If you’ve spent any time on Twitter over the last few days, or happened upon the British press, you’ll undoubtedly have come across the name Ched Evans. Evans is a professional footballer who, in April 2012, was convicted of rape for having sex with a 19-year-old girl judged to be too drunk to give consent. He was sentenced to five years in prison, but last October was released on license after two-and-a-half years.
While Evans’ conviction certainly made the headlines, it’s his attempted return to football that has really driven debate over the last few weeks. When news broke that Sheffield United – Evans’ former club – had invited him to train with their first team, 100,000 people signed a petition condemning the club’s decision, shirt sponsors threatened to terminate their contracts, while Olympic Gold medalist Jessica Ennis demanded her name be removed from a stand at Bramall Lane should Evans continue to be associated with the club. United duly asked him to leave.
Evans met a similar reaction when, earlier this week, Oldham Athletic announced they were “80% likely” to sign the former Wales striker. Following “enormous pressure from sponsors” and threats against the club’s “staff and families,” they subsequently reversed that decision.
The strength of public reaction to Evans’ attempt to resurrect his career has raised a simple yet deeply complex question: should a convicted rapist be able to return to professional football? Sheffield United’s American co-chairman Jim Phipps has likened the public’s reaction to-date to “mob-rule behavior” and said his own club’s decision was “a defeat for the principle that punishment under the justice system should be left to those that are authorised by law.” Hull City manager Steve Bruce has expressed his sympathy for Evans’ situation, while QPR manager Harry Redknapp said in his Friday pre-match press conference that "he's got to work, whether it's football or somewhere, he can't just not be allowed to carry on with his life."
When considered purely within the strictures of the law, which says Evans is free to take up employment within the UK having been released from jail, you might concede that Phipps et al have a point. After all, Evans wouldn’t be the first footballer to return to his profession following a serious custodial sentence. In 2004, Lee Hughes was jailed for killing a man by dangerous driving and fleeing the scene; shortly after his release, he joined Oldham Athletic. In 2008 Plymouth Argyle goalkeeper Luke McCormick was sentenced to 7 years in prison for killing two children in a car crash when driving under the influence; five years later he was playing professional football once more with Oxford United, and is now back between the posts again for Plymouth.
So what is it about Evans’ conviction that has caused the furor which was less evident in the two above-mentioned, no less heinous cases?
For one, there is a far clearer connection within the public’s mind between rape and the influence and attention a footballer commands. The sexual proclivities of footballers are rarely far from the tabloids’ pages, and that narrative quite naturally portrays Evans as a man who has abused the privileged position he held for sexual gratification.
However, much more importantly, Ched Evans had shown little contrition for his alleged actions. He has never apologized directly to his victim, only for "the effects that night in Rhyl has had," and then only after his prospective move to Oldham had collapsed. His personal website continues to shout loud and clear that “Ched Evans was wrongly convicted of rape.” When you’re a public figure, such a lack of remorse has ramifications: supporters of Evans have named his victim on social media (a criminal offense), vilified her on Twitter using the callous hashtag #SHESAIDYES, and forced her to both change her identity and move house five times since 2012 due to harassment.
Whether they like it or not, professional footballers are role models; with their fame and money comes the responsibility to behave in a manner befitting the influence and sway they hold. If Ched Evans committed rape, as his conviction says he did, he smashed that responsibility into a thousand pieces. By failing to show contrition for his actions, he’s ground it into dust.
Should a convicted rapist be allowed to play professional football again? If they show remorse, engage in a process of rehabilitation and seek to use their position of influence to turn their heinous act into a constructive public message of respect for women and the condemnation of sexual abuse, then arguably they should.
Should Ched Evans be allowed to play professional football again? As things stand: no. While from a legal perspective there is nothing to say he shouldn’t, life in the public glare isn’t so clear-cut. Football clubs have a moral responsibility to represent and support their local communities; to project an image wholly above reproach; to have role models worthy of the name.
In the meantime, Evans continues to fight his conviction and will take his case to the Court of Appeal which, even if he should win an overturn of his conviction, will mean that the striker will have spent 4 years away from the game.
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