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New research from Edge Hill University shows the scale of abuse in sport and calls for cultural changes

Publish date: November 27, 2021

New research, led by Edge Hill University, has for the first time uncovered the scale of violence against children in sport in the UK and across Europe.

New research, led by Edge Hill University, has for the first time uncovered the scale of violence against children in sport in the UK and across Europe.

The study, called Child Abuse in Sport: European Statistics (CASES), has been led by Mike Hartill at Edge Hill (UK) and Bettina Rulofs at Wuppertal University (Germany) with help from colleagues from across Europe. Data was collected from 10,302 adults in the UK, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Romania and Spain.

It is the first such study of this scale and the first prevalence study of its kind in sport in the UK and several other partner countries. The study investigated a wide range of behaviours that can be harmful to athletes from verbal harassment and physical violence through to sexual abuse and neglect.

Key findings show that:

  • 65% of adults (aged 18-30) reported experiencing psychological violence as children.
  • 44% reported experiencing physical violence inside sport as children.
  • Neglect was experienced by 37% of respondents.
  • 35% reported experiencing non-contact sexual violence.
  • 20% reported contact sexual violence.
  • The prevalence of interpersonal violence against children is lowest for respondents in recreational sport (68 percent) and highest for those who competed in international sport (84 percent).
  • Figures for each form of interpersonal violence were broadly similar across countries, suggesting the problem is not unique to one country.

It should be noted that the incidence of interpersonal violence against children in sport, was slightly lower than the incidence in the general community in each country surveyed.

While most people recall their experience of sport as children positively, sport is not immune from violence against children and this is timely research to remind sporting organisations that they must have strong safeguarding policies in place to ensure children are protected from violence and abuse, according to the researchers from Edge Hill University who worked on the report.

A picture of Professor of Sociology in Sport Mike Hartill

Professor in the Sociology of Sport Mike Hartill led the study. He said: “Our findings are obviously of great concern. We have seen a number of high-profile cases of child abuse in sport in recent times, but this research helps us to understand the scale of the problem more clearly.

“The data shows that these experiences are common in the sports sector which is supposed to provide children with a positive and healthy space.”

While it found that 85% of adults reported having a positive experience in sport as children, three-quarters reported having had at least one experience of interpersonal violence inside sport before they turned 18.

Professor Hartill – who is also Director of Edge Hill’s Centre for Child Protection and Safeguarding in Sport (CPSS), added: “Unfortunately, these findings indicate a sector that has done too little to address deep-rooted issues within sports. Those that govern sport in Europe must do far more than producing policy. The problem is ultimately rooted within the nature of the relationships between adults and children within sport.

“This study offers valuable evidence for sport organisations to work with and respond to. We are encouraged by the support the project has had from our sport partners and hope that our report is a good starting point for a cultural shift within sport.

“As part of the project we will be developing educational resources with and for the sport sector aimed at enhancing understanding of this issue within its grassroots partners and affiliated bodies. Ultimately, the study aims to provide insights and develop resources for the sport sector that will support their efforts to safeguard children’s welfare.”

A picture of Dr Melanie Lang, reader in child protection in sport

Dr Melanie Lang, Reader in Child Protection in Sport and the UK national lead on the project, said:

“The UK is considered a world leader in safeguarding in sport, having safety measures 20 years ago. That so many people recall their experiences in sport as positive shows the potential sport has to do good. However, the data from this study indicates we cannot be complacent, even in the UK where many sports organisations are already working hard to keep children safe in sport.

The next step is to more effectively integrate children’s rights into sport and ensure children’s and indeed all athletes’ welfare lies at the centre of sporting practice.”

The project, funded by the European Union’s Erasmus+ programme, is a partnership with seven universities and three sport partners – World Athletics, Sport England, and the German Sport Youth Federation.

World Athletics, which recently launched an overarching Safeguarding Policy that will guide its 214 Member Federations to put in place their own policies by 2023, said: 

“Safeguarding is about actions, not just words. Safeguarding is more than just a line in our integrity code of conduct.  We need action – individually and collectively.  This research will inform the education, tools and guidance we will be creating with and for our Member Federations.  We owe it to our athletes, competing now and in the future, to protect them from abuse, harassment and exploitation.” 

Information regarding Sport England’s on-going work to safeguard children and young people is available to view here on the organisation’s website.

Alongside its contribution of expertise and funding to a number of organisations, including the NSPCC’s Children Protection in Sport Unit and the Ann Craft Trust, the body are also currently scoping the potential for an independent oversight body among other on-going work, details of which are available to view here.

The overall report and links to reports for each country can be found here. Edge Hill’s CPSS is at the forefront of research on the prevention of abuse, exploitation and maltreatment in sport. For further information on the project, visit the website, or see the EU’s Erasmus+ page.

If you are interested in studying social science or learning more about child protection, please take a look at the Edge Hill website to see the full range of social science courses available.

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