The abuse of children has only recently been recognised as a serious problem for sport.1 Efforts by national sports authorities to safeguard children have led to the development of policies within individual sports. However, wider concerns about child protection in sport have been raised by a recent research initiative under the auspices of the British Amateur Rugby League Association and the NSPCC that focused on rugby league's child protection policy.
The research examined the role of volunteer child protection officers. It found an overwhelming fear among officers of false allegations by children and a limited awareness of the difficulties children face in disclosing abuse. Those surveyed claimed that child abuse had not occurred in rugby league or at their particular club, and would not be likely to occur in the future.
The policy was in danger of being constructed as a form of adult protection from false allegations rather than one of protecting children from abusive adults. This appeared to turn the philosophy of the initiative on its head. Known adults were seen to be trustworthy and responsible.
There was also evidence that the child protection policy was relegated to an "any other business" item within club meetings. This is a concern if child protection officers are becoming self-appointed gatekeepers of knowledge about the child protection policy.
Some of the club child protection officers had been assigned their role by default - as a corollary to their existing roles as coach, committee member, chairperson and so on. So the emphasis became one of fulfilment of an obligation to the sport's governing body, rather than an obligation to children. Monitoring and evaluation were absent.
The research also revealed many positive outcomes including the expressed dedication of all those concerned to provide a healthy environment for children to participate in rugby league. Goodwill on the part of all the volunteers and paid officials was abundant. However, goodwill does not guarantee appropriate implementation if proper structures are not in place to support the policy, and there remains the concern that child protection will not be prioritised in sport's status and performance driven agenda.2
Social services departments were absent from the policy's early developmental stage. An important question seems to be whether they ought to be directly involved in issues of child protection training and policy implementation in sport. The research raised the question whether there should be a designated social services officer from local departments who is formally and directly linked to either individual sports or, indeed, individual local clubs.
Alliances must first be forged with children rather than adults. The research suggests that before a broader vision of sport's role in the safeguarding of children can be constructed more reflection has to take place over the monitoring and evaluation of child protection policies, the effectiveness of current training, and the role of social services departments in this context.
Phil Prescott is a senior lecturer at Edge Hill University College; Mike Hartill is a lecturer in socio-cultural aspects of sport at Edge Hill College of Higher Education.
1 C Brackenridge, Spoil Sports: Understanding and Preventing Sexual Exploitation in Sport, Routledge, 2001
2 KAE Volkwein et al, "Sexual Harassment in Sport" , International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 32 (3), 1997