Football clubs and their governing bodies across the UK are being challenged by fans and campaigners galvanised in the wake of the Raith Rovers outcry, who are asking them to show leadership and follow up “easy” words with action on gender-based violence.
It is two months since the Kirkcaldy club signed David Goodwillie, who in a landmark case in 2017 was ordered to pay damages to the woman he was found by a civil court to have raped. The move resulted in a ferocious backlash which escalated across the first week of February, with sponsorship withdrawals, multiple resignations and the women’s team moving to sever ties.
By the end of the week, the Scottish Championship club had admitted “we got it wrong” and promised not to select the player. Yet the noisy condemnation did not deter Goodwillie’s former club, Clyde, from agreeing a loan deal at the beginning of March, which was terminated days later after the local council announced it was banning the striker from the ground.
Now the Scottish National party MP Hannah Bardell, who spent four years working at Livingston FC, has written to the Scottish Football Association asking it to consider a fit and proper person test for professional players in the wake of events which, she writes, sent the message that “men’s careers are more important than women’s safety”.
“Footballers, particularly male footballers, are paid significant sums of money and hold a particular status that often makes them role models,” says Bardell. “It’s only right that our footballing authorities have a fit-for-purpose system of deciding who can hold that position.”
Bardell is asking for a meeting between the SFA, the best-selling author Val McDermid, a dedicated Raith supporter who withdrew her shirt sponsorship immediately after Goodwillie was signed, and the chief executive of Rape Crisis Scotland, Sandy Brindley.
“Culture change is not something you can easily legislate for,” McDermid says. “But what I would like to see is clubs taking much more responsibility for the behaviours of the players off the pitch and for indicating that certain behaviours are just not acceptable.”
The events of early February were a watershed moment, says Andy Smith, chair of the Scottish Football Supporters’ Association: “Women’s football now has clout and a growing voice. It is the most important dynamic in football and the women’s game in Scotland is developing fast and strengthening commercially.”
Nevertheless, when the organisation partnered with Her Game Too, the campaign to stamp out sexism in the stands, at the end of February, their survey found one in four female fans had encountered abuse at matches.
The row in Scotland unfolded as allegations of sexual violence emerged against players in the English Premier League including Mason Greenwood and Benjamin Mendy, prompting the feminist group Level Up to write to the CEOs of the FA and Premier League urging them to tackle gender-based violence.
The campaigns director Janey Starling says: “There’ s a lot of energy from the fans who want to see clubs do better and are very disappointed that stories flare up then disappear, because the issues don’t go away. There is a recognition amongst management and supporters that this is a huge problem and there’s a need for systemic change – this is not just a few bad apples.”
Their demands are echoed by the Scottish campaign group Zero Tolerance, which coordinated a statement of zero tolerance of violence against women on International Women’s Day, 8 March, supported by about 70 organisations, mainly football clubs, although with some notable Premiership absences. (Goodwillie’s victim, Denise Clair, later accused the SFA of hypocrisy in backing the campaign after refusing to take action against the footballer.)
“We were delighted with the take-up of the campaign,” says the co-director Rachel Adamson, “but it’s easy to send a tweet, and now we need leadership. We need systemic change and action. We would like to see the big names in Scottish football reflect on what changes they need to make and work with experts on ending men’s violence against women to make their organisations and community gender equal.”
The SFA launched its first dedicated girls’ and women’s football strategy in partnership with Uefa last year, and points to the work of its equality and diversity advisory board, established in 2017, and its equality vision, which states: “Everybody should have the opportunity to participate in football at all levels, and that no individual should be discriminated against for any reason.”
Crucially, the Scottish football community could come together to reframe a push for zero tolerance as not just a women’s issue, Adamson says. That was evident amid the genuine distress and outrage of Raith fans in February. A Crowdfunder for Rape Crisis Scotland set up by a 26-year-old fan, Martin Glass, has raised £15,000.
The ripple effect has been UK-wide, says McDermid, who tells how her biggest round of applause at the Oxford Literary Festival last weekend was for her stance over Raith Rovers. “I’ve taken aback since February by the responses I’ve had out and about, people coming up to me on trains and in the shops to express their disgust at what happened, and delight that some of us stood up against it. I don’t think that would have happened five years ago. The whole wave that happened in the wake of MeToo has shifted the dial.”
Marie Penman, who resigned from her job at Raith’s community foundation on 1 February, has not been to Stark’s Park since. The management’s statements – at first dismissing the signing as a “football-related decision” – and behaviour since – they refused to offer any comment for this article – “were just so shocking and so far from what I thought we should be as a club”.
Instead, she has been spending her weekends watching the renamed Raith women’s team, McDermid Ladies, who won their opening SWFL North/East league game last Sunday against Bayside Women. “It’s really quite refreshing,” she says.