Was Sheffield United right to welcome back Ched Evans?

Ched EvansChed Evans
Ched Evans
Morally right or dangerously out of touch? Sarah Freeman reports on Sheffield United’s decision to allow convicted rapist Ched Evans back to the training ground.

A twenty five year old commits a crime. He strongly protests his innocence and pleads not guilty, but is ultimately convicted and serves half of a five year sentence. On release he is keen to return to his old job and with the help of union representatives secures a placement with his former employer. It comes with no guarantees, but it does give him hope that he might eventually find a permanent position and become a fully paid up member of society again.

It’s a sequence of events which might serve to instil faith in the country’s justice system and provide a model for criminal rehabilitation.

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However, when that 25-year-old is convicted rapist Ched Evans, who once earned £20,000 a week as a professional footballer, and when that employer is Sheffield United, whose board maintained a vow of silence about the case until this week when they welcomed back their former striker, nothing is that clear cut.

The club, acting within the guidance set out by the Professional Football Association, has broken no rules, but it also had no obligation to ease Evans’ return to the game and the lucrative lifestyle which comes with it.

Whatever rights an individual haa to a second chance, by allowing Evans back to train at the Bramall Lane ground, the club, which has refused to rule out re-signing Evans on a full-time contract, has arguably sacrificed a chance to send out a powerful statement of intent. For a sport which has been so vocal on its zero tolerance approach to racism, it’s impossible not to see the missed opportunities.

“The reputation of football and footballers regarding sexism and sexual violence has been severely tested in recent years. It is time to draw a clear line,” said Sarah Green of the End Violence Against Women Coalition. “The club needs to seriously consider the message it will send to survivors of sexual violence, to the local community in Sheffield, and to football fans across the UK and indeed internationally, if you give an unrepentant convicted rapist a new contract.”

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Aware the fallout from the decision was potentially toxic, the Football League has been quick to distance itself from the brewing scandal, insisting its hands are tied - if a club wants to sign Evans it said they would have no option but to rubber-stamp the request. Likewise, the PFA has tried to remove any emotion from its involvement in the Evans case

“It’s a fundamental part of the justice system in this country and society in general that a person serves the punishment which the court determines is appropriate,” ran a statement, signed by the PFA’s chief executive Gordon Taylor. “Providing that has been done, an individual is entitled to be released to continue with his or her life.

“Needless to say, as part of that is a return to his or her career and that remains the case for professional footballers as it does for any other individual.” In a masterstroke of understatement, it did acknowledge that these “are issues which can provoke strong feelings”.

The statement didn’t mention that Evans has never expressed any remorse for his crime, which he has continued to describe as a mere “act of infidelity”. It also didn’t mention his victim. Neither did the one put out by Sheffield United.

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While the board did acknowledge rape in general was a “heinous crime” and said they had been “assured” Mr Evans feels the same way, the statement appeared to be a carefully crafted 758-word attempt to belatedly reclaim the moral high ground by a club which chose not to sack a disgraced player the day he headed to prison, but instead allowed his contract to run-dry.

The gist was that allowing Evans to return to training and so regain his fitness was right both legally and morally. The club also added that it was not right that society “seek to impose extra judicial or post-term penalties on anyone” and to do so would be bowing to “mob justice”.

Had the board not refused to answer any more questions, it would have been worth asking how many convicted rapists they reckon walk back into their old job and what exactly they meant by ‘mob justice’.

So far, there have been no reports of vigilantes wielding pitchforks and demanding Evans’ head on a stick outside Bramall Lane. In fact the most outrageous act carried out by those opposed to Evans’ return has been to set up an online petition against any move to reinstate the player.

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While there has inevitably been an outpouring of bile against Evans on Twitter, a ‘mob’ equal in number has used the social media site and the various football chatrooms to declare their support for the striker.

The club no doubt wants to silence those fans who have been heard on the terraces leading obscene chants backing the player, but its refusal to be drawn on whether Evans could return to the club full-time speaks volumes about its policy to condemn “rape and violence of any kind against women in the strongest possible terms”. That strong condemnation would appear not to stretch to severing all ties with a man who raped a 19-year-old woman, picked up by his friend, in a Cardiff hotel room.

“Sheffield United has given no indication that it feels it has a responsibility towards the huge numbers of sexual violence survivors who follow their club or who attend its matches,” says Katie Russell, from Rape Crisis England and Wales. “It has become clear that many people still consider rape in some contexts more ‘real’, more harmful than others and believe some rape survivors are therefore more ‘worthy’ of empathy than others.

“From its privileged position at the heart of so many communities, football has the opportunity to support Rape Crisis and others in their ongoing work to redress this injustice and to uphold the needs and rights of sexual violence survivors by raising awareness and understanding. Instead it chooses to snub survivors and ignore public opinion by once again failing to explain itself.”

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Evans isn’t the first player to rejoin the professional game after being convicted of a serious crime. Oldham Athletic director Barry Owen was instrumental in bringing back Lee Hughes after he was jailed for six years in 2004 for causing death by driving.

“We were very mindful of the fans’ thoughts,” Owen told the BBC recently. “One of the major points for us was that Lee had shown a lot of repentance for what he had done. That played a big role in our thinking. He was very remorseful. We put it out in the press that we had interest so we could gauge the fans’ reaction. The majority of them were OK with it.”

Evans has been told his latest attempt to overturn his conviction is unlikely to be heard by Criminal Cases Review Commission until 2017. At least until then he remains a convicted rapist, but one who seems destined to be welcomed back into the footballing fold.