Sheffield Hallam teams up with FIFA on football safeguarding programme

2nd November 2023

Sheffield Hallam University has developed a research-informed adult safeguarding education programme, with the support of FIFA’s Research Scholarship, to address maltreatment in professional and semi-professional football.

It follows recent years in which football in the UK has been engulfed in reports of abuse and bullying, from grassroots to the professional game.  

Existing education and welfare programmes are often seen as ineffective, and for adult participants the issue is ‘even more pronounced’ as safeguarding policies are primarily aimed at children or vulnerable adults.  

The research team, led by Sheffield Hallam sports psychologists Dr James Newman and Dr James Rumbold, explored the perceptions of key stakeholders, including football CEOs, player care leads and safeguarding leads, and collaborated with these individuals to design a framework which addresses maltreatment in the sport. 

Dr James Newman, Senior Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Psychology at Sheffield Hallam University, said:

“The most important part of this project, and its findings, is that it has been driven by the voices of key stakeholders in professional football throughout the English football pyramid. We have worked with those stakeholders to further the understanding of maltreatment in professional football and to identify its signs and symptoms. Crucially, we have also highlighted the need for safeguarding programmes in football to focus on the football culture and to be developed at the individual, club and systemic levels of the game.” 

Maltreatment is considered to be abuse, bullying, discrimination, individual and institutional neglect, the ‘unpleasant nature of football’, and control and power over others.  

Researchers found that maltreatment can ‘breed’ and lead to inappropriate behaviour becoming normalised. The findings reaffirmed that individuals in the sport appeared to lack sufficient skills and knowledge to understand the concept; maltreatment was often only understood in terms of significant cases of sexual abuse, which has meant unintentional forms of abuse are missed. 

The co-designed adult safeguarding framework draws on the following key research findings and recommendations, which indicate: 

  • Maltreatment is generally underpinned by the culture of football as well as beliefs around how to produce players and succeed. A lack of awareness and knowledge also fuels maltreatment in football. 
  • A range of signs and symptoms of maltreatment were highlighted including various emotional effects, individuals experiencing a damaged sense of self, an impact on mental health and well-being, burnout and disengagement. 
  • Safeguarding education programmes need to be culturally informed, focused on interaction at all levels of football, and facilitate an approach of check and challenge. They must be delivered in a way which prioritises the needs of individuals and uses real-life cases and scenarios. 
  • Football clubs and organisations need to raise standards and accountability, whilst adapting their culture and prioritising care for individuals. Investment is needed in support, training and whistleblowing, reinforced by sound policies and procedures. 
  • Emphasis needs to be placed on inclusion and diversity using a range of experts and facilities to encourage engagement. It requires support and promotion from football’s national and international governing bodies, as well as clear monitoring and evaluation. 
To learn more about FIFA and Sheffield Hallam University’s adult safeguarding education programme, view the project video:  

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