Published on January 15th, 2015 |
by Jonathan Andrew
Image © Sheffield United's Ched Evans celebrates scoring the opening goal during the npower Football League One match at Bramall Lane, Sheffield. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Saturday March 17, 2012. See PA story SOCCER Sheff Utd. Photo credit should read: Nick Potts/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: Editorial use only. Maximum 45 images during a match. No video emulation or promotion as 'live'. No use in games, competitions, merchandise, betting or single club/player services. No use with unofficial audio, video, data, fixtures or club/league logos.
What the Ched Evans saga says about our society
The case of Ched Evans has become one of the biggest public sagas football has seen in a long time. In recent weeks everyone from politicians and journalists, to sports pundits and even managers, have been keen to have their say on whether he should be given the chance to return to football. Evans was a promising talent who had represented his country on thirty occasions, at Under-19, Under-21 and full international level. He was a fan favourite at Sheffield United, and many touted him as a hot prospect for the future.
This all changed however, in April 2012, when the striker was handed a five year jail sentence for raping a 19 year old woman in a hotel in Rhyl, Wales. The jury found that Evans had taken advantage of a vulnerable woman with no regard for her well-being, and his appeal to the High Court was unsuccessful. Evans served two and half years behind bars before being released on license in October 2014, desperate to get back to playing football.
However, it soon became apparent that this was not going to be as straightforward as he had undoubtedly hoped. Sheffield United, after initially indicating that they were looking into allowing Evans to train with them, changed their mind amidst pressure from fans and sponsors, and did not go ahead with the deal. More recently, Oldham Athletic opened discussions over a contract with Evans, only to also pull out at the last minute. While some fans have argued that he deserves a second chance, opposition to his re-joining the football league has been so vocal and fierce that it seems to have crushed any chance Evans had of returning to the sport, at least for the near future.
Some might celebrate this outcome. Football fans, a community too often written off as mindless and impressionable, have made a moral stand against a man who has been convicted of a heinous crime. That’s good, right? I am not so sure. I think that the fierce opposition to Evans returning to football says more about society’s harmful attitude towards criminals than it does about any genuine moral righteousness. Let me be absolutely clear. The crime that Evans committed was disgusting, and his seeming lack of remorse for his actions makes him come across an even more dubious character. But what good will come from refusing to ever let him play football again? We as a people need to embrace the idea that criminals, once they have served their time, should be able to return to society with the same opportunities to work and contribute as everybody else.
Of course, there are cases when this is not possible. A convicted paedophile should not be able to work in a school, a convicted fraudster should not be able to work in a financial role, and I would certainly be outraged if Evans was trying to work as a primary school teacher, or a councillor for victims of violent crime. But football does not fall into these categories. Evans would not be in a position of trust, he would not be working closely with vulnerable people, and he would not be giving advice on good behaviour. He would simply be playing sport.
So on what grounds can one legitimately argue against his return to football? The most common argument has concerned the position of footballers as role models for their communities. Footballers perform in front of thousands of fans, who cheer them on and chant their names. And it is understandable that the idea of fans cheering for someone like Ched Evans makes some people feel instinctively uncomfortable. However, it is important to recognize that chanting for someone in a game situation is not the same thing as condoning the off-the-pitch actions of that player. Chelsea fans do not support extra-marital affairs just because they cheer on John Terry. Liverpool fans are not racist because they cheered on Luis Suarez. Footballers have been setting poor moral examples for years. They have never been seen by fans as real life role models.
But, you might say, Ched Evans is a whole different animal to Terry or Suarez. What he did was criminal. He committed a violent crime. Well, even that is not unprecedented. In 2010, Wigan Athletic footballer Marlon King was sentenced to 18 months in jail for sexual assault and causing actual bodily harm, for an incident in a Soho nightclub which left his 20 year old female victim with a broken nose. This was not the first time King had been in serious trouble with the law. However, upon release from prison, King played for Coventry City, Birmingham City, and Sheffield United, before being released in 2013 due to injury. Furthermore, footballer Lee Hughes received a six year jail sentence in 2003 for a dangerous driving incident which killed two people. Upon release, he too returned to football, and played for many more years. If it is such a problem for Evans to play football again, why wasn’t it a problem for King or for Hughes? Football needs to approach these issues with logic and consistency, and not be swayed by the will of a baying angry mob.
It is not fashionable to be anti-rehabilitation. Most liberal minded people claim to want a world where criminals can fully return to society and be given a second chance once they have served their time. However, when it comes to putting the theory into practice, it seems that in this case the will for a rehabilitative society has been trumped by an instinctive reaction of disgust towards Evans and the urge to stop him from being able to earn thousands of pounds a week playing football. Well, we should feel free to be disgusted by Evans, but the biggest test for a liberal society is not how it treats its angels, but how it treats the people it is disgusted by. Accepting Evans back into football would be a positive sign for our liberal democracy.