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England's FA prioritized publicity over players throughout Mark Sampson scandal

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You’d think, by this point, England’s Football Association would have run out of ways to sack its managers and embarrass itself in the process. But one should never underestimate football’s finest collection of stuffed suits. Mark Sampson, former manager of England’s women’s team, is gone thanks to an investigation that concluded some 30 months ago. It’s just that nobody important had thought to read the report until this week.

We don’t know precisely what was in the report. All we know is that it relates to a question of “safeguarding,” and that while Sampson was found to have done nothing illegal, the FA has belatedly noticed that he might well have done plenty that was “inappropriate and unacceptable.”

Those allegations relate back to Sampson’s time at Bristol City when he was in charge of first academy and then senior women’s teams, and according to FA chief executive Martin Glenn, concerned “inappropriate behaviour and a crossing of the boundary between coach and players.” Sampson received training, and the matter was closed ...

... until the FA was prompted to revisit it by an entirely different complaint.

We have the details of this one: Eniola Aluko, who has scored 33 goals in 102 appearances for England, alleged that Sampson had made inappropriate comments to her and to another player of colour about, respectively, the Ebola crisis in Africa and a supposed criminal record. This too was investigated, twice, first internally and then independently. That second investigation, which initially exonerated Sampson and failed to identify the other player, has now been reopened.

Meanwhile Aluko, who’d thought she was complaining anonymously, was dropped from the England squad for the half-ridiculous, half-chilling offence of “un-Lioness behaviour,” and given £80,000 by the FA. This, to be clear, was certainly not hush money, and the fact that it will not now be paid is entirely coincidental.

There are, perhaps, two things we can take from this ongoing mess. The first is that here is yet another illustration of how a man in a position of power can, with the indulgence and permission of those above him, attempt to ride out allegations of impropriety, discrimination, and abuse of power, particularly, you suspect, when those on the other end are young women, women over whom he holds power, and women of colour.

All he needs is those above him to bring their bureaucratic arsenal to bear — to obfuscate, minimise, quash, muddle, and ultimately pay their way out of the matter. To prioritise peace and quiet over probity and questioning. Just as well, really, that Aluko decided to kick back publicly and the Guardian took up her case. Otherwise the FA’s senior people might never have suddenly thought to themselves, “Hang on; where did we put that other report?”

Crystal Palace v Hull City - Premier League Photo by Steve Bardens/Getty Images

The timing of that last decision brings us to the second point, which concerns the nature of the FA. After all, Sampson is the second manager whom England has lost in 12 months. The first, Sam Allardyce, left after saying nothing much at all of any great import or scandal. But he said what he said unwisely, over a pint of wine, and in front of a hidden camera. He then ended up on the front pages and out of a job.

The common thread here is one of priorities. Allardyce made the Football Association look foolish, so he had to go. Sampson, by contrast, was merely the subject of repeated complaints and investigations before and during his time with England, relating to his guardianship of young players and to racist comments, at least one of which ended in a report that apparently made him unemployable. Yet on he went, managing away, until he became the story. Then he had to go. At all times, the question seems to be: What will be the least disruptive course for the FA?

This is, of course, a profoundly dispiriting culture for any organisation. But the FA, as the governing body of the nation’s most popular sport, has a particular responsibility when it comes to matters of guardianship and of culture. Young footballers are in the care of their coaches; adult footballers’ careers depend on their managers. Both need to know that their governing body is assiduous and proactive in ensuring their safety, rather than simply working to ensure their silence. And when it comes to women’s football, the nation needs to know this FA is different than the one that banned women from its pitches in 1921.

Glenn, the incumbent chief executive, has received the backing of the FA’s board, which is “confident” that a Sampson-like situation could not arise again. But the fact remains that this is now an organisation which sacked one man for making the FA look bad, then totally failed to sack another, despite its own reports and responsibilities, until he started to make the FA look bad. Ultimately, it’s the FA’s actions that amount to the worst possible look.