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COMMENT

12/1/2015
The case of English footballer and convicted rapist Ched Evans, follows scandals in FIFA, NFL and the NBA to name but a few, where sponsor reaction appears to be the only pressure being brought to bear that has any impact.

To re-cap the Evans story, the player was convicted of rape in 2012 and jailed for five years. He then lost an appeal a served half of his sentence before being released on parole.

Ched Evans - time line of events
  • November 2014: His former club, Sheffield United, appeared keen to take him back but withdrew following pressure from sponsors and high profile fans.
  • 4 January 2015: English League One club (the 3rd tier of English soccer), Oldham Athletic indicated that they would offer Evans a contract.
  • 7 January 2015: Oldham sponsor Verlin Rainwater Solutions announces it is terminating its deal, while ZenOffice says that it will do so if the club signs Evans.
  • 8 January 2015: Oldham Athletic announces that it won’t sign the player and cites sponsor pressure as a key reason for the decision.
  • 9 January 2015: Professional Footballer’s Association (the representative body for footballers in England) chief, Gordon Taylor insists that Evans should be allowed to resume his career having served his sentence: “I didn’t know there was a law that said once you come out of prison you still can’t do anything.”

Taylor controversially links Evans’ plight with that of victims of the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, where 96 Liverpool fans died following overcrowding in Sheffield’s Hillsborough Stadium. Liverpool fans were vilified in sections of the UK media as drunk and stole from the dead in reports that were subsequently proven to be untrue. Taylor explained that Evans maintained his innocence and was launching a second appeal and his actions might be seen in a different light if he is eventually cleared of the crime.

The English Football Association, the game’s governing body in the country, claims it cannot prevent Evans from playing because its constitution doesn’t allow it to make a ruling on such issues.

There is very little dignity left among parties involved in this case. Evans was convicted and lost an appeal. He claims that his lack of apology and contrition is based on his innocence. However, a website with links to Evans has (illegally) named the victim who has had to change her name five times and move away from home.

Ethical behaviour of athletes

Although it is not the normal role of IMR to discuss weightier issues of ethics, it is perhaps worth examing them in this case because they do pose important questions for sports rights holders and sponsors in the longer term. In general IMR would support the notion that a criminal who has served his or her sentence should be free to find gainful employment and be fully re-habilitated into soceity. That is a fundamental tenet of our justice system.

The argument in this case is that rape is different and that footballers are role models and should set examples to young people who could be influenced by their actions and public response to their actions. Taking the role model issue first; in professional football (soccer) and many other sports, young, inexperienced and often poorly educated men from disadvantaged backgrounds, suddenly find themselves rich beyond their dreams and the focus of adulation and media attention.

It is completely unrealistic to expect all to behave maturely without any help – they are like proverbial kids in a candy shop – suddenly the world of fast cars, expensive night clubs and sexual encounters is theirs to take. There is no point in moralising about whether or not they should take this course, the reality is that at present some will. They were offered contracts to play sport, not to become role models and many are simply not equipped to fulfil the latter role. The question here, therefore, is: do we have any right to expect sports stars to uphold moral (as opposed to legal) values and if so, what should the sports industry be doing to make this happen? The whole ‘sports stars as role models’ needs much more debate if we are ever to progress beyond a point we were at 40 years ago.

Having said that, it is perhaps worth reflecting on the relatively few scandalous stories that do appear given the large number of high profile professional sportsmen and women, the ability of mobile phones to capture embarrassing and/or illegal activity and the obsession in the media with running stories of scandal.

Should rapists be banned from professional sport?

The question of rape and attitudes to women in sport, however is also important. Should a footballer convicted of rape be allowed to resume their career once they have served their sentence? It is a difficult question but there many professions from which people on the Sexual Offenders Register are banned – and with very few complaints from the public. They include a series of vocations in which the employee has contact with children. Should this include football? The sport has youth academies, young fan clubs etc and contact with children would be difficult to avoid. Clearly a soccer star has an impression on young fans so there is a very strong argument for saying that if that star breaks the law in a manner that sends out a bad signal in terms of attitudes to women (or for that matter, minority groups), then they have stepped over a line from which they cannot come back. Many sports don’t re-admit drug cheats or those involved in match fixing, why should they re-admit people who have commited appaling crimes that will impact the victims for the rest of their lives?

This is an issue that sports governing bodies should debate with some urgency. They have the ability to impose rules that would send a very strong message to both sports stars and society as a whole.

The role of sponsors in policing ethics

This finally brings us to the question of the role of sponsors. Given the recent scandals involving such figures as LA Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling, who told his partner to stop bringing black guests to Clippers games and admonished her for posing for photographs with black people, what role should sponsors play?

Although the NBA ultimately sanctioned Sterling with a lifetime ban and a fine of $2.5m (the maximum it could impose), it was the early action of sponsors State Farm and CarMax that really raised pressure for action.

In the case of the FIFA bribery allegations, so far only Sony and Emirates (the latter was thought to be withdrawing anyway) have put any meaningful pressure on the governing body’s hierarchy through withdrawing their sponsorships.

It appears that sponsors are now acting as an ethical check and balance to sport. It was not something that they signed up to, but it is perhaps indicative of the problems besetting sports governance that it is frequently being left to sponsors to peform this role. Sponsors often have the benefit of more experienced and professional public relations departments and it would be naïve to ignore the fact that many swift ethical stances are determined by commercial reality. Sponsors often act quickly because they know that the public backlash is likely to hit them first and hardest. Indeed most major sponsorship contrasts now have very clear 'morality clauses', which allow sponsors to withdraw with immediate effect if their business is harmed by by adverse publicity connected to the rights holder. Sponsors are increasingly using those clauses to act very quickly.

In contrast, all too frequently governing bodie

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