Personal relationships between players and coaches in women’s soccer have been described as “inappropriate” as they create a “power imbalance” and can lead to “potential abuse of players”.
But they still exist at many clubs in the top two leagues in England and several sources have told BBC Sport that everyone in women’s football knows at least one.
So why are they so common and should they be allowed?
It’s a taboo topic that has contributed to The resignation of Mark Sampson as manager of England in 2017 and still covers board members, coaches and players of the Women’s Super League club with whom BBC Sport has spoken.
And it’s an issue that has been debated again after the recent scandal in the US NWSL, where England coach Paul Riley fired from his job at North Carolina Courage after allegations of sexual misconduct with two players, which he denies.
One of those players — Mana Shim, who was coached by Riley at Portland Thorns — said seven of the eight male coaches she worked with had personal relationships with players, and one of the four female coaches.
“There is a power imbalance that makes any sexual or romantic relationship inappropriate,” she added. “Why is this our norm?”
Similar questions were raised after Sampson lost his job after “inappropriate and unacceptable behavior” with players in his role at Bristol Academy.
But because player-coach relationships are not illegal, as long as they don’t involve minors, they are still allowed to take place, although they can violate codes of conduct.
It leads to a lot of gray areas — not helped by a perceived culture of silence in the game, because so many have had first- or second-hand experience with such personal relationships.
That is why there are calls from players, coaches and unions for further training on a very sensitive subject.
How common are player-coach relationships?
“You can’t help who you fall in love with” was a phrase used on several occasions in the course of the BBC Sport investigation – hinting at the acceptance of player-coach relationships in women’s football, and how they often fail in a team.
It’s worth remembering that the WSL only turned professional in 2011, and football, like many other sports, offers a great opportunity for amateur players to socialize. Same-sex relationships are also common in the game.
FA director of women’s football Sue Campbell declined to be interviewed for this article, but said in 2018 that she viewed personal relationships between player and coach as “a concern” – and it’s a view shared by many in the game – some of whom have spoken anonymously to BBC Sport.
That anonymity reflects the desire not to expose friends or coaches. There are players and coaches who have had this kind of relationship who are still playing and working at the top of the English game.
Still, several sources have questioned whether they are still appropriate, claiming that engaged coaches may exhibit an “unconscious bias” when it comes to team selection.
Another source said it was “hard to control” relationships between players and coaches in women’s football, especially when there was a lot of social interaction outside of the team environment.
But there are signs that attitudes to player wellbeing are changing, perhaps as a result of growing professionalism in the game.
Codes of conduct between players and managers are a requirement for WSL licensed clubs, and each club must have a safety officer.
A board member also told BBC Sport they would “seriously consider” hiring someone who had an existing relationship with a player because of the “potential for disruption”.
And a number of executives said they “strongly encouraged” staff not to pursue romantic relationships. Others say it should be seen as a “no-go” area, but it still happens.
Why does it matter?
Former Everton, Bristol Academy and Leeds defender Alex Culvin now works in player relations with the global trade union Fifpro and has written a PhD on the wellbeing of players in women’s football.
She told BBC Sport that the protection of players in England and other countries could be improved.
“You play professional sports from a young age and you become impressionable,” she said. “Power dynamics are very clear and the exploitation of those power dynamics can and will happen.
“A lot of it is about unconscious bias or subtle manipulation of players or power dynamics, and the control and abuse of players.
“In a player-coach relationship, this doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be sexual or even physical. In many cases, it can be emotional or even have the recognition to say, ‘I don’t feel comfortable with that.’ ‘
“I’m not in a position to tell anyone who they can and cannot fall in love with. But what there should be are very clear frameworks and guidelines on what constitutes offense, what is overshoot. That should be by a player led.
“I think at the moment there is a lack of clarity about what is ‘OK’ and that will vary from club to club, culture to culture, player to player and even club to club. If we can get some commonality about global governance, and a better understanding based fundamentally on education, will give players a better recognition of what is acceptable.”
The FA told BBC Sport that “relationships between coaches and adult players are generally not advised due to the potential for power imbalances and the impact on team culture and dynamics”.
It added: “These are mostly matters that clubs have to regulate through codes of conduct and expected standards of conduct.”
While most players would notice serious violations, Culvin says there are still “micro-aggressions,” hence the call for clearer guidelines and more education. Culvin says this is on FifPro’s agenda.
Why does a culture of silence persist?
In the wake of the NWSL scandal, more allegations of sexual harassment in women’s football emerged over the world.
This follows a recent pattern in other sports, such as gymnastics and swimming, where women have come forward to talk about recent or historical abuse by male coaches.
But a similar #metoo moment has never happened in English football.
Culvin says he is not surprised if players have chosen to remain silent about past experiences, whether that be abuse or the consequences of a personal relationship between player and coach.
She added: “We have to understand that the livelihood of the players is at stake. We cannot expect players to risk their careers and talk about micro-aggressions if the procedures and frameworks are not in place, and there is no safety net for them.” .”
Other sources have told BBC Sport that people are not willing to take a hard line on this issue, or act as whistleblowers, to protect themselves.
“Those in positions of power are afraid to implement rules because of their own skeletons,” said a source. Another said many people are “looking over their shoulders” following the recent accusations in the US.
The FA told BBC Sport it “encourages any player who has experienced or has experienced misconduct or abuse to come forward and report their concerns”, but realized how challenging this can be.
The governing body did not provide figures on how often its security procedures were used, except to say there was a “regular stream of referrals” that remain confidential.
It added: “The FA is fully investigating concerns about security and misconduct and is taking all matters seriously.”
What should happen next?
As it stands, clubs are encouraged to communicate codes of conduct to players. It is up to the clubs themselves to determine the conditions and to check whether they are complied with.
But several sources have told BBC Sport that there is inconsistency in the two top tiers of English women’s football, related to whether a club is closely linked to its men’s team.
The FA has insisted it is working to help coaches “better understand boundaries”, including “where the line is drawn for chatter”, and has made it necessary for coaches to undergo safety training every two years, a change from every three years before.
It also says it will “review” codes of conduct ahead of the 2022-23 season, as it does every campaign, has “worked closely” with the PFA to ensure players in the WSL and Championship were “reminded of the routes to concerns” ” and has developed anonymous player surveys.
The FA added: “There is always more work to be done to support a player-centric culture in sports and football and we will continue to promote this message at every level of the game.”
Culvin said there are still questions about whether lessons have been learned from Sampson’s firing and that the FA and other federations need to be more transparent with their whistleblowing procedures and player support.
“The stories are still emerging. A safe environment is paramount,” she added. “Our voices need to be heard and centralized during the conversation.
“Whether people have learned from the situation with Mark Sampson remains to be seen.
“It doesn’t just mean developing and presenting a policy. The difficulty is actually implementing it as part of a culture shift. Have they set up a system where players feel really safe to come out and talk about issues that have arisen ?
“What the NWSL did was forward-thinking. Last year the players said they needed measures for a safe and healthy work environment, the league acted on that and then released their policies.
“So I think it will be fruitful for the FA to publish documents similar to those of the NWSL to give an indication that they are taking this seriously. Maybe they already exist? as the NWSL did.
“There is definitely a long way to go to protect the interests of players, not just at the FA in England, but around the world.”
Additional reporting by Katie Gornall