English Football’s Latest Acid Test

CONTENT NOTE: This piece will discuss rape, anti-semitism, and homophobia.

by Shane Thomas 

Much has already been written on the topic of footballer, Ched Evans attempting to restart his career after serving a prison sentence for rape. But my focus today isn’t on Evans. Both Jessica Luther and Jude Wanga have done that better than I could.

Essentially, I’m not sure if Evans being permitted to play for a football club again is where the conversation should start. An equally salient question is, why would any club want to sign him?

Now, we could hypothesize on the potential fallout if a club enabled him to continue his career. But we don’t have to. Sheffield United – the club who employed Evans before his conviction – had agreed to allow the Welshman to train with them, although they hadn’t committed to offering him a contract.

Footballers rape trial

For clarity’s sake, Sheffield United didn’t do this as an act of altruism, or out of an interest in ostensible rehabilitation. Evans was the club’s top scorer before he went to prison. They were in the Premier League in 2007, but now sit two divisions below, and it seems clear that having Evans back in their squad could increase their chances of a return to the Premier League, no matter how much harm it caused to others.

While Sheffield United have since retracted their offer, this was only due to public pressure, rather than a sudden outbreak of decency. And lest we forget, the key factor in shifting events came from Jessica Ennis-Hill. The Olympic heptathlon champion has a stand at Bramall Lane named in her honour, but she declared she wanted it removed if Evans resigned for the Blades.

Current reports indicate that Evans is considering walking away from the game altogether, and while revisionism may tell the story of how English football was united in proclaiming that he was persona non grata in the game, don’t believe any of it. It’s a lie.

Sure, pro-Evans sentiment was at a minimum, but the level of disgust was tepid. Much of it was discussed largely like part of a university debate. Ultimately, it took a woman, not directly involved in football to take a unambiguous stand that a convicted rapist, who has shown not a shred of public remorse, should not be accommodated back into the sport[1].

One of the few sagacious statements I heard from the British press before the backlash began was from Jeremy Cross, who said, “If a player cannot get sacked by a club for committing a crime like that, what does a player have to do to be regarded as having committed gross misconduct?”

What, indeed? The notion of Evans’s right to rebuild his life is not unreasonable, but at present, he is trying to rebuild it at the expense of the woman he raped, women who spoke out (who then received rape threats), and women football fans, who are periodically reminded of just how unwelcome their presence is in football.

Let’s move from Evans to Wigan Athletic chairman, Dave Whelan. He has been in the news for hiring Malky Mackay as Wigan’s manager, all while Mackay is currently being investigated by the FA for sending text messages rife with bigotry.

Whelan exacerbated this decision in an interview with The Guardian, which contained both racist and anti-semitic comments[2]. While Whelan has been charged by the FA – with a response to the charge expected to come later today – at the time of writing, he remains Wigan’s chairman.

These incidents are important because football is more than just a game. The fandom it engenders, the scrutiny it’s under, and the money it generates, ensures that it operates as a societal signpost.

What happens with Evans and Whelan matters because it carves into rock what English football deems as acceptable. It puts a loudspeaker to the societal conscience of the country, and awaits our response to see just where we stand on things such as racism or rape culture,

Football in Britain had a similar acid test in the past. In 1990, ex-professional, Justin Fashanu came out as gay, only to be given the cold shoulder by many in the game, before eventually taking his own life. It’s hardly surprising that no other player in this country has subsequently come out.

These kind of events occur because consensus opinion allows them too. An environment exists where Evans genuinely thought he could return to the game with negligible outrage, and Whelan honestly thinks it’s nothing to call a Chinese person a “ch*nk”.

It’s may not be conduct that’s explicitly endorsed, but beyond a few shrugged shoulders, football’s powerbrokers are yet to take any preventative action. What does this all say about the game’s executives, coaches, players, media, and fans? They may not be able to stop bad behaviour, but they can expressly delineate just what, and what isn’t, acceptable in the sport.

The likes of Sheffield United, Wigan, Evans, Mackay, and Whelan may end up pariahs for their behaviour. But that would let the game off lightly.

This is English football. Right now, the entire national sport should be held in contempt.

[1] – It should be stated that Ennis-Hill wasn’t the first to speak out. Both Charlie Webster and Natasha Henry on Sky News also pushbacked publicly on Evans being signed by a club

[2] – Yes, we did get a subsequent, “Sorry if anyone was offended” non-apology

________________________________________________

TWOWEEKSNOTICE “Two Weeks Notice” is Shane Thomas’s bi-monthly column encompassing. Pop culture to sport, and back again

A mixed-race film graduate, Shane comes from Jamaican and Mauritian parentage. He has been blogging about sport since 2010 at the website for The Greatest Events in Sporting History. He is also a contributor to ‘Simply Read’, the blogging offshoot of the podcasting network, Simply Syndicated. A lover of sport, genre-fiction, and privilege checking, Shane can be found on Twitter, both at @TGEISH and @tokenbg (and yes, the handle does mean what you think it means).

 

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