Ched Evans: to employ or not to employ?
“People expect we’ll make the decision for football reasons, but this is a special type of thing, it’s unusual.”
Jim Phipps – Co-Chairman, Sheffield United
Should a footballer convicted and imprisoned for a serious crime be allowed to return to the game after serving his time in jail? Or should the nature of the crime have further repercussions on resuming that career?
This week, Ched Evans will be released from prison after serving half of a 5 year sentence after being convicted of rape in 2012. For some careers, like law or politics, a return to a past career would be near impossible – for lower profile roles, much more feasible. Last month Sheffield United Co-Chairman Jim Phipps revealed the club is weighing up whether to offer Evans a contract back at Bramall Lane. A decision, by Phipps’s own admission, that carries additional considerations other than simply football given they have for the last 25 years branded themselves as ‘The Family Club.’
A vocal opposition
It’s a highly emotive issue. A petition against Evans’s return to the club already has over 140,000 signatures. Its supporters ask what message it would send if a previously highly paid and popular player, found guilty of rape, could return to a profession where players are seen (rightly or wrongly) as role models.
They argue that it would suggest to young fans that rape is a crime which can be easily forgiven – and without any lasting professional repercussions. Blades fan and Sky Sports presenter Charlie Webster hit back at those dismissing concerns – “This is not a feminist or a men/women issue. It is a society issue of collective responsibility.”
Opening the door to a return
Many United fans feel that justice has been served and that Evans should be free to return to the club – if boss Nigel Clough wants to sign him. PFA head Gordon Taylor agrees. Speaking to the BBC, Taylor believes Evans should be free to make a fresh start: “I didn’t know there was a law that said once you come out of prison you still can’t do anything. As a trade union we believe in the rule of law … besides that, he still wants to contribute to society. If he earns money he’ll pay taxes, those taxes will go to help people who maybe can’t get a job.”
And these aren’t just questions for United. With 13 caps so far for Wales, Evans’s return to football could lead to international recall. Chris Coleman didn’t dismiss the idea when asked over the summer. “Normally the manager picks the squad. This one is different though and I would have to discuss it with officials at the FAW. If Ched were to return to a club and do well, then it’s a conversation for us to have.”
From prison to pitch
Evans wouldn’t be the first player in the Football League to return to the game after a lengthly prison sentence. Ex-West Brom striker Lee Hughes joined Oldham in 2007 after serving 3 years for causing death by dangerous driving. Plymouth keeper Luke McCormick served nearly 4 years for a similar offence, returning to the club after stints with Truro City and Oxford United.
Despite two successful spells at West Brom, Hughes did not head back to The Hawthorns following his release. Warren Stephens, who blogs on West Brom for the Express & Star, explained to 1FITG why the Baggies didn’t ever seriously consider re-signing Hughes. “He’d been a hero on the terraces, but bringing him back was never widely mooted as a realistic possibility. This was purely down to footballing circumstance rather than prejudice based on his conviction. Hughes was widely considered to be in decline at that point, and the club were never under any pressure to re-employ him.”
McCormick returned to his old club Plymouth Argyle, albeit not directly after release. He has since been handed the club captaincy. Pilgrims fan Sam Down told 1FITG that McCormick’s return did see some initial opposition, but this has faded with time. “It goes without saying that some, indeed many, supporters were opposed to it. But there was nothing in the way of a lobbying group or a united opposition putting pressure on the club. Most of the opponents of his re-signing grudgingly accepted it after he signed.”
Pressure for success
Were United less desperate for a goalscorer, there would likely be far less pressure to re-sign Evans. Since Evans’s 35 goals in 2011/12, United have struggled to replace him – and have languished in League 1. Dave Kitson, Nick Blackman, John Cofie, Lyle Taylor, Shaun Miller have all passed through the doors at Bramall Lane without coming close to Evan’s potency. Not forgetting Marlon King, convicted in the past of sexual assault and causing actual bodily harm, whose brief spell a year ago caused similar debate about the impact on the club’s image – “a very poor decision on and off the field” according to Webster.
If it were a pure footballing decision, it would be a simple decision. Evans is still only 25, an international, and has a very impressive record in League 1. Were United to pass on him, another League 1 team could potentially take a chance on him. Perhaps Barnsley, where his old boss Danny Wilson is in charge.
A major PR problem
But as United already acknowledge, football is not the only consideration. There is also the issue of how Evans’s re-employment would be perceived.
Both Hughes and McCormick issued public apologies for their crimes and the damage they caused. Evans, who maintains his innocence, has not – and continues to press for his conviction to be overturned.
Down suggests that this therefore puts the Evans situation in a different category altogether. “To have served ones time and have come out rehabilitated to my mind is a distinct difference between someone who has made no apology and does not even consider their actions to be wrong or unlawful.”
This decision has to be taken against a context where sport is increasingly under pressure to hold high profile players to account for actions off-the-field. The NFL was widely criticised for its slow response in sanctioning Ray Rice after the player punched his then-fiancée in an elevator. Now indefinitely suspended, some believe his career in the NFL could now be over.
Interestingly, the petition on Evans is not targeted at the Football League, but simply just at one of its members, Sheffield United. What message does it send for United to not re-employ him, only for another club to do so? It would seem more consistent for Evans to be either allowed to play for any club, or prevented from playing for anyone.
Wherever Evans ends up, opposition fans will surely prevent him from returning to the game as if nothing has happened – he will be hearing fans’ taunts for the rest of his career. And whoever takes the reputational risk of signing Evans will likely receive the full brunt of the immediate public backlash. Evans has indicated he’d prefer to return to United, which is why in the first instance it’s the dilemma that United alone face. Few clubs will envy their position.