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Ched Evans Debate: Sheffield United Criticism is Unjustified

Sheffield United have received fierce criticism since announcing that they will allow Ched Evans to return to train for them after serving half of a five year jail sentence for a rape conviction. Evans’ case has understandably received extensive media attention and United’s decision has been largely condemned. While United have struggled to deal with what is a difficult situation, their decision should not come as a surprise.

Upon Evans’ release Sheffield United were in an uncomfortable and lose-lose situation. In allowing Evans to return to their club, albeit just into training, they are seen, by some, to be condoning the crime he committed. However, if they had decided to completely disassociate themselves from Evans and refuse him any affiliation with the club, then they would undoubtedly have been lambasted for preventing the rehabilitation of an offender.

The reaction to allowing Evans to train with United is to be expected. The crime he committed is one that understandably provokes strong public feeling and the issues surrounding rape and convicted rapists are ones that far extend the boundaries of the footballing world. So strong was public opinion that a petition to refuse to reinstate Ched Evans as a player at Sheffield United received over 150,000 signatures.

Television presenter Charlie Webster, herself a victim of sexual assault, resigned as a patron of the club this week. She told BBC’s Newsnight,:

“My decision is made on the fact that I don’t believe a convicted rapist, as in Ched Evans, should go back to a club that I am patron of and should go back into the community to represent the community.

“He’s not just going into a job, he’s bandied as a role model, we cheer him on as a role model and he’s influencing the next generation of young men who are currently still making their decisions on how to treat women and what sexual mutual consent is.”

Similarly, Jessica Ennis-Hill has asked for her name to be removed from a stand named after her by Sheffield United if the club offers convicted Evans a permanent contract. “Those in positions of influence should respect the role they play in young people’s lives and set a good example,” said Olympic champion Ennis-Hill.

Both Webster and Ennis-Hill are well within their rights to resign and make such requests respectively. It is their choice, as people who have their names connected to Sheffield United, to break such a connection if they disagree with another individual’s involvement with the club. However, such an understanding needs to be consistent in respect to both sides of the dispute. Should United choose to re-employ Evans on a full-time contract then they would also be doing so permissibly.

We have heard little from those, and they are out there, who view Evans’ return to football as an acceptable arrangement.

Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) chief Gordon Taylor backed any decision to allow Evans to play football on his release from prison. “I didn’t know there was a law that said once you come out of prison you still can’t do anything,” Taylor said.

“As a trade union we believe in the rule of law… besides that, he still wants to contribute to society.”

Former Manchester City academy manager Jim Cassell, who worked with Evans before his conviction, also agrees that he should be allowed to play football once more. “My opinion is that one serves their time in prison, where they are supposed to be rehabilitated in order to return to normal life, regardless of who they are or what they do,” Cassell told ITV News.

Evans’ return to football was always going to be controversial. Sheffield United’s choice to allow him to return to their club does not mean they condone his crime any more than Charlie Webster’s resignation and Jessica Ennis-Hill’s request (to have her name removed from a stand at United’s ground) mean that they do not believe in the rehabilitation of ex-criminals.

In a society where we rely on the judgement of our justice system, we should also accept its imperfections. There are many who would have been happy to see Ched Evans remain behind bars for much longer, but he has served his sentence and by law earned his right to another chance to live as a civilised citizen again. The nature of his crime means that his punishment, rightly or wrongly, will likely stay with him for the rest of his life.

In allowing Evans back to train with their club United are neither, as some have suggested, accepting that he was wrongly convicted or trivialising the crime he committed. There is no law in football that prevents convicted criminals from returning to the sport after carrying out their punishments.

Sheffield United have made their decision and will have to face the consequences of doing so.

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