And so the sordid Ched Evans debacle is finally resolved. Since his despicable rape of a woman in 2011, the whole sorry saga has lurched from one scandal to another. Until we have Steve Bruce questioning the veracity of a rape conviction and Gordon Taylor commenting on miscarriages of justice with insensitive comparisons to the Hillsborough disaster.
Let me nail my colours to the mast. One set of colours is blue. I am a life-long Oldham Athletic supporter. Pause for sympathy.
They play at Boundary Park. I was born in Boundary Park Hospital and lived for the first 20 years of my life on Boundary Park Road. I had no choice. I have supported them through some thick and loads of thin for 45 years, boy and man. They are a small club, with little support, struggling to survive, never mind prosper. In recent years they have signed a player who had killed a woman in a hit and run incident, and sold the name of their ground for £1m.
The other colours I aspire (and usually fail) to fly are the rainbow colours of human rights – equality, freedom, peace, hope, dignity, rule of law, prosperity and justice.
Here is the news. There are far, far bigger issue in the world than football. There is a world-wide epidemic of violence and misogyny – two highly toxic chemicals in a man which cause him to violate a woman’s equality, freedom and dignity, take away her peace and hope, and deny her justice. It is called rape. All the woman can hope for afterwards is that the rule of law will prevail to punish him and protect others from him. Tragically, this rarely happens.
Amongst all of the rhetoric and diversions of the Evans saga; this is the nub of the issue. All of us – including football – need to send a clear message – to men and boys – that rape is unacceptable, abhorrent and despicable.
The nation’s favourite sport – watched and supported by millions – cannot shirk its responsibility to promote the highest moral standards. It cannot endorse or be perceived to endorse, violence or misogyny. It cannot wash its hands about rape – any more than it can remain passive about racism, corruption or even fair play. It is simply not good enough for a football club to ignore the message it would give – however unintentionally – if it were to have a convicted rapist in its team.
I confess to having struggled with this whole issue when it first emerged. When it was announced that my club were looking to sign Evans, I knew I had to make my mind up. What were the arguments in favour of signing him?
He has served his time
Unfortunately he hasn’t. He was given a five year sentence, and released “on license” after two and a half years. This was the reason he was unable to sign for a foreign club – he is sufficient “risk” not to be allowed to leave the country.
Everyone deserves a second chance
Yes we do – if we show suitable remorse and contrition. If not, we are at the mercy of our fellow human beings. As Evans is appealing against his conviction, we cannot expect him to apologise and confess to his crime. But nor should we expect his fiancee’s father to have a website which invites us to form our own opinion on the case, along with a video containing images of the woman concerned. This is at best distasteful and at worse, further punishing and intimidating the victim.
He is maintaining his innocence
This is the most insidious argument. It goes like this. “Two intoxicated people have sex. There is no physical evidence that he forced himself on her. She wasn’t so drunk that she could not say “no”. It happens all the time.”
However unlikely, it is possible that this is what actually happened. But it is not for me, or the media, or Steve Bruce, or Graham Taylor, or Oldham Athletic to judge. That is what we have a legal system for.
Evans has every right to maintain his innocence. That is between him and his conscience. But we have no right to assume it, when a court of law has sifted the evidence and found him guilty. This is the “rule of law” we all live under. It is imperfect but it is the best we have. And I suspect more guilty people protest their innocence than innocent people do. Why wouldn’t they? If the legal system, based on new evidence, overturn his conviction, then he could resume his football career.
The insidious fall out from half-informed public figures questioning the verdict is that it starts to undermine and water down the seriousness of the crime. People start to believe it might just be okay to have sex with a woman when she is intoxicated, without her consent and leave her naked in a hotel room.
Criminals have a right to work after they are released
Of course they do. Society has a responsibility to rehabilitate offenders, to give them a chance to restart their lives. There is no issue at all with Evans taking employment. The issue here is the nature of the employment.
It is his first game. He scores. The crowd goes crazy. Evans runs to the touchline, his arms aloft, receiving the adulation of his teammates and the crowd. Game after game he continues scoring. Boys and girls wear shirts with his name on their backs. He becomes a local hero.
How do we all feel about this? – men, women, victims of violence, victims of rape? What messages does it give? Have we not tactically accepted – even endorsed – something we should be railing against?
Being a footballer is not just like any other job. Footballers are high-profile celebrities and role models. We can all name very famous footballers who have damaged their own and other people’s lives through drink, gambling, infidelity or just crass stupidity – without breaking the law. Fame is a friend to be very wary of – too many footballers believe their own publicity.
If we insisted that every footballer was a paragon of virtue, most clubs would struggle to field even half a team. But we do need to draw a line – as the law does – between bad behaviour and criminal action. Criminal actions may have been dealt with by the law – they are not so easily removed from people’s memories. They damage the victims and those close to them long after the law has done its job – particularly when there is little sign of remorse or contrition by the perpetrator..
Football has a responsibility to support equality, freedom, peace, hope, dignity, rule of law, prosperity and justice. Not that we expect it to lead the field on this. It is a sport not a moral campaign, an industry not a charity. But it cannot undermine any of these values in such a public way. We give football – and footballers – a huge amount of emotion, energy, money, publicity and fame. I don’t think it is unreasonable for us to expect them to espouse some ethical standards and give out some moral messages in return.
Oldham Athletic has decided not to sign Evans. I wish it was for all the right reasons – rather than “bowing to mob rule” or in response to threats or loss of sponsorship. Unfortunately it isn’t. The club has made a whole load of confused statements and clearly been overwhelmed by the whole issue.
We all have to make a stand on important issues. Remaining silent is tacit acceptance. I read about one woman who had travelled many miles to the ground ready to hand back her season ticket. My small gesture would have been to simply stop following them. Nobody would have noticed. Probably nobody would have cared. But somewhere in my head, at least, I would have been putting my money where my mouth is, and nailing some more important colours than blue to a small mast.