Charlie Webster is a broadcaster and writer, a campaigner on social issues, and is a keen Ironman and triathlon competitor. You can hear her chatting about the EFL with Adrian Chiles on BBC Radio 5 Live on Chiles on Friday from 10:00 BST.
“If it wasn’t for football, I wouldn’t be here. Terraces were my safe space. Nobody could hurt me there. It was 90 minutes of respite before I had to go back and face what was waiting for me at home.”
That’s a male friend of mine speaking. We were both abused as children, and recently discussed how football could open up a conversation about the issue.
My friend says he was always “macho” about the abuse he was subjected to by his late father, hiding his past because masculine stereotypes meant he was scared of being seen as weak.
“If I said to my football friends I was the Pope, they would believe me more than if I told them I was abused,” he said. “They’d think something was wrong with me.”
If it hadn’t had been for football, we would never have had this conversation.
We were originally talking about what was going on behind the scenes at our clubs and found ourselves going from overlapping centre-backs to what we had been through as children.
A few years ago, he had seen me on the pitch at QPR – a club keen to engage with anti-domestic abuse causes. I ran to 40 clubs, covering 250 miles in seven days, to engage the football world in talking about domestic abuse, and raise money for the charity Women’s Aid. Because of that, he knew I was a ‘safe’ person to talk to about what had happened to him.
When I first came up with the idea of running to football grounds, I remember quite a few people saying to me that I would never get the clubs talking about domestic abuse. It’s such a weird statement. Why not? If anything, isn’t that an insult to football? What does that say about what they think a football club represents and who they represent?
They were wrong.
Every football club I approached backed the campaign. Manchester United legend Gary Neville ran out of Old Trafford with me, Liverpool greats John Barnes and Jamie Carragher came on the pitch at Anfield with me at half-time, and all the West Ham team donated at their game. Even Pelé – a three-time World Cup winner – sent a message of support.
Can football provide that forum for us to have these conversations?
People don’t like talking about domestic abuse, but that’s only because it’s not talked about – it is seen as something for victims to be ashamed of. By keeping it voiceless, we help that happen.
It’s something that is so rife in our communities, yet at the same time very well hidden. If we silence it, it makes it much harder for victims to speak out and easier for perpetrators to get away with it again and again and again.
We have heard horrific accounts from former footballers Chris Unsworth, Steve Walters and Andy Woodward – and many others – about being sexually abused by people in the game.
There’s also research that suggests domestic abuse cases increase during big football tournaments.
But football can be a safe environment in which people can talk about what’s going on in their lives. It is a meeting place, an escape; people are unified by a shirt. And, because of that, football can reach out.
It can also change the perception of domestic abuse. It isn’t something that just happens to girls and women – it happens to boys and men too.
And when women can still be blamed when they are victims of domestic abuse, imagine how hard we make it for men to speak up and get help.
I have met many people – boys, girls, men and women – who have suffered terrible abuse.
A middle-aged Liverpool fan, who had to seek refuge from his abusive girlfriend, summed up the response when he tried to get help.
“They looked at me like I was a joke and said I needed to ‘man up’,” he said. “I wanted to kill myself. I thought men didn’t suffer domestic abuse, but she was destroying me.”
Another man I know in football was turning up for work with black eyes. People jokily said: “Is your wife hitting you? You best sort that out.”
He laughed it off, scared of what would happen if they found out it was true – his wife was hitting him, and much worse.
Masculine stereotypes don’t do men or women any favours.
We are starting to slowly open up conversations in football around mental health, but we also need to see that development around domestic abuse.
For every three victims of domestic abuse, two will be female and one will be male. One in four women and one in six men suffer from domestic abuse in their lifetime.
My QPR-supporting friend says if somebody in football – his safe place – had spoken out about domestic abuse, it would have saved him 20 years of misery and isolation in his own head. He wouldn’t have had to wear his mask for so long.
I do wonder if I’ll get stick for writing about domestic abuse in the context of football.
But our football clubs are at the heart of our communities, so isn’t this one of the best places to start a conversation, to stand with every fan to eradicate it?
Domestic abuse doesn’t discriminate. Football has a voice and gives us all the ability to share it. Sooner or later we have to stop kicking the can down the road.
If you or someone you know has been affected by the issues raised in this article, help and support is available at bbc.co.uk/actionline
Article courtesy of BBC Sport