Earlier this year, news broke that the Premier League was to implement mandatory sexual consent training for all topflight players.
On the surface, it seemed an important step to educate and respond to the all-too-ubiquitous stories of physical and sexual violence towards women in the world of football.
Feminist community and charity Level Up played a key role in campaigning for the training at its inception, but its progression still needs finetuning.
Although an obvious improvement from nothing, PENALTY contacted Seyi Falodun-Liburd of Level Up to find out what this training actually means and how it needs to improve.
When did you get involved with Level Up?
I’ve been involved with Level Up since 2018
How long has the journey been to get the training put into practice?
Last year Manchester United fans in the Level Up community were outraged that Ronaldo was being given a hero’s welcome back to the club despite allegations of rape and an open civil suit. So, we flew a plane over his return match in solidarity with Kathryn Mayorga.
In February there was another story in the media about a footballer accused of domestic abuse, and then another accused of multiple rapes. It was clear to us that this was a systemic problem: that it wasn’t about individual anomalies, but a symptom of a broader culture where powerful men felt emboldened to behave violently against women. That’s when we started working in coalition with EVAW and The Three Hijabis. Together, we wrote an open letter to the Premier League and FA.
As a result of the letter we, along with other women’s organisations and gender justice groups, were invited to the Premier League for a “Listening Day” in June to share our expertise on how they could be better at tackling gender-based violence in football.
In August, we were informed through the media that sexual consent trainings were being implemented. This was encouraging to hear because it was the first ask in our open letter, but we are disappointed that no one from the gender-based violence or VAWG (Violence Against Women and Girls) sector has been involved in or had sight of the development of the training.
How important has the collaboration with the End Violence Against Women Coalition and The Three Hijabis been to the training’s eventual implementation?
It’s been vital! We have a collective goal and we’ve been able to pool our various expertise and perspectives to work towards that goal - The Three Hijabi’s petition to address racism in football has received more than 1 million signatures and they’re helping to shape the future of football; EVAW have extremely valuable experience in developing policy on a major scale, and Level Up are good at mobilising people and getting attention on an issue.
We also have a systemic analysis and see that this isn’t about punishing individual players but cultural change across the board.
We’re clear that this training wouldn’t have happened without us. We launched a clear public campaign which targeted a specific window of opportunity within football, and the Premier League knew they had a crisis on their hands and needed to address it.
What do you think The FA’s ongoing scepticism/lack of involvement stems from?
Ultimately football is big business. The industry spends a lot of money on players and teams, so they work hard to protect their investments.
What will an actual class look like and involve?
I have no idea. We haven’t been involved in the development of the training. But it should contextualise gender-based violence within systemic, interlocking oppressions of gender, race and class.
What is it about the sport (and sport more widely) that leads to such crimes being so commonplace?
Gender-based violence is rooted in sexist attitudes, which are too often cultivated in hyper-masculine environments where power, control and domination are praised as qualities men should aspire to have. Sports cultures provide the perfect environment for these attitudes, and accompanying behaviours, to grow.
How do you personally respond to those who cite the “there’s always bad apples” rhetoric as reason to not recognise the worrying level of gender-based violence in the sport?
This year alone, we’ve seen players and managers prosecuted for rape and assault; and young women being harassed and threatened on social media because they dared to speak out about the violence and abuse that they’ve experienced at the hands of football players. There is a culture of denial and silence because nobody wants to confront the uncomfortable truth that men can be fantastic athletes and also capable of causing harm.
The full saying is that “one bad apple can spoil the barrel”. At some point The Premier League and the FA are going to have to accept that the whole barrel is rotten.
How much work is there to do to activate real change and prevent issues altogether?
There is still so much to be done!
The Premier League needs to engage with us in a meaningful way and implement the remaining asks in ways that are collaborative and impactful. And this will just be the beginning, it’s important that policies and processes continue to be co-created with and measured by experts.
The FA need to actually engage with us, they’ve ignored us so far.
How do the wider football community, from fans to players to coaches, be better at dealing with these issues?
Hold the complexity that footballers can be talented and successful athletes, and still cause harm - and that their status and job shouldn’t protect them from accountability, as with anyone else who causes harm.
What’s next for Level Up and the training program?
We want to see our remaining open letter asks implemented in collaboration with experts from VAWG and gender justice groups
We also want to see an independent ombudsman put in place to investigate complaints - and see players taken off the pitch until any issues are resolved.
Cover photo: Nathan Rogers