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    HomeSportCan English football learn from U.S. sports about how they handle abuse...

    Can English football learn from U.S. sports about how they handle abuse allegations?

    In theory, he could be playing again within a matter of weeks. Nobody should think for a moment that Mason Greenwood is unemployable. He just needs to find a club that will place more importance on his ability to score goals than the damage, reputation-wise, of hiring a player who comes with so much negativity surrounding him.

    Manchester United will move on, too. Another story will come along to change the news agenda. Greenwood will be talked about in the past tense and, over time, hopefully the spin doctors and boardroom executives at Old Trafford will come to understand why so many supporters are as angry with the club as they are with the player.

    But maybe there are wider points to consider, too, when the rest of English football stops rubbernecking in the direction of a club that fully intended to bring back Greenwood before realising they had misjudged how it would have been received.

    One point of interest throughout the entire Greenwood story is that we have not heard anything from the English Football Association or the Premier League. Both organisations have preferred to leave the decision-making process to United and watch from a distance.

    Greenwood’s Manchester United career is now over (Cameron Smith/Getty Images)

    Yet nobody could think United approached this case with anything remotely close to independence. How could they? Greenwood is not just an ordinary employee. He is a multi-million-pound footballer, a product of the club’s academy and a superstar in the making who, in the eyes of manager Erik ten Hag and others, would dramatically improve the team’s chances of success.

    It is no wonder Richard Arnold, United’s chief executive, is being accused of blurred priorities when, as Gary Neville has pointed out, the investigation was flawed from the start. “On an issue like domestic abuse, on violence against women, there needs to be independence,” said Neville. “It shouldn’t be that Manchester United are the judge and jury on such a significant issue. Not just for themselves, but also for the game. People talk about the reputation of Manchester United, but it’s the Premier League here as well.”

    In the U.S. it would never happen this way. The league, or governing body, would intervene. There are systems in place to ensure that, in cases of this nature, the people at the top of the sport would hold an investigation of their own.

    Just consider the case of Trevor Bauer, who was released by the Los Angeles Dodgers at the start of the year after being suspended for 194 games, the equivalent of just over a season, by Major League Baseball (MLB).

    Bauer was removed from the team in July 2021 after a San Diego woman accused the pitcher of sexual assault, with the Washington Post later reporting that two other women had previously made similar allegations against him. He was originally suspended by MLB for 324 games (the equivalent of two seasons) before taking it to appeal and successfully arguing for a reduction. Bauer, who was signed to a three-year, $102million (£80.1m) deal, lost $37.5million in wages as part of his suspension. His punishment is the longest ever dished out by MLB, which has an agreement in place with the Major League Baseball Players’ Association for what is known as the Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Policy.

    Other U.S. pro sports operate a similar policy and have strict rules that they must be informed, as a priority, if an allegation is made against a player. Any club that does not follow these instructions can face sanctions, as happened when Portland Timbers did not disclose to Major League Soccer (MLS) that midfielder Andy Polo had been accused of domestic abuse.

    Even though an independent panel concluded it was “a lack of understanding of the MLS Constitution, rather than an intent to conceal the incident”, Portland were fined $25,000.

    As for Polo, he denied the claims and was never charged by a court but was handed a punishment that can make English football seem lenient in comparison. “Upon learning of the domestic violence allegations against Andy Polo, Major League Soccer and the Portland Timbers determined that his conduct did not represent the values of the league or club and promptly terminated Mr Polo’s playing contract,” read an MLS statement.

    Andy Polo, once of Portland Timbers, was accused of domestic abuse (Soobum Im/USA TODAY Sports via Getty Images)

    The NFL has been rocked by several high-profile cases, such as DeShaun Watson, then of the Houston Texans, being accused of sexual assaults and misconduct involving more than 20 massage therapists. Watson, now of the Cleveland Browns, has settled 20 lawsuits but denies any wrongdoing. The league suspended him for 11 matches and fined him $5million, the largest financial punishment ever imposed by the league on a player.

    Baseball has experienced other issues with alleged player misbehaviour, most recently the allegations that Wander Franco of the Tampa Bay Rays had engaged in an inappropriate relationship with an underage girl. Franco, who denies the allegations, was placed on the “restricted list” (meaning he cannot play) and is now on administrative leave while the MLB opens its investigation.

    The system is not flawless but the relevant bodies can seem much more committed than their English counterparts when it comes to tackling these issues through public statements, deterrent punishments and player education. The disciplinary action is, on the whole, stricter and more immediate.

    “Major League Baseball and its clubs are proud to adopt a comprehensive policy that reflects the gravity and the sensitivities of these significant societal issues,” Rob Manfred, the MLB commissioner, said in a statement, introducing the new policy in 2015. “We believe that these efforts will foster not only an approach of education and prevention but also a united stance against these matters throughout our sport and our communities.”

    The issue here is whether there is anything English football can learn at a time when one Premier League player, who cannot be named for legal reasons, has been turning out every week despite being investigated by the police over allegations of rape.

    That could never happen if the FA operated with a policy similar to the U.S. system. Manchester City could not have continued playing Benjamin Mendy while he was on police bail over alleged rapes and sexual assaults (Mendy was acquitted at two subsequent trials).

    Others would have been affected, too, when it is just a fact 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.

    In Greenwood’s case, his behaviour should remind us all that being a great footballer is not the same as being a great football man. The striker pleaded not guilty to charges of attempted rape, assault and controlling and coercive behaviour, and was spared a trial after a key witness, presumably the alleged victim, decided they no longer wanted to give evidence. But he has shown that he is a great footballer and that, it seems, was always in United’s thinking given the widely held suspicion that if it was some average Joe from the reserves, that player would have been moved out in a flash.

    “My view is that, on issues of this importance and severity, they should be dealt with independently by a panel,” said Neville. “It has been clear that Manchester United have not had the skill and ability to deal with this situation properly. It has been well above their grade of experience and ability.”

    Maybe the relevant people at Old Trafford will realise in time how it looks for Arnold to admit the club had only partial evidence, as well as “limited powers of investigation”, in a series of statements that simultaneously championed Greenwood’s innocence and, worst of all, strayed dangerously close to identifying someone, rightly or wrongly, as the alleged victim, who has lifelong anonymity.

    Maybe it could be pointed out to United that anybody with even a vague understanding of domestic abuse cases might think twice about highlighting it as a plus for Greenwood that the girl in question decided, in the end, she did not want to go through with the case.

    The FA’s stance is that, under its own disciplinary processes, it would not be straightforward taking action against a player for non-football issues if the police had not charged that person or if the case had never come to court.

    Maybe there should also be a grown-up debate about whether the FA ought to be more involved, as the organisation that normally handles the sport’s disciplinary matters. The FA’s stance is that it is willing to take action if a player commits an act of discrimination in a non-football context, such as a racist social media post. But the FA does not get involved when it comes to other incidents away from the sport – drink-driving, for example – and there are no plans to change that stance. Where the line is regarding these different incidents can seem confusing from the outside.

    It is a complex, polarising issue and perhaps it would not be such a talking point if United had not lost so much credibility by flip-flopping from one position to another before deciding that Greenwood should continue his career elsewhere. Instead, the club’s handling of the case has shown that perhaps a higher authority needs to step in. It would require a change in FA policies. But it has to be worth a discussion, at the very least, because there are lessons here for the whole of football, not just the club that Greenwood will soon know as his former employers.

    (Top photos: Nick Cammett, Gareth Copley and Rob Leiter/Getty Images)



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