Monday 26 February 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Real bravery is surviving abuse, Eric

Eric Bristow’s comments about survivors of sexual abuse and how they should deal with their tormentors has inadvertently opened up a debate about some people’s misguided opinions. Photo: Gary O'Neill
Eric Bristow’s comments about survivors of sexual abuse and how they should deal with their tormentors has inadvertently opened up a debate about some people’s misguided opinions. Photo: Gary O'Neill

Eamonn Sweeney

I interviewed Eric Bristow about a decade and a half ago. He seemed an affable enough cove, if slightly over enamoured by his own legend - in fairness something not uncommon among very successful sportsmen.

As we sat down, Bristow pointed to the ear-ring which I used to wear at the time and wondered, "Why you wearing that? Only women wear jewellery". I observed that between the chains round his neck and the chunky rings on his fingers, he was wearing enough to open his own shop. "But that's men's jewellery, that is," came the reply.

After the formal interview concluded we were having a bit of a chat when I mentioned that I was thinking of going to Rio de Janeiro but was worried by the fact that a friend of mine had recently been the victim of a frightening mugging in the same city. "What you want to do there," said Eric, "is you'll see these blokes hanging around the hotels who know the score - gangsters. You get talking to one of them, bung him a few quid and he'll see nothing happens to you all the time you're in Rio."

You don't learn that much about people by interviewing them. There's always a strong element of performance involved. But you can pick up a few hints as to how they think.

And when the former world darts champion disgraced himself with his comments about the soccer players sexually abused by former Crewe Alexandra coach Barry Bennell, tweeting, "If some football coach was touching me when I was a kid, as I got older I would have went back and sorted that poof out", before adding, "Dart players tough, footballers wimps", and "bet the rugby guys are OK", those moments from the interview came back into my mind.

That's because they were rooted in two different forms of brainlessness, both of which came into play last week: the old-fashioned macho code and the fantasy that life is like some gangster movie. You pay a few quid to some bloke and he sorts out all the baddies in Rio for you, someone abuses you as a kid and you sort him out yourself. Else you're soft, ain't you?

I'm no fan of Twitter lynch mobs and their tendency to overreact to almost every statement made on social media. But Bristow's comments seem to me to be in a class of their own for obnoxiousness, insensitivity and all-round stupidity. Every bit of opprobrium which comes his way is richly deserved.

Yet in a strange way those tweets actually, if inadvertently, do a service to the debate about the Bennell abuse case. People do wonder why the likes of Bennell got away with the abuse for so long and why the victims didn't tell anyone at the time. Didn't they know there'd be plenty of support out there?

Well, one of the main reasons that the victims didn't come forward is that they probably expected the kind of reaction they got from Eric Bristow. Now that Bristow has spoken as he did we can't deny that those fears were correct. Bristow's reaction might not be typical but it's not unique. It would have been a lot more common back in the 1970s and '80s when the offences took place.

People give out a lot about Political Correctness these days but PC, irritating though some of its manifestations may be, is better than the troglodytic attitudes which prevailed when I was a kid. It was a time when judges would berate women who had been raped for wearing provocative clothes or not struggling hard enough to fight off their attacker, one when the old macho verities largely went unchallenged. Homosexuality was regarded as a kind of disease. Paedophilia cases had yet to enter the mainstream of public consciousness. It was fertile ground for the sexual predator.

Society as a whole didn't know how to deal with sexual offences so what chance did young boys have?

A couple of years back a man called Ronan McCormack was sentenced to seven years and 10 months in jail for 53 indecent assaults against a number of boys who he had coached at underage level with the Eastern Harps GAA club during the 1980s.

He'd coached me during the same time, both in Gaelic football and for Community Games athletics. I knew some of the victims, one of them very well. He was one of the most decent young lads you could ever meet, the absolute antithesis of everything his abuser represents.

That case still haunts me. Those of us who avoided being abused by Ronan McCormack did so by pure luck. When you think back to how confusing a time those teenage years are, and how difficult life can sometimes be in the ordinary run of things, it's horrendous to think of youngsters having to cope with the pain inflicted by sexual abuse.

The worst thing about Bristow's outburst is that he has actually got things backwards. Wimps? Can you imagine the bravery required to get up every day and make a life for yourself after something like that happened to you?

Or the bravery required for Andy Woodward to lift the lid on Bennell's deeds at Crewe by giving the interview which has begun this current furore?

Or the bravery required for Paul Stewart, victim of another abuser when he was just 11, to build an outstanding career with Spurs when painful memories must have assailed him every time he went near a dressing room?

Or indeed the bravery required by the Eastern Harps men who faced down Ronan McCormack in court and finally got justice for themselves and others? I couldn't have been that brave. I suspect Eric Bristow couldn't have been that brave either.

Sports journalists write a lot about courage. We see it in the winning of a 50-50 ball, the taking-on of a last-minute shot, a big tackle on a bigger opponent. But this is a kind of circumscribed bravery, one contained within the sporting arena. When the final whistle blows, it can be put in storage for a while. The bravery of the sexual abuse survivor, on the other hand, is something that always has to be there.

In revealing the truth about what was done to him, Andy Woodward has displayed more bravery than has ever been seen on an English football pitch. Terry Butcher playing on with a head wound is in the ha'penny place by comparison. Nothing in the history of Sligo football was as heroic as the testimony of the former Eastern Harps players.

Bristow's fantasies of retribution are very cheap stuff indeed by comparison. One of the most heartbreaking things about child sexual abuse is that the quick-fix vigilante solution belongs, by and large, to the movies.

The victims must cope with its effects in the real world. The old 'if anyone did that to one of my kids I'd murder them' line isn't really true. We say it, but as decent people we know that we're not really like that and that this isn't really how it works out. The struggle is much harder than that.

The irony is that Bristow believes himself to be affected by something called 'dartitis', which makes it almost impossible for him to throw a dart. This 'condition' has been treated with great sympathy in the media, with Bristow waxing sorrowful at great length about the agony he has endured. There you have him, a man terrified by the prospect of throwing a small projectile at a board on a wall who thinks coping with being sexually abused as a child would have been a doddle.

In the end, Bristow is merely a sideshow. He did not abuse anyone. The real guilty parties are not just Barry Bennell and others like him but those who facilitated the abuse by turning a blind eye. Since the Woodward interview, it has emerged that Chelsea recently made a secret payment to former player Gary Johnson who accused the club's former chief scout, Eddie Heath, of abuse in the 1970s.

A former Chelsea underage player Tony Carroll, who now runs a schoolboy side linked with the club, said: "There were stories he used to get in the showers with the kids. There were so many rumours about Eddie Heath I am not surprised at all."

The can of worms has been opened and there will be more terrible stories to come.

They will not make for easy reading. But we're always better off knowing the truth. The truth matters more than any trophy.

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