Many of you will have followed the story of convicted rapist Ched Evans, the footballer released from prison last October. Having served half of a five-year sentence for raping a 19-year-old girl, his attempts to return to football have been unsuccessful. Any club that makes a move to sign him faces criticism from the public, and their sponsors.
There are of course also legal issues. As he is currently only halfway through his sentence (although he has completed the prison component), both he and his employer are required to meet with probation officers every week, and his presence on the sex offenders register for the next fifteen years means he cannot work with children or vulnerable adults. Most fans, one might imagine, do not want their team to be represented by a sex offender, and they proved with a 150,000 signature strong petition against Evans re-joining Sheffield United, his former club.
But should it be relevant? Surely, as some will undoubtedly say, if someone has committed an offence of any nature, been sentenced and served their time, then it is in the past and should not affect their future? Well, honestly, no.
The problem here is complex. Public figures are, like it or not, role models. This is especially true in football, with many young and impressionable fans, those involved simply have to behave in a way that is appropriate for this younger audience. It is highly irresponsible to hire those who have committed sexual offences, knowing the message this will send. People should not be encouraged to cheer for a convicted rapist.
However, this is not something that applies to all crimes. I think any suggestion that people who have committed petty theft as a teenager, for example, should be denied any kind of public employment is ridiculously unfair. Most crimes should follow the ‘well, if they have served their time…’ rule, but rape and sexual assault simply cannot follow this pattern.
The reason rape adds such a layer of complexity to any kind of example-setting ultimately comes down to rape culture. Rape culture exists in a society in which rape is widespread and accepted due to societal attitudes about gender and sexuality. One only needs to look at the number of people claiming Ched Evans has done nothing wrong, and attempting to blame and identify his victim, to see this in action. No matter how much we attempt to shift it, it remains internalised social opinion that women are inherently worth less than men.
This brings us to the inescapable pattern of victim-blaming – where we focus on not the behaviour of the rapist, but that of the victim, when assigning fault – and of sexual objectification of women. We laugh away ‘laddish behaviour’ even in very small boys (how many times has a boy only been teasing a girl because he likes her?), and teach girls to stay off the streets – instead of focussing on the re-education of men. We teach women to not get raped, rather than teaching men not to rape. Employing Evans in a high-profile role implicitly reinforces the view that he has not committed a serious crime, and that this is just another case of ‘boys being boys’. He should not return to professional football.
There is also the issue of repentance; there are big differences between someone who has committed a heinous crime, served their sentence, and is now filled with remorse and someone who maintains that they have done nothing wrong. Ched Evans maintains that he is blameless, but he has been found guilty in a court of law. A return to professional football endorses his version of events.
Ultimately, placing sex offenders and rapists in positions of influence and exposure promotes, albeit tacitly, the idea that the crime he has committed is acceptable. Rape and sexual violence are far too disturbing and dangerous – and far too common – to ever be swept under the rug. Frankly, victims deserve more respect, and humanity deserves fewer victims.