In the last few months, a scandal has emerged in Irish rugby. International players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding are currently awaiting trial having been charged with the rape of a woman in June 2016.
Both players are “not being considered for selection” whilst court proceedings continue, but with England cricketer Ben Stokes also out in the cold following a street brawl, it calls into question the morality of sports figures and how their misdemeanours are adjudicated by the public.
In football, Welshman Ched Evans was infamously jailed for rape, before being acquitted in 2016 and signing for Chesterfield, and then re-signing for former club Sheffield United. Many clubs pulled out of signing Ched Evans prior to him signing for the Spirites.
Before that, Sheffield United felt they needed permission for Evans to even begin training with them. A Football League statement at the time said they had no option but to allow Evans to take part.
“While we fully understand the gravity of the offence in question in this particular case, we also recognise that there is a value to wider society in enabling offenders to be rehabilitated through a return to their chosen line of employment. Equally, however, it is important never to lose sight of the effect that crime has on its victims”, the statement read.
With those in high-up places appearing to veer to the side of redemption, it asks the fans and public an important question: should we still be viewing sportspeople as role models?
In my view, yes. If we drop our standards and get used to the expectation that a sportsman has skeletons in his closet – we normalise it. We cannot let their high profiles be used as a protective shield against punishment and controversy.
Obviously, kids are always going to look up to their sporting heroes. That isn’t something we can or should prevent – it’s natural to idolise the athlete that has just won your team the league, won gold for your country or lifted the heavyweight championship belt.
These guys also need to be reminded of their job. They are doing what they love, and getting paid for it. Behaving yourself and setting a good example is part of the job description. They must remember that there are literally thousands of people lining up to replace them. If you drop below that standard, you cannot expect to continue as a high profile professional.
So, with that said – should those in an elevated position of admiration be more severely punished?
As the old adage goes, the bigger they are, the harder they fall. Going back to Ched Evans, he
initially found it very hard to get a job back in football. Hartlepool, Hibernians (the one from Malta), Oldham and Grimsby Town all thought about signing Evans before reneging amid widespread backlash.
Indeed, football journalist Henry Winter, wrote: “It was people’s disgust that a convicted rapist felt he could swan back into a high-profile job after revealing no remorse for a crime that would preclude re-employment for many.”
That was all before his acquittal in 2016, though. His initial punishment, now the wasted youth of an innocent man. But Winter did sum it up well – given his alleged crime, he did not deserve another shot at redemption.
The tricky thing here is that he was acquitted, and proven not guilty. So, what of those who were found guilty?
Three years ago, Glasgow Warriors back-rower, Ryan Wilson, was found guilty of assault for punching a fellow rugby player – whilst dressed as Batman.
Whilst news stories at the time focused on the caped-crusader side of things, I focused on Wilson’s actual actions – assault.
“Now, why pick a player who has shown a lack of professionalism off the pitch when you have players who are setting high standards on the pitch and providing a better role model for the younger players off it?
“It is a shame as Wilson is a talented player, but life as a professional sportsman in the public eye is not easy and you cannot afford to slip up.”
Since then, Wilson has been made captain of his club side, and vice-captain of his national team. He did face punishment at the time: briefly dropped by club and country, and fined money by the courts. Since then, however, he has seemingly gotten his head down and focused on excelling in the sport he plays.
Obviously, the gravity of his crime was much less severe than that of Jackson and Olding, but it was a crime nonetheless. Yet, he is now being promoted within the rugby playing system. Did he not forfeit this right when he tussled on the chip shop floor? Apparently not.
The worst example is yet to come. Marlon King sexually assaulted a 20-year-old woman, and after serving 18 months in prison, started playing professional football again, enjoying a successful spell at Birmingham City. He lived a life afterwards without any serious consequences.
To those with any common sense, that seems totally ludicrous, and those involved in prolonging his lavish career post-jail, should hang their heads in shame. King was a repeat offender, who went on to serve another 18 months in prison for driving offences that left two men seriously injured. That was the nail in his proverbial coffin, but the fact that the lid wasn’t already bolted shut is mystifying.
That said, we should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and not let a few bad eggs ruin a good carton. There are still tales of redemption, and sportsmen or women being upstanding members of society. Despite their recent and somewhat frequent bad press, sportspeople can still be role models yet – and we should hold them to that regard.
By Andrew Petrie