For Sheffield United Football Club, the timing couldn’t have been much worse. This weekend is a weekend of international football and, since nature abhors a vacuum, there have been plenty of column inches to fill in the sports sections of newspaper wesbites which which might not otherwise have been looking for a story. Yet it doesn’t seem unreasonable to state that, in view of what we know about the ongoing rumblings over the readmittance of convicted rapist Ched Evans into football society, this is a position into which the club has cast itself voluntarily. It was under no obligation to offer this player the opportunity to train with the first team but it has done nevertheless, and this decision has come set against the background of a debate has become more about heat than about light.
In such cases, it is usually instructive to refer back to the story which makes up the background of the story. The Sheffield United striker Ched Evans was recently released from prison on licence after having served half of a five year sentence for rape. The player has strongly denied his guilt in this matter, has flatly refused to issue any sort of repentance for what the law has adjudged him to have done, and has set up a website protesting his innocence. In the meantime, a group of people has come to close ranks around the player, protesting his innocence against the charges for which he was convicted. Certain individuals associated with this campaign have, however, acted in a way that does his campaign for justice no good whatsoever. The victim of the attack – and, since the criminal conviction remains in his name, there seems little point in using the word “allegedly ” here – has twice been identified and forced to move house because of this whilst, after the Olympic star Jessica Ennis-Hill stated that she would want her name to be removed from a stand at Bramall Lane which bears her name should the club re-sign Evans, she received abusive messages including a rape threat.
Evans himself, meanwhile, has not yet even publicly distanced himself from the worst excesses of some of his supporters, and has come in for considerable criticism for not doing so. Yet the question of why he hasn’t sought to find some sort of atonement for what he is adjudged by the law to have done is a nuanced one. After all, if he really, truly feels that he has done so wrong, then it may be seen as perfectly reasonable that he should not have one so. Having said that, however, the question of why he hasn’t spoken out more stridently against rape in a general sense without discussing his side of the story in this case remains a very real one and, similarly, an interest in addressing the fact that his behaviour – having sex with someone who was either barely conscious or not conscious at all is obviously problematic for many people – does not speak volumes for the quality of advice that he is receiving at the moment. A sizeable number of people – including the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the appeals board, who denied him the leave to appeal – all believed that what Ched Evans did that night, by this country’s legal definitions constituted an act of rape.
The other question on this subject that seems to be busying many minds at the moment is that of whether Evans should be allowed to resume his career at Sheffield United. After all, his supporters argue, he has served the time required of him – shouldn’t he now be allowed to pick up his playing career? The answer to this is that Evans hasn’t yet served the whole of his sentence. He was sentenced to five years in prison, and was released on licence having completed half of that sentence. This is not, by any legal definition, a “spent” conviction, although it is worth pointing out that a convict in this position does not have to even pay lip service to the concept of rehabilitation to qualify for this. And whilst those who support Evans might disagree with this, this player’s criminal (recent) past means that former employers are not compelled to re-hire him. Football clubs make a great play of their roles within communitites when it suits them to do so. Unfortunately, however, such a role means that professional footballers don’t exist in a bubble, hermetically sealed from society in a broader sense. The idea that footballers should be considered “role models” may be one that doesn’t make a great deal of logical sense, but it’s considered to be a truth by a good number of people. Unfortunately for Ched Evans, this perception doesn’t help his position.
All of this leads us inevitably to the matter of professional football’s overinflated importance within society. Few would argue that Ched Evans shouldn’t be allowed to earn a living for the remainder of his life, so the question of whether he should be allowed to do so in professional football or not probably hinges on this implied importance. And the truth of the matter is that being a professional footballer is very much more than “earning a living,” a fact best reflected in the level of wages paid to those fortunate enough to have the right skillset to be able to do it. Professional football is a high stakes game in many different respects in the twenty-first century and the publicity that comes with it is one of its attendant costs. It also, however, comes at potentially great reward and, whilst Evans obviously has the right to re-enter into society, to assume that he has the automatic right to carry on doing exactly what he was doing before is a subtly different question, especially when we consider that he also remains on the Sex Offenders Register indefinitely, or until somebody in a position to do so agrees that his name should be removed from it.
It should also go without saying that the issue of “rights” is, perhaps, not one that a convicted rapist should the pursuing too closely. Few people have talked too loudly about the “rights ” of the victim in this case, after all, and the stories of the harrassment that she has received indicate that she remains very much the victim of this story. Anybody who wishes to can argue the semantics of what does and doesn’t constitute sexual consent until long into the night, but the majority of both sides of this debate surely understand that harrassment and intimidation of the victim – and, indeed, against anybody else who expresses their disquiet over Evans in any way, especially if they’re female – is deplorable behaviour, against which whataboutery is a most feeble counter-defence.
Sheffield United Football Club, meanwhile, is currently having its good name dragged well and truly through the mud at the moment. In addtion to the Jessica Ennis-Hill disgrace, the television presenter Charlie Webster has already resigned as a patron of the club live on BBC2’s Newsnight, while heat under the feet of the club was also turned up by MP Paul Blomfeld, who wrote an open letter to the club which concluded that, “The way this issue has been handled by the Club is dragging our name through the mud and dividing fans. Yesterday’s decision only makes that situation worse. I really hope that you will reflect further and change your mind.” It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that Sheffield United, who were initially, of course, blameless in this story, have dragged themselves towards the centre of it by not acting decisively over the matter.
Meanwhile, Allowing Evans to train with the first team has been interpreted by many as sending out a message that the club would re-sign the player if they thought they could get away with it, whilst use of the phrase ‘mob justice’ in an official club statement released last week fell somewhere between careless and ill-thought out. Regardless of any considerations of the rights or wrongs of the legalities of the case, Sheffield United Football Club would surely have been better served by distancing themselves from Evans upon his release. They have no obligation to assist the player, allow him to train with them, or do anything else, and the issue of his protestations of innocence is an irrelevance in this case because, as a society, we have little option but to consider individuals as guilty of the crimes of which they were convicted unless subsequently exonerated by the same legal process. We, as society, have no choice.
Ultimately, the supporters of Ched Evans in this case cannot have it both ways. They cannot argue that this is a spent case and that their man has “done his crime and served his time” whilst the harrassment the victim in this case – and of others who have spoken out against him continues. Victim-blaming has added no credibility to the case of Evans, those who support him, or even those who might have offered him rehabilitation as a professional footballer, whilst the lingering doubt also remains that precisely the culture of arrogance and entitlement that led this particular player to be having sex behind the back of his girlfriend with a young woman who was either barely concious or unconcious still remains unaddressed by its governing bodies or by at least a significant proportion of its supporters. And for Ched Evans, his supporters, and perhaps even Sheffield United FC, the fact of the matter is that it is probably now too late for the sort penance that many people would believe to be genuine. Only a not guilty verdict after a retrial will clear his name now, and that feels like it is a long way off, right now.
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