Forgive and forget: how do we view accused sportspeople?

Josh Gregory looks at how we address sports stars who are accused, convicted and acquitted of crimes.

Josh Gregory
29th October 2018
Image- Wikimedia Commons

Crime and scandal touches every part of our society, from the very highest echelons of government to the daily interactions in the smallest of villages. Unfortunately, our sporting institutions and athletes are no strangers to either.

It seems like every week, despite the best efforts of lawyers and PR representatives, the front pages of our national newspapers, scrolling banners of gossip websites and chiming news alerts on our phones present us with new allegations, arrests and shocking controversies concerning some of the most stellar names in the sporting world.

In this age of multi-million pound take-overs, television rights and worldwide celebrity status, those at the peak of their sporting field enjoy seemingly limitless wealth, power, and above all, influence. It is vital when considering this influence sports stars have to note their importance as role models to younger generations. Given their prominence in the public eye, it is imperative that the examples they are setting uphold the values and attitudes of our societies.

Although in some cases the influence and resources they have at their disposal makes it seem as though they are, athletes are not impervious to the legal system or the prying eyes of the media. No one, no matter their profile, fame or talent is above the law. In fact, the public’s right to be made aware (via the media) of legal proceedings and convictions against individuals is protected by the European Convention of Human Rights, so however much these athletes may wish they weren’t, the media is free to air their dirty laundry for all to see (as long as it’s accurate that is).

It is in these ceremonial, or perhaps un-ceremonial airings that one particular issue recurs: In light of criminal convictions or revelations of unethical or immoral behaviour, should ‘disgraced’ sportsmen and women be allowed to step back into their positions of extreme privilege and influence, regardless of whether they have been brought to justice or held accountable for their actions?

Of course in the eyes of the law those acquitted of a crime, or those who have served the terms of their punishment, be that in the form of a fine or a prison sentence, are then once again entitled to gainful employment. The only legal restrictions to this rule in the UK prevent ex-offenders from working with children, or in roles of legal responsibility.  Knowing this it would seem there is nothing to prevent a sportsperson from resuming their previous occupation.

This was the stance taken by the PFA and the Football League following the conviction, release and later acquittal of former Sheffield United striker Ched Evans. Evans was convicted of rape in April 2012 and sentenced to 5 years imprisonment. Evans maintained his innocence throughout his incarceration and after serving half of his sentence he was released. Following his release the PFA urged Evans’ former club to allow him to train with them in order to regain a degree of fitness that might allow him to find employment in his chosen trade.

A statement from the club echoed the views of the PFA, saying:

"Professional footballers should be treated as equals before the law, including in circumstances where they seek to return to work following periods of incarceration”.

The Football League stated that it would “have no option but to accept” requests from any clubs that would wish to sign him. The spokesman went on to say that they recognise the “value to wider society in enabling offenders to be rehabilitated through a return to their chosen line of employment", although the choice to employ the Welshman would ultimately be down to the individual clubs.

The decision by the Blades to allow Ched to train with them was met with all- round disapproval from the public and following reports that manager Nigel Clough was considering re-signing the forward, over 150,000 people signed a petition to block the club from doing so.  This action by the public, coupled with threats of withdrawal from several major investors and advocates led to a statement from the club saying they would not be re-signing Evans, although the club cited lack of match fitness as the official reasoning.

Any clubs that displayed interest in Evans’ signature encountered similar resistance from the public, and in some instances the clubs own staff, right up to and even after Evans’ eventual acquittal in October 2016. Following numerous unsuccessful attempts to find a new club, Chesterfield picked up the Striker as a free agent on a 1-yeat contract amidst his retrial in the summer of 2016. Despite all the controversy Sheffield United did go on to re-sign Evans in the summer of 2017 and he is currently plying his trade on loan at Fleetwood Town in League 1.

Although Evans was eventually able to rekindle his career following his conviction, it is highly unlikely that former Sunderland and England winger Adam Johnson will be able to do the same.

Johnson was arrested in March 2015 on suspicion of sexual activity with a girl aged 15. At trial in February 2016 he plead guilty to one count of sexual activity with a child and one count of grooming, and was later found guilty of a further count of sexual activity with a child. On 24th March 2016 he was sentenced to 6 years imprisonment.

Whilst I can only speculate about the treatment he may receive once released from prison, I can be certain that by the time his incarceration ends in 2022, at the age of 35 there is no chance that he will be able to re-join the profession at the level he once performed at.

In a way, it would seem that these collateral consequences of the convictions both Evans and Johnson received are appropriate in their own ways. It is clear that the public and the governing bodies themselves are torn between their ethical stances and their own moral objections. On the one hand one we see the desire to reintegrate ex-offenders back into society, and to see them re-join their previous profession is not unreasonable, and would be expected of those in most other lines of work. On the other, seeing those who do reintegrate into positions of such privilege and influence, earning obscene amounts of money and seamlessly recovering their celebrity status offends our moral sensibilities, as well it should.

The solace we can take from this is that in a sport such as football, which revolves so heavily around business, criminal convictions and sullied reputations are not marketable. Even if a club may be so inclined to employ a player as such, the power of public opinion will make them a thoroughly undesirable commodity, and as such will not afford them the same levels of fame or fortune they may otherwise have enjoyed.

Ultimately, though we are obliged to accept that justice is done, we are under no obligation to forgive, nor forget.

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