Is football being forced to challenge the game’s last ‘acceptable prejudice’ with the anticipated return of convicted rapist Ched Evans? Rob Waugh reports.
FOR a generation or more, football has been at the forefront of challenging racism and in many ways might be considered an example of how to tackle one of society’s longest lasting ills.
Black players flourish in the game and shouting something racist at a ground now is very likely to land you in court and facing a long ban from attending matches. In more recent times, homophobia has also surged up the football’s agenda with high-profile campaigns underlining the issue is being taken seriously.
Yet if football fans sing “He ***** who he wants” in support of Ched Evans, a player convicted of raping a 19-year-old woman, it barely registers on the game’s moral Richter scale.
When professional footballers hit the headlines after becoming embroiled in sexual assault allegations the incidents are largely shrugged off as an occupational hazard. Evans’ club, Sheffield United, have said virtually nothing about the conviction and neither did the football authorities when he was sentenced to five years in prison in April 2012.
At the time, the club said it recognised “the seriousness of these events and as such wishes to respond in a responsible way when it has taken sufficient time to consider the matter fully”. In the event no further statement was issued. Instead, the next significant public pronouncement from Bramall Lane, delivered earlier this year, was to confirm officials had visited Evans in prison as part of a “duty of care” to a former employee.
The notion that any employer would hold such a duty of care to a convicted rapist might seem incredulous to many but not, seemingly, to those in the world of football. If a player had been sentenced to five years for carrying out a racist attack it is virtually inconceivable that a club would have held the same relaxed public stance.
But the furore surrounding the anticipated return of Evans to the game after his imminent release from prison may prove a significant turning point. A petition urging Sheffield United not to re-sign their former player has garnered more than 140,000 signatures and there are signs that football’s governing body recognises the case is bringing the game’s attitudes towards sexism and particularly violence against women into sharp focus.
For possibly the first time, the FA is preparing to take action to stop supporters chanting songs that demean women. A spokesman said: “If a club’s supporters chant songs that ‘praise’ the offender (Evans) or ridicule and possibly identify the victim, The FA will make swift, and possibly even pre-emptive contact with the club, to discuss in collaboration what measures they can take to prevent this.”
The FA also says it is “working on programmes and interventions to increase and promote the involvement of women at all levels of the game and on promoting the reporting procedures to women to tackle sexism” as part of its anti-discrimination plan.
It may be no coincidence that former England international Rio Ferdinand was this week charged by the FA with alleged misconduct after sending a tweet which used the word ‘sket’, a slang term for a promiscuous woman. And along with the Premier League, the FA also teamed up with Women’s Aid this summer to launch a campaign against domestic abuse and sexual violence.
Events in the USA have also probably not gone unnoticed. The governing body of America’s NFL, is currently going through a major bout of soul-searching after a series of high-profile incidents involving star players and violence against women.
That said, while acknowledging “rape and sexual violence are appalling crimes”, the FA does currently accept players convicted of such crimes will be able to return to the game, albeit with a keen eye on ensuring the appropriate “risk management” associated with any criminal returning to society.
For Rape Crisis, the onus is very much on football to face up to the problem.
Spokesman Katie Russell said: “If I’m asked about what football should be doing on this issue, I say it’s for the FA, clubs and others to tell us what football is doing to combat sexual violence, abuse of women and misogyny. Football is in an influential position to raise awareness among young men in particular about consent and attitudes towards women and girls. Rape Crisis fully accepts that convicted criminals are entitled to resume their life after leaving prison, but when it’s into a high profile public arena it’s equally important that the clear message is sent out that sexual violence and violence against women are completely unacceptable. Since the conviction, Sheffield United has said very little.”
The club has said no decision has yet been taken on whether Evans will return but officials and United’s co-owners, businessman Kevin McCabe and Saudi Prince Abdullah Bin Musa’ad Bin Abdul Aziz, are clearly actively considering the move.
Co-chairman Jim Phipps recently said: “We acknowledge it’s a very difficult issue, and we are still puzzling through it. From the hierarchy, which includes me, we have not made a decision.” Mr Phipps said consideration of whether re-signing Evans would damage United’s “brand” would be uppermost in the club’s thoughts.
In reality it is hard to see how the club’s brand hasn’t already been tarnished by the affair. Seeing TV presenter Judy Finnigan plastered across the front pages this week after some injudicious comments about the Evans rape not involving violence would have given the club the clearest indication yet of the level of public attention it faces.
Fans’ attitudes and actions will certainly come under close scrutiny and the club must surely be aware the issue will remain a ticking PR timebomb. As Evans continues to protest his evidence, the club would face the danger of becoming entangled with his personal campaign and being seen as effectively endorsing it.
There are also questionmarks surrounding the role of the players’ union, the PFA, which controversially allowed Evans to remain in its League One ‘team of the year’, voted for by players, which was announced only days after the rape conviction.
At the time, PFA chief executive Gordon Taylor defended that decision on the grounds that “it was a football judgement by his fellow professionals, it was not a moral judgement.”
It would be difficult to envisage another profession or another arm of what might loosely be called the entertainment industry making a similar decision. In most cases, a rape conviction would terminate a career.
Mr Taylor has also come out in favour of Evans’ right to return to the game, recently telling the BBC it was the player’s legal right and Evans “still wants to contribute to society”.
But when the Yorkshire Post asked what action, if any, it is taking on attitudes towards women and violence against women, the PFA didn’t respond.