By Dan Heard
Ched Evans, the former Wales international footballer, has had his conviction for rape quashed at the Court of Appeal in London, but will stand a new trial. The former Sheffield United striker was jailed for five years in 2012 for raping a nineteen-year-old girl at a Premier Inn hotel in Rhyl, North Wales, something which he has always denied. He was released in October 2014 having served little over half of his term. Judges on the case had heard “fresh evidence” over the course of the two-day hearing last month that was deemed sufficient enough to order a retrial.
This new development in what is an already controversial case has once again seen an old question posed, which is, of course, “should he be allowed to play football again?” And this only raises further issues. Certainly, legal restrictions on employment or re-employment of an individual after they’ve committed a crime only apply if the job would see that person pose a threat to the public or to society in general. Evans’s “job”, though, does not see him do that. In fact, in his profession, he probably led one of the most sheltered kinds of life anyone could ask for. Therefore, there should not be any legal restrictions in his case either, right? If teams wanted to sign him, they should not be barred or told not to, and it isn’t a matter for the Football Association to involve themselves with either, surely?
You could make this point- but on the other side of the coin, where does it stop? Would you be setting some kind of warped precedent if it was deemed acceptable for a rapist to return to playing football, but not, say, a murder, such as in the case of former Notts County player Lee Hughes or Plymouth’s Luke McCormack, both welcomed back following their release, or a paedophile? This question will be raised again once former Sunderland and England star Adam Johnson has served his seven year sentence. What crimes are, and are not, therefore “acceptable”? At the time of Evans’ release, PFA Chief Executive Gordon Taylor presented something of a moral argument surrounding this idea, arguing that Evans should be allowed to resume his career in the same way that former prisoners should be allowed to resume their lives.
Now, while I believe he is right in that sense, this is not the issue here, because Evans did not lead what was considered to be an ordinary life or lifestyle before his conviction. He was not a doctor, or a lawyer, or even a supermarket worker, but a professional footballer, earning x amount a week, playing in front of thousands of fans and representing his country on a global stage, and, whether he wanted to be or not, this made him a hero for fans, and of course, a role model. Some embrace this image. Bournemouth’s Tyrone Mings gave out free tickets to supporters. Norwich’s Steven Naismith and Swansea’s Angel Rangel provide food for the homeless. Others though see themselves as sportsmen and this alone. But that they have a cultural, a social responsibility should not be beyond them in their position.
The pockets of support for him have come from some unlikely places. Numerous websites were set up, proclaiming his innocence. Sheffield United fans clapped in the thirty fifth minute of each game for a time following his conviction, signifying the number of goals he had scored in one season. He was even named in the League One Team of the Year for this, something which Taylor again defended. Legal teams, barristers and private investigators were all hired, at some expense, the majority of which was covered by the father of Evans’ partner, who has continued to stand by him despite the undoubted humiliation this whole saga has caused. His club followed suit, as despite his contract being terminated, then-manager Nigel Clough and Chairman Kevin McCabe visited Evans in prison to discuss a possible return at the conclusion of his sentence, something which Clough said would be an “above football level” matter. The board faced criticism from numerous individuals for this stance, most notably from Olympian Jessica Ennis-Hill, who requested her name to be taken off the stand at Bramall Lane, the home of Sheffield United and where she trains, should Evans return.
More than 150,000 people signed a petition demanding the club should not re-sign him, while several rape charities said that barring him from returning to football would “send out a strong message condemning sexual violence against women”. With the number of rapes up seemingly year on year (22,000 cases were recorded the year Evans was released alone), it becomes even more of a necessity for teams to take some kind of stance on this. Evans’ argument is not only one of his innocence, but that in not allowing him to return to football, he is being further punished for his crime. At 27, the best years of his career, and indeed life, have been spent in prison. But this was the same argument made by clubs when they signed the likes of Hughes and McCormack, with their reasoning sitting about as easily. His case highlighted that a rape culture existed, and even continues to exist within a dressing room environment. If anything, it his seeming lack of remorse about what happened which strikes me the most. Those who argue that he needs to be “rehabilitated” need to consider whether allowing him to resume his high-paying career and luxury lifestyle fit the parameters of rehabilitation.
Honestly, I can’t see a way back for him. However unjust he feels, he needs to accept that his career is over. He is still a young man, who clearly has the support of a loyal partner (which is more than the loyalty he showed her, but that isn’t the point) with the rest of his life ahead of him. It is a life without football though.