Sport must acknowledge its duty to address the issue of violence against women

Last week, Women’s Aid made a statement which went largely under the radar in football. The news was that Bristol City, a club which pledged its support for the domestic abuse charity’s Football United campaign, had signed Danny Simpson – a man convicted in 2015 of assaulting his former partner and mother of one of his children.

Women’s Aid swiftly announced it would be removing City from all materials related to the Football United campaign, expressing its concern that Simpson will “be a role model for young fans and team-mates”, adding: “In 2014 Bristol City signed our Football United pledge to say ‘We will send a clear message in our club that violence against women and children is completely unacceptable’, it sadly seems that in 2021 that this is not the case.”

When City announced Simpson would be joining the club until the end of the season, the accompanying statement described his football credentials, including five years at Leicester City where he won the Premier League.

But in 2015, during that title winning season, Simpson was convicted of assault. During the trial evidence given by police included a description of him “choking” his former partner, after police entered his home in December 2014 to find Simpson “straddling” her, “his hands firmly placed around her neck”. His former partner did not support the prosecution, and rescinded her original police statement, but Simpson was sentenced to 300 hours of community service for which he served 145, before a judge agreed that ‘press intrusion’ made completing his full service impossible, and instead imposed a 21-day curfew.

This column is not here to question whether Simpson should or should not play elite football. But the way City sidestepped their new signing’s inconvenient history is worth highlighting, as it is something they are not alone in. Players and journalists jostled to congratulate Simpson on Twitter, while news reports described a similar, edited synopsis of his career as City did. It is characteristic of a larger eerie silence across sport, in a month where violence against women has been at the centre of national discourse.

While nobody would seek to deprive Simpson of his right to move on from such an incident, and the law allows him to do that, how much better would it have been when violence against women is so much in the public eye, for him and the club to have met that subject head on?

When Sarah Everard went missing in Clapham in March, and was later found dead, a women’s movement gained pace. The reaction to her tragic death dominated the front pages and social media in a national conversation, but barely a peep was heard from sport’s major bodies and personalities.

Trust Marcus Rashford to be the exception, tweeting: 

Along with Chelsea, who have been applauded this past year for its campaign backing domestic abuse charity Refuge, Rashford’s voice stood out because he cut a largely isolated figure in men’s sport.

Readers might wonder why such a story should have a place in the sports pages. But male perpetrators of violence and harassment do not exist in a vacuum, they are embedded in our culture – including sport.

Former Real Madrid player Robinho was signed by three top division sides since his 2017 conviction for sexual assault and involvement in a gang rape – for which he has evaded any jail time due to extradition law. The NFL sparked outrage in 2014, when a video captured Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice dragging his partner from a lift after knocking her unconscious. Rice initially only received a two-game suspension – a smaller penalty than that carried for ball tampering.

Beyond the legal convictions, sports culture has demonstrated a disturbing attitude to violence against women in which beating up a woman is apparently something to laugh about. Last year, when domestic abuse cases surged in the middle of lockdown, British boxer Billy Joe Saunders released a video where, in supposed jest, he advised men how to beat up their wives or girlfriends. He was fined £15,000 by the BBBofC after apologising, but served a mere four-month ban.

While earlier this month, an image of Jurgen Klopp (which was used without his knowledge or consent) was widely circulated alongside the faces of real-life survivors of domestic abuse, with the caption: “Beaten at home throughout lockdown.”

There has long been evidence to show “significant rises” in domestic abuse claims during major international football tournaments where England is involved – including the 2018 World Cup, when 239 domestic abuse calls were made to police on or the day after England fixtures.

It is why seeing Simpson take up his spot with City without the club issuing any commitment or acknowledgment of his troubling history makes a mockery of the efforts Women’s Aid has made to overturn such links between football and male violence. It undermines the club’s support of the charity, and suggests that a footballer’s ability to kick a ball is more important than any values City claims to have around respecting the safety of women. It is, quite simply, sports washing at its finest.

Both the club and Simpson declined to comment, but Telegraph Sport understands City had been in close discussions with Women’s Aid ahead of last week’s announcement. However it came in the days after former City under-23s player, Alhaji Sesay, was given a 10-year prison sentence for rape and attempted rape after separate attacks on two women – another significant moment the club failed to acknowledge.

“We would hope the club would want to send a clear message on respect, consent and healthy relationships for players,” Women’s Aid’s statement said on the matter, adding: “One of the main ways we can [reduce violence against women] is by not ignoring or minimising violence against women where it happens.”

To those who say it is unfair to drag up Simpson’s six-year-old conviction after he served his sentence would be ignoring the huge influence football and sport can have on an issue that affects women in all walks of life. How powerful would it be if more men in sport, as a collective, take up the mantle in supporting the other half of the population this once?

Women’s Aid was right to call out City’s empty support – sport as a whole needs to acknowledge its responsibility to stand up and be counted in the conversation around women’s safety and male violence.

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