50.50: Opinion

Football needs to stop condoning violence against women

Raith Rovers reversed its decision to hire David Goodwillie after protests, but the game as a whole needs to change its stance on the abuse of women

Carrie Dunn
4 February 2022, 10.21am
Author Val McDermid, who has a stand named after her, withdrew her sponsorship of the club
gordon2208, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Raith Rovers’ bullish statement on the signing of David Goodwillie on Monday summed it up neatly.

“First and foremost, this was a football-related decision.”

Doubtless it was. It always is. This time, the decision referred to the new signing of Scottish striker David Goodwillie, ruled to be a rapist in a civil case in 2017. Football is, and always has been, mired in problems that are exacerbated by this one simple fact: the game thinks that nothing ever surpasses it in importance. Winning matches is paramount. And if a player can contribute to that success, so much the better – regardless of what kind of person he is.

The decision of the Fife club to sign Goodwillie sparked outrage. Author and famous Rovers supporter Val McDermid withdrew her kit sponsorship for the forthcoming season in protest. The women’s team captain Tyler Rattray walked away, after ten years of service, and it seems that the entire women’s team are now looking to cut ties with the club altogether. Two directors also quit. Nicola Sturgeon called on the club to “think again” about their decision to sign Goodwillie.

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And yet, the official club line remained: “David is a proven goalscorer […] we believe that he will strengthen the Raith Rovers playing squad.”

It was only on Thursday morning, following a host of resignations, that the board finally apologised and admitted: “We got it wrong.” A statement published on the club’s website said that Goodwillie would not, in fact, play for the club and that the board would “enter into discussions with the player regarding his contractual position”.

What has happened at Raith is not an isolated incident. It came in a week where a high-profile player was arrested (and later bailed) on suspicion of rape, assault, sexual assault and threats to kill. Another Premier League player is currently on bail after being charged with rape, attempted rape and sexual assault.

And there’s no need to think this is an issue confined to the UK. For example, it has been reported recently that in Spain, Madrid-based team Rayo Vallecano have defended their controversial choice of new coach for their women’s team.

The coach left his previous role in disgrace, following the leak of a recording in which he told his coaching staff that the best way to improve unity would be to emulate three players from the club Arandina, who gang-raped a 15-year-old girl in 2017 (they were each sentenced to 38 years in prison in 2019).

Then there’s a FIFA investigation into a former Premier League manager who has has been accused of sexual harassment. And it wasn’t until 2020 that former Afghan football president Keramuudin Karim had his life ban from the game confirmed after years of physical, sexual and emotional abuse meted out to female players.

Of course, those who argue that this is not just a football problem are correct. This is a societal issue. The low conviction rates for rape in both England and Wales and Scotland have been well reported, as have the limited resources for women seeking to escape abusive relationships; there are all too many examples of women reporting a violent partner to the police, and ending up dead after an inadequate response from the authorities.

Football has a significant place in British society. It could set an example

But football has a significant place in British society. It could set an example. Clubs could take firm action – they could support women’s charities, back their women’s teams, make it clear that abuse of women is unacceptable. Their efforts to distance themselves from men convicted of or standing trial for such crimes have historically been half-hearted, to say the least; in almost any other industry, an employee would be suspended, not supported.

The problem also applies to football supporters; too often, the abuse of women is weaponised as yet another arrow in the ‘banter’ armoury. Fans will happily sing songs directed at an opposition player, thinking it puts them on the moral high ground – just because none of their team’s players has been accused or convicted of abusing a woman.

They don’t stop to think that rape and assault are not jokes, and they don’t stop to think whether their casual smirking chants might be causing intense distress to fellow fans. Statistics suggest that around a fifth of a crowd at a men’s football match will be female; the same percentage of women have suffered rape or sexual assault.

No deep thought goes into the composition of these ditties, and those who sing them will argue that they are intended solely to throw a professional footballer off his game. What they also do is prove to women, again and again, that their experiences are joke fodder, only important as far as they affect men.

Women’s lives, safety and health should all be more important than the cumulative skill and strength of a football squad. With a worldwide pool of talent to choose from, expecting clubs to withhold the privilege of professional football from abusers of women is surely not too much to ask. A sport that boasts of being the global game – and the people who staff and support it – need to consider the ways in which football continues to exclude half of the world’s population.

Carrie Dunn will be donating her fee for this article to Rape Crisis

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