Ched Evans once played soccer for Manchester City but now plies his trade two levels below England’s Premier League, far away from the world-famous teams and superstars. Evans is not a superstar; he is barely an average player. Few would care about him but for the fact that he is also a convicted rapist.
In 2012, Evans was sentenced to five years in prison on the grounds that a woman he picked up from a kebab shop was too drunk to consent. He was released late last year and has set about resuming his career.
His attempts to return to the sport have shone a harsh light on English soccer’s approach to behavior on and off the pitch, and a failure to understand the responsibility that comes with being in the spotlight of the world’s most popular sport. Should Evans be treated differently from other criminals because he plays a high-profile sport? Should people be banned on the pitch for what they have done off it?
On vs. off the pitch
After Evans was released, his former club, Sheffield United, initially allowed him to train with them. That decision was called off after sponsors threatened to leave the club and more than 170,000 people signed a petition against his return. Another small club, Oldham, tried to sign him—only for that move to be called off too after a director’s daughter was threatened with rape if the club signed Evans, and because of ”enormous pressure from sponsors.”
Evans himself has denounced “mob rule” for preventing his return in rare public words since his release. Evans continues to profess his innocence. The British judicial body that looks into miscarriages of justices is investigating his case. High-profile managers, former players, the head of the players union, even politicians’ aides, have questioned Evans’ guilt. His supporters have attacked the victim online so much that she has reportedly been forced to change her identity five times.
And yet no-one throughout English soccer saw this coming, despite a great deal of discussion on whether Evans could—and should—play again in the months and weeks leading up to his release in October.
The men who run these clubs seemed perplexed, even surprised by the backlash. And they were they so out of touch with how the public—especially their own fans—would react because they were focused on the beautiful game. ”Oldham were going to get a footballer that in other circumstances they wouldn’t have been able to afford,” its director, Barry Owen, said. “This was driven by football reasons.” And the chairman of the club added:
I believe in the law of the land and my understanding is Ched went away and did his time in prison. I know this is an argument people don’t like but if he was an electrician and came out of jail he is entitled to work again.
Debts due, and paid
At the heart of this is the argument that Evans has been convicted, served his time, and now deserves the chance to work and contribute to society. In the past, English soccer has forgiven many an unsavory character—one player who stubbed a cigar out in a teammate’s eye has been invited to pontificate on the UK’s premier politics talk show, watched by millions. Oldham itself brought back a player who killed a man while driving drunk—and is the same club that once fired a player for unproven match-fixing allegations for bringing “the name of Oldham Athletic into disrepute.” Barcelona’s Luis Suarez has racially abused and bitten people—and, at $113 million, is the third most expensive player of all time.
Evans could get results for a smaller team. As one former player put it when he was poised to join Oldham:
Trouble is with football, it becomes very, very selfish at times and if Ched Evans goes into that dressing room and starts to play good football and starts to score the odd goal then, rightly or wrongly, whatever you think should happen, those players will forget about everything off the pitch if he’s doing the business on the pitch.
In fact, the only reason that Evans is not playing soccer as we speak is purely because of the commercial interests driving the modern game. Especially at the lower levels, where clubs are part of the fabric of communities of smaller cities (Oldham has 220,000 people), “sponsors concede some control over their brand image to the club itself, as the way they are perceived becomes intertwined with the prevailing perceptions of the club,” one marketing professor told the BBC.
For small, often family-owned local businesses like Verlin Rainwater Solutions, dealing with issues of rehabilitation for rapists in the community was not what they signed up for when they put their names on the local team’s kit. The soccer club owners should have have realized that their sponsors are not like them—they don’t care about winning at all costs.
The NFL faced something similar last year, when one football player was filmed knocking his fiance out cold and another beat his child with a stick, and they are still dealing with the repercussions from the public. In England, soccer’s governing body has said it will look into whether there should be an overall code of conduct for soccer players to prevent a similar storm in the future, which could mean that players have to meet basic standards to play professionally.
Exactly what would go into such a code would help clear up an age-old question: Is sport an example to society or a reflection of it?