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Having been around or about the League One automatic promotion places for much of the season, the last few days have suddenly become rather uncomfortable for Sheffield United. A single goal defeat in Milton Keynes at the weekend coupled with a home win for local and promotion rivals Sheffield Wednesday cut the gap between second and third place in the table to a single point with just two games left to play, but even this precarious state of affairs is now threatening to be overshadowed by events off the pitch. 

Sheffield United striker Ched Evans had been having a good season on the pitch for his team this season having scored thirty-five goals for his club, but events away from it have rendered them something of an irrelevance. Evans was imprisoned for five years at the end of last week for the rape of a nineteen year old woman in a hotel in North Wales last year. The victim had, according to testimony heard, been too drunk to give consent to sex, and Evans’ jail sentence was awarded as another player, Clayton McDonald of Port Vale, was acquitted of the same offence.

The verdict awarded against Evans seems to have split the Blades’ fan base, with a schism having appeared between those who feel that the judgement must be adhered to and those who feel that a miscarriage of justice has been committed. The Twitter hash-tag “#JusticeForChed” began appearing over the weekend. It is not the place of this site to comment upon the intricacies of a criminal case about which we simply do not know the full story and possibly never will, but this reaction – and the way in which it manifested itself – certainly does warrant comment.

It did not take very long before the name of the victim of Evans’ crime was being openly circulated, in clear breach of the anonymity orders awarded in favour of the victims of sexual offences, along with a number of other messages implying that this particular rape victime somehow deserved her fate that night. It would be unsurprising to see a string of arrests regarding this over the course of the next few days or so. Just as appallingly, a relatively large number of people seem to have decided that not only is Evans innocent of the crime that he has been convicted, but also that the victim of this crime’s character should be assassinated by an online kangaroo court of individuals that have picked up on a couple of rumours and added two plus two to make an astronomically high number.

Getting involved in speculation about the rights or wrongs of the verdict reached by the jury is not something that we are going to do with regard to this case. As much as we can say on this matter is that an individual has been found guilty by a jury of his peers, based upon the evidence heard. Due legal process makes provision for Evans to be able to appeal the verdict of the court, and we will have to wait and see whether he decides to go through with this. In legal terms, however, much as we have to presume somebody to be innocent until guilty prior to a trial, after it we can only reasonably consider the pendulum to have swung in the opposite direction – in other words, Evans now has to be considered guilty until he proves his innocence.

Laws surrounding the anonymity of the victims of sexual crimes, however, are a different matter. Such laws are in place for good reasons , and those that have sought to implicate the victim in this case – whether they understand the gravity of breaching such orders or not – may well find out how seriously they are enforced the hard way. In the case of the Swansea University student Liam Stacey, who was imprisoned for eight weeks for tweets sent in the aftermath of Fabrice Muamba’s collapse during the match between Tottenham Hotspur and Bolton Wanderers, the judge that sentenced Stacey made it clear that he was seeking to send out a message to those seemingly of the opinion that social media is a place where the rule of law doesn’t apply that this isn’t the case.

We don’t know at this stage how many of those that have been distributing their poison on this subject over the last day or two using the likes of Facebook and Twitter are Sheffield United supporters, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to guess that at least a proportion of them are, and this situation is now putting the club in an unenviable position. It is duty-bound to support any player that finds himself in this position until the jury has reached its verdict, but the question of what the club should do now is not easily answered. Evans is out of contract in the summer so, even if he has the grounds to appeal that might end in him being found not guilty in the fullness of time, will the club chance its arm and offer him an extension when it is unlikely that any appeal will have been seen through to its conclusion by the time he becomes, in football terms at least, a free agent?

In pure footballing terms, after all, Evans could be a valuable asset, having scored thirty-five goals for the team this season. This, however, has to be weighed up against the moral aspect of offering a lucrative contract to somebody who is a convicted rapist at the time of writing. Ultimately, the question of if or when the club might choose to wash their hands of him is one that only the club can answer itself. The damage to the club may also be seen in other, less obviously tangible ways. We may never be able to definitively determine the extent to which the news of this conviction disrupted the team’s preparations for last weekend’s match, but we know for sure that this match, a win from which would have made automatic promotion a near certainty, was lost and that this is the worst possible time for any distractions to come about.

It would be absurd to blame the club itself for the situation in which it finds itself today regarding this subject or to identify all supporters of Sheffield United FC as seeking to trivialise the seriousness of the original offence, tar the name of its victim or otherwise consider the tribalism of football support to be more important than the original offence that was brought before the court. Indeed, many Blades supporters have written very eloquently on forums and elsewhere of the unease that this entire situation has left them in. We should also pause for a moment to consider Evans’ girlfriend and family, further collateral victims of his behaviour that night. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the legal aspects of this case, they have also been publicly shamed by someone that they should have been able to trust.

Those that would seek to debase and attempt to discredit the victim of such a serious crime as rape would do well to remember in identifying her they are, regardless of the merits or otherwise of this case, breaking the law and possibly even doing Evans’ case for an appeal more harm than good. After all, what chance is there of a fair retrial if this sort of response to the conviction continues? Moreover, this misguided behaviour only seems likely to damage the reputation of the club itself to a far greater extent than the original verdict ever would. Hearsay and innuendo have no basis in law, but solid facts do and the only solid fact of this case that matters at present is that this player was found guilty by a jury of his peers of a serious criminal offence. It is an experience that some of those that have been expressing their swivel-eyed outrage on the internet over the last couple of days might well get to experience themselves over the next few days or weeks.

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