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Should we let them play?

Ched Evans was convicted at Caernarfon Crown Court in April 2012 of raping a 19 year old woman, and sentenced to five years in prison. He was released from prison in October 2014. Shortly after his release Evans protested his innocence and suggested that his worst offence had been cheating on his fiancée. He also looked to restart his career as a professional soccer player in the third tier of the English league with his former club Sheffield United. What has ensued is a huge debate about whether the club should offer Evans a new contract. One side argues that Evans has served his time and should be allowed to continue his career, whereas the other claims that his role as a professional sportsman marks him out as a role model for his local community and the youngsters that support his team. A rape conviction they say is not compatible with the standards that society demands from its sports stars.

The debate in England over Evans is nothing new. In the US the National Football League (NFL) has had a personal conduct policy in place since 1997. This allows the NFL to take action against any player convicted of a domestic abuse offence including suspensions and fines. Similarly in Australian Rules Football (AFL) the governing body introduced its Respect and Responsibility programme in 2005 to educate players about violence against women. The problem in all these cases, indeed a difficulty for most branches of the sporting world, is that the big box office draws are highly paid male athletes operating out of dressing rooms that are hyper masculine and underpinned by an atmosphere of sexual aggression. As the star players are vital to the industry and ensure that box office receipts and television income remain high, the governing authorities of many male team sports have been slow to act decisively in cases where players have been charged or convicted of rape or domestic abuse. Since the start of the new millennium 48 NFL players have been found guilty of domestic abuse. In 88% of the cases the NFL either banned the player for a single game or else took no action. Similarly the AFL has been slow to take action against players. In the last two years players at the St Kilda Saints and North Melbourne clubs were charged with rape, and in both cases the clubs and the AFL stated that the players would remain available for selection and on full salaries prior to their trials.

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Ched Evans representing Wales in 2009. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

It is clear that the male sporting world has not taken the issue of violence against women seriously. Clubs and managers that demand a strong dressing room, where loyalty to the team is paramount and aggression is part of the game has create a masculine environment where women cannot be respected. In a sporting world where those players are then highly paid, cosseted by their management and agents, women have little function beyond their sexual availability.

The debate in the United States around the case of NFL player Ray Rice, who was caught on camera punching his partner unconscious, and that of Ched Evans in England, have piled pressure on clubs and governing bodies to take the issues of sexual and domestic violence by players seriously. In the Ched Evans case the Sheffield born gold medal winning athlete, Jessica Ennis-Hill, stated that if Evans was offered a contract by the club she would ask that her name be removed from the stand that was named after her when she won her Olympic title in 2012. Ennis-Hill stated that ‘those in positions of influence should respect the role’s they play in young people’s lives and set a good example’. And herein lies the whole contradiction around the issue of male sports stars and their attitudes towards sexual and domestic violence.

Modern sport had its roots in Victorian Britain, and would spread around the world in various forms. No matter what type of sport emerged in any given setting across the globe the Victorian obsession that sport had an ethical ethos of fair play and gentlemanly conduct was hard wired into the meaning that society gave sport. As a result contemporary sport is supposed to be played in the right way in accordance with the rules, and athletes are supposed to conduct themselves in a certain way. To be an elite athlete is to be a role model and society expects athletes to display positive attributes on and off the field of play. But why should society expect that athletes, often from the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum and with poor educational attainment, to behave like some form of idealised Victorian gentleman? However, as the sports star is expected to be the model citizen, because the ethics of sport are so deeply embedded in the collective consciousness, their conduct does matter. It matters to many followers of sport, is of interest to the media, and is increasingly becoming important to sponsors as they assess the value of any team or athlete in terms that stretch beyond their success on the field of play.

This is why sports teams and governing bodies will have to start taking firm action against those found guilty of sexual and domestic violence. Guilty players will have to be banned from the game and lose their chance of earning their fortune. Not only will this send a clear message to players that violence against women in unacceptable, it will also shape the thinking of the generation of young boys who see their sporting heroes as role models. If, in the future, they see players who respect women, then male attitudes will improve across society. Those who govern the world of male professional sport have to realise that they administer not simply their games, but they are also responsible for the meaningful creation of men with positive values who can act, in the best ways, as role models.

Featured image credit: “Blades”, by Kopii90 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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