold, about their handling of the Greenwood debacle, but there is no reason to imagine any other club would have handled it any better. Which is why none of them should be handling it at all.

There ought to be a league-wide protocol, managed collaboratively by the game’s governing body, the FA, and the players’ union, the PFA, for the way clubs should proceed. Such a protocol would have to be created with input from domestic violence charities and victim support groups. It would establish a procedure to determine when or if a player should be reintegrated at his club or asked to move on. Victims’ wishes should be taken into account. Clubs’ internal investigations should be overseen by an independent body.

Project CARA is a criminal justice early intervention scheme for domestic violence. When it was trialled in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight in 2012, it led to a 41 per cent reduction in recidivism among first-time domestic violence offenders. It’s now used in eight police force regions. It would make an even bigger difference if it could be expanded across the country and made mandatory for anyone who’s arrested on suspicion of domestic violence, not only for those convicted.

Retributive measures such as prison sentences cannot be the only tools at our disposal. We should be wary of normalising the idea that a 21-year-old cannot be rehabilitated. It makes little sense to rely on a criminal justice system that not only sees prison primarily as a form of punishment, with little to no education or rehabilitation for offenders, but also fails to prosecute most rapists to begin with. Responding to Manchester United’s decision about Greenwood, Women’s Aid said:

With many survivors never contacting the police to report abuse in the first place, and the majority of domestic and sexual abuse cases not resulting in a criminal conviction, it is vital that clubs – like all employers – have an approach that is wider than the criminal justice system, and which deals with the reality of the scale of the issue.

This needs to involve addressing the attitudes that underpin domestic and sexual abuse, and working with players from a young age to make it clear that clubs stand against sexism and misogyny.

Domestic abuse in teen and young adult relationships has been on the rise for some time. According to Safe Young Lives, 25 per cent of girls aged 13 to 17 reported having experienced physical abuse at the hands of an intimate partner. With cuts to education, it is left largely to charities to fill the gap and educate youngsters on what healthy relationships should look like.

Every football club with an academy – where they recruit children as young as seven – should be required to provide PSHE education for their under-18s, whether or not they already have access to such classes at school. And there should be programmes in place, targeted at everyone involved in the club, for the instances of domestic abuse that don’t reach the headlines. Manchester United’s early idea to buttress Greenwood’s reintegration with counselling and therapy, a plan that was eventually abandoned, was the sole bright spot in all the terrible decision-making at Old Trafford.