On Sunday, Hartlepool FC quashed rumours that they would be signing Ched Evans, the former Sheffield United forward and convicted rapist. In response to the Hartlepool manager Ronnie Moore’s comment that ‘if it could happen, I would want it to happen’, the club released a statement saying that they would not be signing Evans, ‘irrespective of his obvious ability as a football player’.
Following Sheffield United’s example, Hartlepool have been pressured by the public into administering vigilante justice to a man who has been deemed by our justice system to have served the appropriate amount of time for his crime.
Evans’ opponents have consistently argued that footballers’ status as role-models for young men means that a convicted rapist should never play again. When threatening to remove her name from a Sheffield United stand if the club re-signed Evans in November, Jessica Ennis-Hill said that footballers should ‘respect the role they play in young people’s lives and set a good example’. ‘If Evans was to be re-signed by the club’, she argued, ‘it would completely contradict those beliefs.’ Ennis-Hill was echoed last weekend by Iain Wright, Hartlepool’s MP: ‘I just think it sends out such a wrong message to young men in terms of it being ok for a rapist to play football. It’s entirely wrong.’
But what about the 6,274 men under 21 who were in British prisons as of June 2014? Law-abiding teenage boys have no shortage of role models – a recent poll named family man David Beckham and philanthropist businessman Bill Gates as among the most popular choices. Young offenders dreaming of a second chance in society have few examples to give them hope. Instead, a young man following the Ched Evans case from a prison cell would have his worst fears confirmed: after his release, and regardless of his skills or experience, he can expect to be shunned by employers and perhaps forced back into crime to make ends meet. 73% of 10-17 year olds released from custody re-offend within a year: these are the teenagers who most need role models.
I feel no warmth towards Ched Evans: he has been convicted of a heinous crime, which he still denies committing. But I doubt that many young convicts will be inspired by the way Evans has been treated to admit their crimes and seek redemption following their release: it must appear that convicted rapists are destined for unemployment and social stigma, however they behave after their release. We should allow Ched Evans a chance to play football again – it would provide thousands of young men with a much-needed role model of rehabilitation.