As a professional soccer player, Ched Evans never became a household name with his appearances for several of Britain’s best-known clubs. But as a convicted rapist seeking to re-enter the professional game after his release from prison last week, he has suddenly become the focal point of an impassioned national debate.
The issue: whether Evans, 25, a striker whose résumé includes largely unheralded stints at Manchester City, Norwich City, Sheffield United and a place on the national team of Wales, should be allowed to return to the sport, or be excluded on moral grounds from any further playing career, at least in the professional leagues.
England’s professional soccer clubs are no strangers to controversy over the behavior of players who breach sporting and social codes on and off the field. Episodes of racial abuse and violence against opponents, including several involving top players, have resulted in a long succession of suspensions and fines.
Evans’s case, and the emotions and public reaction to his effort to return to the field, echo a continuing debate in the United States — set off by the recent arrests of several prominent N.F.L. players for charges including domestic violence and child abuse — about whether an athlete’s actions off the field should have consequences on it.
An online petition demanding that Evans be barred from returning to soccer has drawn more than 150,000 signatures in the days since he walked out of a prison in Lancashire last Friday after serving half of a five-year sentence. That criticism was met Wednesday by a videotaped statement from Evans — who called the encounter that sent him to prison in 2012 an “act of infidelity,” not a rape — and by support on his behalf from others, including the chief of the Professional Footballers’ Association, Gordon Taylor, and groups that lobby for the rehabilitation of former prisoners. “I didn’t know that there was a law that said once you come out of prison you still can’t do anything,” Taylor said.
No club has offered Evans a contract, and the chances that one will are likely to have diminished in the current climate.
The furor was prompted by news media reports last weekend that Sheffield United, which released Evans a month after he was convicted of raping a woman in a hotel room in Rhyl, Wales, his hometown, in May 2011, was considering taking him back on a contract worth about $800,000 for the remainder of the current season, which ends in May. The club, which played in the Premier League as recently as 2007, has fallen on hard times, sinking into the third tier of English soccer.
Above A footballing decision
Sheffield United’s manager, Nigel Clough, acknowledged that the possibility of bringing back Evans had been discussed by club officials. But he said any decision would have to be made “above a football level,” by the club’s co-owners.
On Wednesday, Evans made the case for himself in a videotaped appeal posted on his website. As he has maintained since he was accused, Evans reiterated his belief that “the acts I engaged in on that night were consensual in nature and not rape.” He noted that his lawyers have entered a new appeal with the Criminal Case Review Commission, which has the power to refer the conviction to the Court of Appeal. The appeal judges rejected an earlier bid to overturn Evans’s conviction.
Appearing beside his long-term partner, Natasha Massey, 24, and reading in a flat tone from an off-screen prompter, Evans said he has “constantly regretted my act of infidelity and the damage that has been done on so many fronts because of it.” He said of Massey and his other supporters, “It can’t have been an easy thing to have stood by someone who the court found guilty of such a destructive act.”
“It is a rare and extraordinary privilege to play professional football,” he said, adding that if he were allowed to return, “I will do so with humility, having learned a very painful lesson. I would like a second chance, but I know that not everyone will agree.”