June 8, 2022: “The case of the unnamed footballer being investigated for child sex offences.”

July 4, 2022: “Premier League footballer arrested on suspicion of rape.”

October 15, 2022: “Manchester United’s Mason Greenwood charged with attempted rape.”

November 7, 2022: “Benjamin Mendy trial: Man City player says it was ‘so easy’ to meet women for sex.”

July 4, 2023: “If the source of Newcastle’s spending makes you uneasy, keep talking about it.”

July 15, 2023: “Saudi Arabia is problematic — but it’s the cash cow the Premier League needs.”

September 4, 2023: “Antony withdrawn from Brazil squad following domestic violence allegations”

Talking about Premier League football in 2023 increasingly feels as though it requires a law degree, or at the very least a basic understanding of things like parole and bail conditions.

“It is just a fact,” wrote Danny Taylor for The Athletic, “that, in the last 18 months, six of the 20 Premier League clubs have employed players at different stages of criminal investigations into alleged sexual offences.”

The narratives playing out on the pitch have been running alongside a stream of far darker ones taking place away from it. These storylines have little to do with the game we love, but at the same time are inextricably linked to it.

At best, the themes are complex, uncomfortable and divisive. At worst, they are deeply upsetting.

And that is just for the adults.

What about the young football fans hearing news reports about players or clubs they know, overhearing chatter in the school playground or seeing posts on social media?

One colleague was thrilled on his summer holiday whenever his 12-year-old son turned to The Athletic to check the latest transfer news. But pride was quickly replaced by consternation as questions about topics far removed from club signings started to flow.

“Our parenting choice was to tell him the truth as he heads into Year 8,” he reported. “Was that right?”

It is a quandary that many parents will confront at some stage.

Controversies around the sport are nothing new; rampant hooliganism in the 1970s, star names such as Paul Gascoigne, George Best and Stan Collymore assaulting their partners, overt racism and homophobia going completely unpunished, chants celebrating tragedies affecting rivals… we could go on.

But this feels different. Perhaps it is the 24/7 nature of football coverage now, or its global popularity and position as a commercial behemoth. Whatever the reason, when you observe the top level of the game through the eyes of a child it is grim.


So, what should you tell your children about the Premier League?

Dr Martha Deiros Collado is a clinical psychologist whose expertise is in parenting, child development, and paediatric health. She says honesty is always the best approach. “But keeping it simple,” she adds. “And you need to consider the age of your child. With a 12-year-old who can look on the internet, it’s a no-brainer that you talk honestly, and try to answer their questions to the best of your capacity.

“The thing parents and adults need to remember is that when children, particularly teenagers, ask a question, they have started to think of the answer. So what they’re doing is trying to figure out, ‘Is my knowledge right?’. Or, ‘Is my imagination correct? Can you help me?’.

“As a parent and as an adult, our role is to provide our children with information that gives them preparation and supports them. Not giving children honest answers doesn’t protect them, it just puts them at risk of getting information that might be more harmful or completely false, which can be really unhelpful to little ones and teenagers.”

For those who work in the game and have young families, it can be even more difficult to avoid the challenging topics. Broadcaster Jacqui Oatley has a nine-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter and says she believes it is important for them to “understand talking points” so they are not shocked when they come up in conversation at school or elsewhere when she is not with them.

“We actually had a conversation about Greenwood,” she says. “It came about over dinner one evening. I’ve also told them about the Luis Rubiales story in Spain. My philosophy is always to be open with them about social/news issues while always taking their age into account regarding any details.


“I’d never want to scare or worry them but I find honesty is the best policy and then they’re free to ask any questions they want within a safe environment. No question is too silly. I’d rather they ask me than a school friend who may have false information and confuse them.”

Psychotherapist Louis Weinstock works with children and has seen first-hand how football can expose them to things we would rather keep them shielded from.

“I remember bringing my nephews to their first football game,” he says. “They were eight and six. And even in the family stand, there were some people in there who were very drunk. And they were swearing and shouting, and there was all sorts of horrible language.

“That point is important, because we can’t completely protect our children from some of the harsh realities of life. Generally speaking, as life expectancy and health have gone up, children are much more protected — protected from early death, for example. There’s quite a lot of evidence that children, particularly in the Western world, are overprotected in many ways. They don’t take as many risks. They develop anxiety because they’re not exposed to risks in the same way that we would have been.

“When I was seven, I was climbing up trees and playing out in the fields on my own with friends. Whereas the average age at which parents would typically allow their children out to play on their own has gone up significantly in the last 20 years, it’s now 10 or 11.

“So, on the one hand, our children are over-protected from some of the difficult realities in the world that they might confront. But on the other hand, the internet is overwhelming us with all of these stories. Children are being struck with all sorts of graphic images and information about the climate crisis and the war in Ukraine. And without the right support, it can create a huge amount of anxiety — it is creating a huge amount of anxiety.”

Mendy is restarting his career in France after his trial (Oli Scarff / AFP)

Weinstock’s book, How the World is Making Our Children Mad and What to Do About It, explains that the role of parents is to be a “filter”, through which their children experience the world. “It’s an incredibly important and difficult role,” says Weinstock. “In a psychological sense, we are the filter, because they will get a sense of whether it’s safe to talk about something or not through us, and through what they perceive in us.

“So if we’re avoiding conversations about things, they will think that it’s not OK to speak about those things. If they see us really terrified and worried about things, then they will feel that this is something to be terrified and worried about. Whereas conversely, if we can sit down with our children and have conversations in a reasonably honest and grounded way, they will get a sense from us that it’s OK to talk about these things.”

One thing parents should not worry about, says child psychotherapist Jane O’Rourke, is having all the answers.

Instead, they should see themselves as “somebody who can have a conversation with their children, and to wonder out loud with them about what the issues are, and why this might be going on”.

She adds, “So, ‘Why is it that some men are treating women in this way and don’t see women as being equal?’. That’s a really useful conversation to have because it’s totally relatable to their own environment at school or to their friendships outside of school.

“If it’s a boy, can they be the boy who challenges other boys if they hear really sexist comments? And if they want to challenge them, then how do they do that? What’s the best language to use? Or if they don’t, how does that make them feel? If they don’t feel like they want to challenge their mates who make comments or pass unsuitable images of girls around, which is going on an awful lot among teenage boys, how can you have that conversation without shaming your son?

“What underpins that is respect. Respect for them, respect for their feelings, sensitivity towards them, being able to really feel into how the conversation is going for them. Do you need to provide a space for them to chat, to talk about their feelings?”

O’Rourke, who runs a counselling service in a north London primary school, says there is “a real crisis in mental health among boys”. She points to the popularity of notorious misogynist Andrew Tate, whose diatribes on social media — including such gems as “women who choose not to have children are miserable bitches” and “virgins are the only women worth marrying” — garner millions of views.

It is important for parents to be aware of what their children are watching, O’Rourke says, and to have a conversation with them about it. “They might be watching some of that stuff but not necessarily agree with it, or just want to know, ‘What is it that Andrew Tate has been saying about this or that?’. But if they are watching an awful lot of it, then having the space to talk about it is important.

“Everything is an opportunity to think about what the issues are. And what we’re talking about a lot is toxic male masculinity and the products of toxic masculinity, which is women being raped, and children being abused. Even what’s happening in terms of who owns clubs, and how the whole football system is financed, one could argue that it’s toxic masculinity gone completely crazy.

“When headlines come up, it’s a perfect opportunity for parents, and I would really encourage dads to be involved in this conversation, to talk about what happens when children are brought up to think that certain values are more important. I’m thinking about how boys are encouraged to repress their emotions and a lot of the language that’s used around emotions and boys. For example, ‘Don’t be a sissy. Don’t be a girl’. Even, ‘Don’t be gay’ — that’s the sort of language that’s often used.

“Repressing emotions is one of the reasons we’re seeing the rise of toxic masculinity. And there’s a real parallel with the athletic idea of being macho, being powerful, being dominant. And yet, what we see in women’s football is that it’s possible to be strong, to be powerful, and to also be alongside how you’re feeling. And to not use your power against other people in the way that we see in the men’s game.”

Greenwood was greeted warmly on his return to football (Photo: Isabel Infantes/PA Images via Getty Images)

How, then, do you have these conversations with your children?

“Often, the biggest fear parents have is that they’re going to say something wrong and do damage,” says Weinstock. “There isn’t a perfect thing to say. We just need to have developed some trust that it’s the conversation that’s more important than what we say. It’s being open to their questions that’s more important than us telling them something very specific. And making a space for their thoughts and feelings to be heard.

“So I would think of saying something like, ‘Gosh, it’s horrible sometimes what people can do and say to each other’. And it can be really helpful for a parent to own the feelings that they have about it. That’s one way to make the conversation feel safe for the child to share their feelings. So as a parent, you might say, ‘When I read that story about that footballer, I felt really horrible and sad inside that somebody could have done that’.

“It’s very helpful for parents to name their own feelings. It creates a gateway into the child’s feelings world, and makes them know it’s OK to have feelings about this.”

What about younger children who will not understand the meaning of words such as “rape” but only know that the player they once watched regularly has disappeared from their team or has been the subject of chants from rival teams?

“When we say younger children, I think school age,” says Collado, “because before school age, you really should be protecting your child from hearing any of this as much as possible. School-age children may hear about it, so first of all, just listen to your child. Get curious. What have they heard? What do they think it means?

“For example, if a child says, ‘So and so has been accused of rape’, you can ask, ‘What is that? What does that mean? Where have you heard that word, rape? Who told you that?’. Really explore your child’s understanding.

“Secondly, I would break it down into the essence of what you want to teach your child. These conversations are about consent. They’re about healthy bodies and what healthy sex is about. So it’s about maybe beginning some of these conversations, if you haven’t in your home already. You don’t have to go into rape. But you do have to think, ‘Does my child understand consent?’ Is it something that you can bring up and think about with your child?’. It’s about how you keep your child safe.

“And perhaps some reassurance that this is happening somewhere but your child is safe, and if they ever feel under threat, or they’re scared or they’re worried about anything, they can come to you and talk about it. When you open up these conversations, the big message you leave your child with is, ‘I can ask my parents anything, and they will still answer me, they will talk to me. And I can trust what they tell me’.

“When we close them down, what our children learn is: whatever rape is, it’s really bad. And I can’t talk to my parents about it. And that shuts things down very quickly, which is much more dangerous.”

Former West Ham United and England goalkeeper Rob Green now lives in Spain with his two children, a 12-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter. He says that, as a family, they are “quite open towards these conversations” and tend to have them together, “around the dinner table”.

He continues: “They’ll come home from school having heard a lot of chat about things and a real mixed bag of responses, of allegiances. And it’s quite alarming at times.

“The way that politics has gone — the real tribalism or populism — is reflected within football as well. You pick a side and you stick with that side, regardless of whatever that person might do or say.

“So it’s the smaller picture of a lot of stuff that kids face. We feel like it’s better to have these conversations than push it all to one side or say, ‘One’s right, one’s wrong’. You’ve got to understand, taking everything into account and having a discussion as to why it might be people are upset.

“The way football’s gone — the way the world’s gone — is you’re open to everything, aren’t you? I don’t think it’s possible anymore to even consider swiping everything with one magic wand or a golden bullet to answer every question. So if you can be open and honest and talk, then it helps.”

Honesty is often the best approach when discussing difficult issues around football with children (Getty Images)

Do these conversations depend on whether you are talking to a boy or a girl?

Weinstock says that for a teenage boy, he would consider some of these stories to be “important teaching moments as a parent because they’re a good opportunity to start to teach them about sex, consent, aggression and boundaries”.

For a teenage girl, he would want to share the message that “there are some really not very pleasant people out there, that you need to learn some basic rules of safety around. But also, there are really good people out there’. The problem with the news cycle and the fear that spreads is: kids end up just not going anywhere. And that is leading to increased anxiety. So we want them to go out and explore and interact with other people, but we want them to do it in a safe way. That would be the main message that I’d want to give”.

It is important to remind girls of the positive aspects of the game, says O’Rourke.

“I grew up in the 1970s when football was really toxic,” she says, “and I did find it scary. It’s only with the women’s game growing that I’ve started to really enjoy football. It’s been a real eye-opener. I didn’t realise how excluded I felt. I thought I didn’t like the game — but it wasn’t the game, it was how the game was being portrayed.

“It’s important to be as honest as you can and to talk about those issues. And if your daughter’s feeling worried about different aspects of the game, to have a conversation with her about how she feels about that, while also emphasising the positive aspects and that many clubs have gone to great lengths to make it more inclusive for women.”

At the primary school where O’Rourke works, they are starting a therapeutic programme called Sport and Thought, which uses football as a vehicle for children to express how they are feeling and help them learn how to deal with a lot of the problems that they might be encountering.

“If somebody has fouled them, how do they feel about it? The person who’s done the foul, why did they do it? Was it the pressure of competitiveness or the pressure to win? The pressure to win sometimes overrides everything, doesn’t it? And that’s something that we value in our society at the moment.”

For O’Rourke, football is “an important template of wider society”, meaning the issues that are being played out within and around the sport are ones that we see in everyday life.

She sees the sport as an opportunity to talk about those issues with your child and reminds us that we can learn from them at the same time.

“Children often have very, very high morals about respect for each other,” she says. “That’s what they’re being taught at school and what hopefully they’re learning at home as well. And sometimes it’s less clouded than our own reasoning. So it’s a discussion that’s two-way rather than just teaching them what’s right and wrong.”

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(Photo: Isabel Infantes/PA Images via Getty Images)