Even an assortment of epic sporting achievement still can’t elbow out the baleful presence of Ched Evans lurking in the background of any review of the year.
No honest examination of 2014 can ignore Evans’ squalid story, the dark side of the sporting coin, which has come to involve much more than the tawdry details of a crime committed in a hotel room in 2011, pitching vitally important questions, including specifically about sport’s status in society, and more generally about that society actually practising what it preaches.
An awful lot of words have been uttered about how Evans, the former Sheffield United player, ended up sentenced to five years for the rape of a 19-year-old woman too drunk to consent to sex with him. But the only truly relevant word was guilty. Evans committed rape.
Much less black-and-white are some of the words employed since Evans’s release in October when his inconvenient desire to play football again parked the practicalities of what to do with him now he has served his time front and centre.
Those practicalities still exist despite even lowly Hartlepool United quickly disassociating itself from the possibility of employing him. Condemnatory words tumbled over each other last week, and yet there is one word which cannot be employed to describe the ethical maze which the repugnant Evans presents and that is “simple”.
Despite some determined efforts, there remains nothing “simple” about what to do with an unremorseful rapist who wants to return to work. In fact it’s so complicated there’s even a murmuring tide that suggests Evans may even be entitled to some “victim” status himself since the chances of him going back to the job he had look to have disappeared.
What that says to the real victim in all this is hard to know considering she has endured a different and continuing prison of vicious and cowardly opprobrium since being “outed” online. However no one is served by any shade of gesture politics which perpetuate the delusion that this is a straightforward issue. The conviction was straightforward: what to do with Evans now is anything but.
Jessica Ennis-Hill helped pinpoint the dilemma. On the back of her statement last month that she wanted her name removed from the Sheffield United stand if Evans was re-signed by her local club, she said: “I think people can be rehabilitated and if they have served time in jail can go back into society, but I just feel that when you are in a really privileged position it’s quite different.”
She is entitled to that view. She is also entitled to express it without being subject to disgusting abuse on social media. And only the most naive can believe she isn’t on the money when pointing out how privilege swings things sometimes, something we know all too well in this country.
However in this case she is effectively saying a privileged position means different rules apply. In practice she may be correct. Practice is often very different from theory no matter what the field. But as theories go the law is a fundamental one. It’s an expression of how we see ourselves, both as individuals and a collective. Compromising on the theory involves compromising on the principle that everyone is equal before the law, something surely worth cherishing.
Ennis-Hill pointing to privilege as a discriminatory factor is basically a variant on sport’s role model argument, which in many cases often says more about the person assuming such a role than anything else. What it says in this case is that Evans is different because he plays football for a living. And a job in sport is different, in the sense that many eyes do view footballers as different, essentially because those eyes choose to do so.
However that doesn’t mean the law should reflect that. People are individually entitled to not associate themselves with a convicted criminal but the justice system remains based on the slate being wiped once a sentence has been served.
It is an essentially positive belief in the possibility of rehabilitation, maybe even redemption. Intentional or not, it appears that Evans is being made an exception to that because he’s a footballer.
Evans has done his time. Legally he can be hired by a club. In reality no club is likely to risk public criticism by doing so. There’s nothing simple or straightforward about getting those two realities to meaningfully coexist without the fundamental construct of how we view our society through its legal structures being tested. Of course it would be easier if Evans simply went away but he gives no sign of doing so.
It might be easier too, if he said sorry but he won’t do that and legal history is full of remorseful words that rang hollow. What we can establish from the public domain makes Evans a deeply unappealing character but that’s hardly a novelty, either in sport or society generally.
The idea of him returning to football may be repugnant but there’s a bigger issue here than delusional assumptions about sports figures having role model duties, assumptions that have been blown out of the water too often in the past for them to remain credible.
But the idea of a clean slate after paying your debt to society is a fundamental civic pillar, one that even requires having to hold one’s nose sometimes.
Evans has paid that debt. One can justifiably argue it was a long way from a sufficient toll.
But the vast majority who abide by the law should have the moral backbone that Evans so conspicuously lacks to practise what the law preaches, even if it makes our stomachs turn.