|Ched Evans' attempts to return to football after his rape conviction has been|
the subject of fierce debate. (C) Getty Images
Stacey disagrees. Once society starts specifying the type of jobs a rapist can do on top of the legally proscribed ones, it is heading in a "dangerous" direction. The jobs listed under regulated activity are about protecting people, not about punishing offenders again. "People make mistakes. As co-workers or neighbours or friends we should focus on the real risks of employing people rather than the perceived risks. Are they the best person for the job?"Matthew Syed of The Times, also looks at how such a move could impact future behaviour, adding: "The point here is that the very concept of rehabilitation is undermined if we rig the world against those we have already punished. Why would anyone wish to change if they know they are never going to be given a decent shot?"
|Luke McCormick returned to pro football in 2013 after |
serving three-and-a-half year prison term. (C) Plymouth Herald
Regarding the suggestion of footballers being role models, I feel that this can cut both ways. This may sound like a utopia, admittedly, but offering the chance of a footballer to return to their profession after a criminal offence means they can be a potential role model for people who have got on the 'wrong side of the tracks'; they can show them that people can go down a wrong path and yet can still ensure that their errors do not define them and that, if they are able to learn from them (very important!), they can still really achieve things with their lives. Both Lee Hughes (former West Brom striker currently with Forest Green Rovers) and Luke McCormick (Plymouth Argyle goalkeeper) have been able to return to the game despite being convicted of (separate) offences of death by dangerous driving (in McCormick's case, also a drink-driving offence). However bad their crimes were (and we are talking about deaths here), they were able to rebuild their lives after serving their punishment, without the social media abuse that has come with the Evans case (though apparently McCormick continues to receive heavy abuse at games). The one that really got me thinking about this was the case, in Belgium, of Ilombe Mboyo. Having been a childhood contemporary of Vincent Kompany in footballing terms, Mboyo (unlike Kompany) got into gangs and crime and was convicted of a gang-rape in his teens. His time in prison forced him to reflect on the direction his life was taking, the consequences (in terms of the horrific crime he had committed), and to vow (based on events so far at least) to change his ways. He was then spotted in Ittre jail by Pierre Bodenghien, who ran a "Football in Prisons" scheme at the jail and was also a scout for Charleroi, then a professional team in the Jupiler League (Belgian Premier League). Gradually, Mboyo started attending sessions at Charleroi (managed at the time by former Scotland international John Collins) and was eventually signed by the club. A rise through the ranks took him to Ghent and then to Racing Genk, where he currently plays. This included, during a good run of form, a brief role in the Belgian national team, for whom he won two caps in 2012.
While vitriolic and distasteful in parts, maybe some good has come out of the Ched Evans case, and the emotions it has provoked. It has emphasised the difficult challenges society faces as a whole in reintegrating criminal offenders, particularly sex offenders, after they leave prison - irrespective of whether there is an appeals process going on. In the context of football, more thought needs to be given about the steps individuals must take before they play again. Firstly, and most obviously, the nuances of a case such as Evans' (e.g. the appeal process) must be taken into consideration when clubs consider signing a player recently released from prison. Secondly, there are steps a player can make to further their rehabilitation; if guilty (full stop), a show of contrition would be a positive start, and completing an educational programme or course on sexual consent and the treatment of women or, indeed, men (focusing on a rape or sex offence case for now), would definitely be a good idea (assuming such courses do exist, admittedly). Stretching the possibilities somewhat, maybe they could fund, or become a supporter for, campaigns which push for better treatment of women in this context (unlikely, yes, but note how Dwain Chambers and David Millar have become vocal opponents of drug taking in athletics and cycling respectively, having both been banned for drug taking in the past)? A related point about this is that, if a club does decide to sign a player early after release, they can help enrol a player on an educational course, whilst they are training and as part of a gradual, step-by-step transition to being involved in a matchday squad. What else can clubs do? They can try and create a dialogue with fans and sponsors, highlighting why they are signing the player and (e.g.) what steps they are encouraging the player to take has taken as part of their rehabilitation. Admittedly, though, whether such an undertaking is feasible or realistic on such a passionate topic, and where opinions can get so heated, is debatable. What could the FA do? Their guidelines could cover point 1 (the nuanced case of appeals) and perhaps formalise some of the steps myself and others have recommended which could form a part of a post-penal rehabilitation process, which could help educate the player whilst simultaneously assuaging some of the doubts fans have. Finally, what else could be done? Well, longer prison sentences for sexual offences as a whole could also come onto the table, if that better reflects people's beliefs about the severity of sexual offence.
My main conclusion from this is that, once a footballer has served their prison sentence (including release on probation) - even for a sexual offence - they should be allowed to return to the game (football-related offences like match-fixing notwithstanding). This, for me, is a very important principle in the rehabilitation process. Some of the proposals I have included above are ideas which try to enhance the rehabilitation process of the player after release, educating them and, additionally, recognising the complexity around rehabilitation of offenders and assuaging the concerns many people may have about the player's right to return to the game. No, we should not try to pretend that it will necessarily be easy. Yes, we need to be sensitive of nuances like appeals and maintenance of innocence. However, it is far better to be sensitive about these issues, by brainstorming ideas which can help resolve them and address the genuine concerns expressed by critics (as distinct from the simple blood-baying of a social media mob), than to start drawing arbitrary red lines, by banning the player from ever returning to the game again.
 - In fact, figures suggest that we may already be heading in this direction. According to a joint-departmental Government paper "An Overview of Sexual Offending in England & Wales", published in 2013, 'the average custodial sentence of rape convictions stood at eight-and-a-half years in 2011, an increase of nearly 21 months since 2005'. However, as far as I can tell (I have only read the summary quickly, and not yet read the full paper - which may or may not have this information), this doesn't provide information on when rapists are released, e.g. on probation (i.e. how much of their full custodial sentence was spent in prison, and how this has changed over recent times).
Quite a lot of articles have helped guide and, in other cases, challenge my thinking on this subject. In addition to bits of articles quoted (and linked to) above, a selection of these are presented below. All dates presented below are to the best of my knowledge (I read most of them online).
"Ilombe Mboyo: Prison, stardom, and a terrible past" Patrick Nathanson, published by BBC Sport on September 24 2013
"Ched Evans: Charlie Webster resigns as Sheffield United patron" Includes interview with Charlie Webster on BBC Newsnight, broadcast November 11 2014
"What should happen to a released rapist" Tom de Castella, published by BBC News Magazine on November 13 2014
"Ched Evans case shows that the law is an ass, not the clubs wanting to sign him" Marina Hyde, published in The Guardian on January 6 2015
"The football rapist is vile, but courts hand out justice - not the Twitter mob" Melissa Kite, published in the Daily Mail on January 6 2015
"Ched Evans furore shows a sport out of step with the modern world" Owen Gibson, published in The Guardian on January 8 2015
"Ched Evans affair shamed football - myopic PFA, mute FA and idiotic clubs all disgraced themselves" Paul Hayward, published in The Daily Telegraph on January 9 2015