UK football’s most powerful bodies are facing calls to follow the lead of the US in tackling gender-based violence, including by letting clubs suspend players suspected of abusive behaviour without pay.
In a letter seen by the Guardian, the CEOs of the Football Association and the Premier League have been urged to decide “which side they are on when it comes to violence against women and girls”.
The letter has been sent by the feminist group Level Up, the End Violence Coalition and the Three Hijabis, who last year launched an anti-racism campaign after black England players were subjected to a torrent of abuse after the Euro 2020 final.
It outlines demands including following the lead of Major League Baseball (MLB) and the NFL, where players suspected of domestic abuse, sexual violence or child abuse can be suspended without pay.
It also calls for mandatory training for staff at every level on gender-based violence, a charter outlining minimum standards, clear sexual misconduct policies including disciplinary procedures, and prevention programmes in academies.
“This week has seen football make the headlines for all the wrong reasons. It is clear that our beautiful game has an ugly underside when it comes to violence against women,” the letter states. “It’s time for the FA and Premier League to confront a culture of gender-based violence.”
The Scottish club Raith Rovers made a U-turn on Thursday after days of mounting anger over its signing of David Goodwillie, who was ruled to be a rapist in a civil case in 2017.
It comes against a backdrop of allegations against Premier League players including Mason Greenwood and Benjamin Mendy. Greenwood, a Manchester United striker, was released on bail on Wednesday after his arrest on suspicion of rape, assault and threats to kill. Separately, the Manchester City defender Mendy is accused of nine offences, including rape and attempted rape, relating to six alleged victims.
“This is not about individual clubs or players, it’s about the whole game, and the Premier League and FA [Football Association] need to lead from the top,” said Janey Starling, a co-director of Level Up, which this week launched a petition calling for action.
“This is a huge opportunity. If the Premier League can implement a gender-based violence policy and if professional football in the UK will take a stand on this, it will have a huge impact across the rest of society. I genuinely believe they could have more influence than the government,” she said.
Andrea Simon, the director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, said American football and baseball had shown that sports governing bodies could be more proactive. “We’ve seen the impact of campaigns to keep racism out of football in shaping fans’ attitudes and behaviours. Now it’s time for the sport to look at its problem with violence against women,” she said.
In 2018 the former Chicago Cubs shortstop Addison Russell was suspended for 40 games without pay for violating the MLB’s domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse policy, despite not facing criminal charges after his ex-wife detailed physical, mental and emotional abuse. Since the policy was implemented in 2015, 14 players have been suspended for violating it, with suspensions ranging from 15 to 162 games. Five were placed on paid administrative leave.
Shaista Aziz, a football fan and anti-racism campaigner, who along with Amna Abdullatif and Huda Jawad formed the Three Hijabis, said football was part of the “DNA of the UK” and had to seize the opportunity. “For football to wash its hands and look the other way in relation to misogyny and all forms of oppression and violence is just not acceptable,” she said.
In a statement, the FA said it condemned violence and prejudice including misogyny, and it encouraged victims or witnesses of abuse to report to the police. It said it had an equality policy, every club had a code of conduct, and its regulatory framework allowed it to take action against anyone breaching its policies or regulations.
“If incidents of this nature take place in a football environment, the FA will take the allegations extremely seriously and will take action within its jurisdiction. Any such case would be investigated once any criminal or statutory investigation is concluded,” it said.
A Premier League spokesperson said it was developing a gender equality strategy to “address serious issues” including misogyny and violence against women, and it was talking to the Home Office about supporting work to tackle violence against women.
Workshops in academies explored healthy relationships, consent, sexual harassment and bullying, it added. “The Premier League strongly condemns any form of abuse or violence against women and girls and takes these issues extremely seriously,” the spokesperson said.