Culture of Hoops

Ched Evans: A Return To Soccer or a March Into Exile?

Image courtesy of Jon Candy/Flickr.

Image courtesy of Jon Candy/Flickr.

The controversial side of professional sports has been focused on the National Football League recently. From Baltimore Ravens Ray Rice being caught on camera beating his wife into unconsciousness in an Atlantic City elevator to Minnesota Vikings Adrian Peterson being indicted for child abuse, back again to two more cases of domestic violence involving Arizona Cardinals Jonathan Dwyer and Carolina Panthers Greg Hardy. These cases are just the latest to cast a shadow over the NFL. The profile of these crimes is matched only by the poor response by league commissioner, Roger Goodell, who chose to protect the image and business interests of the league over condemning the acts and empathizing with the victims.

Pulling the magnifying glass out from the NFL a bit, all tiers of professional sports seem to contain elements of off-field violence. Surprisingly, Major League Baseball seems to have designed the sad template of dealing with players guilty of domestic abuse. Texas Rangers pitcher Josh Lueke was charged with rape and sodomy in 2008. He spent 40 days in jail after pleading no contest to a lesser false imprisonment charge. Upon his return, released a story on his ‘comeback’, almost positioning it as a return from injury. Leuke enraged decent humans stating that  “players and people [who] know me know it was just a freak accident kind of thing”. If there ever  was a diminishment and twisting of a heinous, violent crime, that statement was it. The article continued with an appalling paragraph that mentioned his time off during suspension as an opportunity for his shoulder impingement to heal. The article then focused almost entirely on his play as if to cleanse the bad taste of his actions with a little ball talk.

The NBA’s example is likely the most famous with Kobe Bryant’s 2003 sexual assault case. Bryant swore he was innocent and the charges were eventually dismissed, though he had to publicly apologize. As if it never happened, a year after the story broke, Kobe signed a seven-year, $136 million contract and regained many of his former endorsements.

This brings the story and spotlight onto English soccer. The sport is no stranger to players committing crimes; however, there’s a story being told right now in England that is questioning the way players, charged with violent crimes, should be handled upon their release from prison. It also demonstrates that jail time is merely the beginning of the sentence and that a jury of millions can continue to pass down judgements.

Chedwyn ‘Ched’ Evans is a 25 year-old Welsh striker who plied his trade in the Premier League at Manchester City FC between 2002 and 2007. Prior to that dream move, he played for Rhyl FC in the Uwch Gynghrair Cymru, the Welsh Premier League and with Chester FC in England’s fifth division league, the Conference National. He made a dream move to the Premier League in 2002 by signing for Manchester City FC’s youth team. He became a regular reservist and joined the MCFC youth team that played (and lost to Liverpool’s youngsters) in the 2006 FA Youth Cup. Though he made a total of 26 appearances and scored a single goal, a lack of first team opportunities sent him to Norwich City FC on loan. The move paid off for Evans as he appeared 28 times and tallied 10 goals for the club. Following the Abu Dhabi oil-profit injection into the club in 2008 and subsequent spending spree, Evans’ role as last-choice striker made him surplus to the club’s needs and he moved on to search for regular starts in the lower divisions.

He signed with Sheffield United FC in the summer of 2009 but, despite becoming the team’s top scorer, his form was inconsistent. The Blades were relegated to League One for the following season. League One seemed a better fit for Ched Evans as he found his scoring form. As Sheffield United’s top scorer year after year, 2012 found Evans awarded accolades as League One Player of the Month in March, Player of the Season and named to the League One Professional Footballer’s Association Team of the Year. Atop all his league successes, Ched Evans featured for the Welsh National Team as a U21 and a senior team member scoring a winning goal against Iceland in a May 2008 friendly. He caught the eye of Great Britain Olympic Football team manager, Stuart Pearce and was thought to have a chance at being named in the team for the 2012 Summer Olympics.

On May 30, 2011, Ched Evans received a text from his friend, Port Vale FC defender, Clayton McDonald that read “I’ve got a bird.”

The two had been out together at a bar in Rhyl, Wales. They left separately. Clayton McDonald met a woman at a kebab shop, around four in the morning, who came back to his hotel room at the Premier Inn in Rhuddlan. Evans went to meet the two at the hotel along with Evans’ brother and another friend. CCTV footage showed McDonald leading the woman from a cab into the hotel. What occurred next is only known from the testimony of the two men. They claimed that what occurred was consensual sex between the woman (who was never publicly named, more on that later) and McDonald with Evans observing. Clayton McDonald then asked the woman if Ched Evans could ‘get involved’ and permission was granted. While this was happening, Evans’ brother and another friend were watching and recording with a phone camera through a window. The woman woke naked, confused and alone in a urine-soaked bed in McDonald’s hotel room, with her clothes strewn around the room and no memory of what had occurred the night before. She contacted the police who began an investigation.

Evans and McDonald appeared in court in August 2011 both charged with rape. They were released on bail and made no comments further than those posted on their teams’ websites denying the allegations. During the April 2012 trial, both men admitted to having sex with the woman but refuted the rape charges. The jury returned its verdicts later that month, acquitting McDonald and convicting Evans of rape. He was sentenced to five years in prison after the Crown Court determined that the 19 year-old woman was in no condition to consent to sex and that Evans had plainly ignored that fact. Evans’ lawyers quickly put out a statement (now deleted) on the Sheffield United FC website saying, in part, “Mr. Evans firmly maintains his innocence in this matter and as such, we confirm Mr. Evans will be appealing the decision.” Ched Evans spent his sentence pleading not guilty and filing unsuccessful appeals. On March 9, 2013, went live, a website managed by his friends and family. It not only proclaims its purpose – as the banner reads “The Ministry of Justice allows prisoners who maintain their innocence to use the internet through a third party to make serious representations about their innocence. Ched Evans was wrongly convicted of rape on 20th April 2012” – but also offers rewards for any information that may lead to the acquittal of Ched Evans. The FAQ contains many answers to outstanding questions regarding the case as well as this:

Q15. How much is the reward?
A. There is a total reward of £10,000 that is payable for information delivered that leads to the acquittal of Ched in the Court of Appeal. Of particular interest would be any saved Facebook messages sent by the complainant around the time of the incident.

Evans was released from His Majesty’s Prison Wymott on October 17, 2014 after serving half of his five-year sentence. On October 22, Evans released a 1:45 video statement on the website. While the statement is full of humility, it leans only closest to an apology to his girlfriend, Natasha Massey and no one else. Evans regrets his “act of infidelity and the damage that has been done on so many fronts because of it.” He goes on to reveal that he is now seeking a second chance, adding “but I know not everyone would agree.” The website and the hiring of the pre-trial and continuing investigators was paid for by Evans’ girlfriend’s father, wealthy Cheshire businessman, Karl Massey.

The website continues to upset the victim and her family. Her father begged that the website be shut down after it posted CCTV footage of the victim entering the hotel and questioning the prosecution’s claims that the victim was ‘hopelessly drunk.” Regarding the identity of the victim, under the Sexual Offences Act of 1992, the anonymity of victims in rape cases is protected by law and those who reveal the victim’s identity can be charged with a crime. Unfortunately, in the case of Ched Evans’ victim, her identity was revealed over 6,000 times on Twitter, and Sky News actually flashed her name onscreen briefly. She was forced to adopt a new identity, not just once, but again after her new identity was revealed following Evans’ release. Much abuse was thrown at her, most from Sheffield United FC fans and even some offensive remarks from Connor Brown, a Blades reserve player.

The question that was being asked upon Evans’ release was a big one. Would Ched Evans play soccer in England again? Obviously, the greatest support to bring him back came from a portion of Blades supporters who want their former leading scorer back. However, over 165,000 people have signed a petition asking Sheffield United FC Chairmen, Kevin McCabe and Saudi Prince, Abdullah Bin Musa’ad Bin Abdul Aziz to refuse to reinstate Evans as a player. The club received a request from the PFA, asking to allow Ched Evans to return to the club to train. In response, the team put out a press release that is paraphrased below.

Sheffield United Football Club acknowledges the public discussion on the potential return of its former player, Mr Ched Evans, to professional football following the completion of the custodial portion of his sentence for rape in the courts of England and Wales. While some have speculated about whether the Club will or should invite Mr Evans to return to SUFC as a registered footballer, the Club is not prepared at this time to decide that issue.

“The Club also acknowledges receipt of a request from The Professional Footballers’ Association (‘The PFA’) to the effect that the Club consider allowing Mr Evans, who is a PFA member, to train at the Club’s facilities. According to the request, this training would be with a view to enabling Mr Evans to get back to a level of fitness, which might enable him to find employment in his chosen trade. This request has come to the Club, because it is the last club at which Mr Evans was registered before his conviction.

In the course of its deliberations, the Board also spoke with Mr Evans and his representatives. After due consideration, the Board has decided to respond favourably to The PFA’s request and to allow Mr Evans to train at the Club’s facilities.”

The statement claims that their decision was based on views of the staff, league, PFA, the supporters and general public as well as meetings with Ched Evans. It went on to “condemn rape and violence of any kind against women in the strongest possible terms.” In the statement, there is an air of “the PFA is pretty much forcing us to do this” but also more than a hint of “Ched Evans has already paid for his crime.” Following the release of the statement, TV host and sportswriter Charlie Webster, 60s pop star Dave Berry and Sheffield businesswoman, Lindsay Graham gave up their posts as club patrons in protest of the decision. Exactly what a club patron does isn’t specifically noted but it generally seems that they are responsible for using their profile to spread the word of and assist in the club’s community, educational and social programs. If there was a position within a soccer club that should be taking a stand in this situation, perhaps this is the one.

The most recent addition to the list was former Housemartins and Beautiful South singer, Paul Heaton, who said:

I firmly believe that Ched Evans has the right to rebuild his career in football but rebuilding a career should not involve walking straight out of prison and into the shirt of the club he so badly let down. I believe he needs to move away and move on, and the club itself needs to lift its reputation out of the gutter.”

While not a club patron, Olympian Jessica Ennis-Hill announced that she would want her name removed from the team ground’s Bramall Lane Stand if Evans was resigned to United. The amount of abuse levelled at Ennis-Hill was shocking.

So will Ched Evans play again for Sheffield United? There is no question that the team has missed Ched Evans’ goal scoring abilities. In his last season playing for Sheffield United, Evans tallied 29 goals in the League and the team almost won promotion back to the Championship by making it to the playoff finals. Many blamed distraction from the controversy and fallout of Evans’ detention as the reason for the team’s decline to a playoff position at the end of the 2011-12 season. Since Evans left the team to serve his prison sentence, the team has remained fighting to get back to the Championship League with little success. They finished fifth in the season following Evans’ last, though this time were knocked out of the playoffs in the away leg of the semi-final by Yeovil Town FC. That season, their two top scorers potted 11 each, falling well below Evans’ output the previous season.

The season before this current one, Sheffield United finished the season in seventh, not able to even reach a promotion playoff spot. As well, the team’s two top scorers only found the twine seven and six times. There’s no doubt that these two unsuccessful seasons minus Evans would’ve greatly benefited from his presence. Thus far, in this current season, Sheffield United is sitting in seventh place and are seven points out of the last playoff spot. Their two top scorers are doing much better than last season. The question the Sheffield United board likely struggled with was should they reinstate Evans as a player for footballing reasons or do they dismiss him for good for moral reasons. A further question to ask is whether Sheffield United supporters would rather see their team compete for promotion to the Championship with Evans in the lineup or risk another season of middling success in League One. From a financial perspective, it’s predicted that teams promoted to the Championship stand to earn somewhere in the neighborhood of £3-5 million through additional income, League payments and TV rights. That’s a decent enough incentive for teams to do whatever they can to win promotion. And if they realize the dream of clawing their way back into the Premier League – something SUFC only achieved once in the modern English game in 2006 – they would stand to earn near £60 million per season. For a club and its fans, there are few things they wouldn’t give to make this happen.

So, will SUFC give in to the ethical risks attached to resigning Ched Evans? As this article has detailed, many are against it. Apart from Evans and his friends and family, what did the other side of the supporters say? There wasn’t an online petition to reinstate Ched Evans as a Sheffield United player. Positive support for Evans came in the form of fans chanting his name at matches. Darker endorsements came in the form of vicious social media attacks against those who spoke out against Sheffield United and Evans. Many sickeningly calling for his committed crime to be perpetrated upon his detractors. While some chants ringing out from the terraces praise the player and blame the victim, many others plainly called Evans a rapist. This isn’t surprising due to the longstanding tradition of accusations of rape to be a common taunt in soccer chants. Despite this fact, there’s no doubt that if Ched Evans once again becomes a soccer player in England, he will hear opposing fans sing his name alongside the word ‘rapist’ at every match he plays for, for the remainder of his career. He’ll hear chants outlining every detail of the actions that led to his conviction. He may find himself a target of hard tackles. He’ll hear venom and vitriol spat in his direction as he approaches the touchline. He will, again, become a distraction. And if he continues scoring goals on demand, what then? Will Sheffield United supporters who currently oppose his return change their tune if he netted 20 goals in the remainder of this season? What about if he directly apologized to the victim (something he hasn’t overtly done)? Some have said that that alone may be enough to sway opinion.

It is within Evans’ right to seek a new job in his chosen field. He’s a professional soccer player and not an unsuccessful one. His abilities will add to the positive onfield outcome of a soccer team. He is also a convicted rapist who clearly chose to defy common sense and enter a questionable sexual situation with a teenage girl. This cannot be argued. There is no law preventing a team from signing him, nor should there be. His crime had nothing to do with soccer. However, his actions do more than just smear his role as a paragon of behaviour for young men. It may not be what he signed up for when he became a professional soccer player. However the privilege of being paid well to play a sport requires more than just athletic ability. It requires a strength of character. Aside from his actions, Ched Evans’ reluctance to apologize to his victim not only feels like an attempt to erase the damages of his crime, it also displays poor character.

On Thursday, November 20th, Sheffield United FC finally made an announcement. They decided to reverse their decision to let Ched Evans train with the club, a decision that likely dispelled any notion that they would ever sign him again as a player. They stated that they were surprised by the outpouring of negativity around their original statement, but didn’t offer a succinct reason for their decision. They most likely saw that having Evans join the team in any capacity was going to sully their appearance and anger a majority of supporters. And surely they knew that to actually resign him would not only make soccer fans around the world question the club’s morals, but also upset their sponsors. It’s no surprise that both their kit sponsors made statements about having to reexamine their relationship with the club if Ched Evans once again became a team member. It certainly wouldn’t benefit any organization to have their logo worn on the chest or back of a convicted rapist. The always-supportive PFA has framed this as an opportunity for Evans to play elsewhere.

Yet another question pops up, how low down the ladder of professional English soccer would Ched Evans have to descend before he finally finds a team that will take him? To answer that question, it seems that Evans’ football representatives have been putting out feelers to lower league clubs to find a place for him to play. Oldham Athletic from League One and Tranmere Rovers from League Two have both come out to say that they will not be allowing Ched Evans to train with their clubs, nor will they consider offering him a contract. This may change, but for the time being, it seems that Ched Evans will not be playing professional soccer this season. This story may continue to write itself. Hopefully as time passes, the victim will finally find some peace. As for Ched Evans, he has his girlfriend’s hand to hold in well-scripted videos and will, no doubt, continue to claim his innocence and pursue proving it. But as time does indeed pass, fewer and fewer people will take note of what he is saying.

In the aftermath, a positive legacy that can be attributed to this story, the UK as a whole is now focusing efforts on rape prevention and education. Several campaigns have been launched reminding, mostly young men, that consent is mandatory, intoxication is never a defence and that offenders will be dragged into the light and charged unequivocally with rape. As well, these campaigns have educated victims to understand that there is never an allowance, be it intoxication, flirting, or attire, for rape. Another sadly positive outcome is that eleven police forces in England have released statistics showing huge increases in reports of rape. While incidents of rape haven’t necessarily increased, victims of rape have been emboldened to report offences more than ever before. Although even a single report of rape is a terrible thing, the Ched Evans case has shown that police will investigate each report of rape in the UK, even ones where victims may have been intoxicated and that each case can go to court and have rapists convicted. From the seed of Ched Evans’ actions, perhaps a broadcast of good may occur.

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