The Last Word: Two sides go to war but there are no winners

The Marlon King debate is a classic clash between lynch mob and liberals which can only end in ranting – but it's the victim who deserves support

Whenever the lynch mob lines up against the liberals there is never a prayer that a compromise will be reached; or even, for that matter, the first degree of understanding about the opposing argument. So it is with the Marlon King dilemma and the question of the rehabilitation of a professional footballer in the public eye.

The divide between the two camps is as simple as it is unbreachable. King, released last week after serving nine months of an 18-month sentence for sexual and physical assault, has no right to earn hundreds of thousands of pounds turning out for a club who are supposed to represent the family values of their community; King has the right, like every British citizen, to resume his profession once he has completed what the justice system has deemed is the time for his crime.

Essentially that is the debate; except it's not so much a debate as a shouting match, with both sides bellowing in the self-righteous belief that they are backed by ethics. Meanwhile King, his agent and whichever chairman it is who dares to give the shamed striker his halfway house, attempt to negotiate their way through the din, trying to tell anyone who isn't screaming that this isn't a moral argument at all, but merely that of a footballer being employed to play football. And this is when the realisation should hit home that when it comes to being straightforward, this matter rivals applied mathematics.

It should do, but it won't, as the examples of recent history proves. Three years ago, Oldham signed Lee Hughes after his early release from a six-year sentence for causing death by dangerous driving and leaving the scene of an accident. The outcry was predictable enough, as was the ensuing moral mêlée. Soon it spilled over into philosophical areas where many still maintain sport should never go. How come, many wondered, Tony Adams, and many other professional footballers, have been convicted of drink-driving but allowed to carry on at their clubs? The only difference between their crime and that of Hughes was one of good fortune in not crashing or knocking over anyone in their inebriation. What, exactly, does football think it is in drawing ethical lines in this regard?

It is a persuasive argument but one that ignores one very important factor in the Hughes or King dilemma: there do happen to be victims because of their actions. And it is the rights – legal or moral – of these victims which have so far been all but ignored in the disputes. When the liberals invoke images of bricklayers or plumbers being afforded the chance to rebuild their lives in the trade of their choice, they seem to forget that they are not in the public eye. That does make a difference. It has to.

Imagine being the woman who has been sexually assaulted and trying to get on with your life in the knowledge that every time you pass a TV set you could be confronted by the sight of your attacker. Not only that but he will often be shown in celebration and being fêted for his achievements. If the attacker was a brickie or a plumber, his victim would obviously not have to live in the fear of the headlines or highlights triggering the nightmare to be replayed in her mind and even, because of the hero-worship footballers receive, to be diminished in her mind.

Experts confirm there is a clear and present danger of such mental anguish, if not mental torture, and that is why certain women's groups have long lobbied for sexual assaulters to be denied a return to the public eye. King may well be rehabilitated but that doesn't necessarily mean the victim doesn't still require protecting.

So his return should not be considered the "no-brainer" many take it to be and neither should the return of any future lawbreakers. It is a desperately tricky one for football to deal with and, perhaps, with the implausible task of coming up with a definitive moral code, it is doomed to remain desperately tricky. But what should not happen is for the dilemma to continue to be simplified in such an arrogant manner by the two sides. This is as complex a problem as the game will ever have to face up to, if only from the sickening PR point of view. One day, a Premier League superstar will be sent down for a crime with a victim, and then the greed of the game will inevitably be cast as trampling all over what is perceived to be right.

Let us just wonder what a club will do when their £50m striker is sentenced for sexual assault. Will they be as quick to rip up his contract as Wigan were with King? And if they do, will all the fans of the clubs who do show an interest on his release be so vehemently against him lining up in their colours? "We're here to admire him as a goal-scorer, not as a human being," or so will go the cry. "Morals don't even come into it – his crime had nothing whatsoever to do with football."

Well, they do and it does, and here is why. No doubt the team who do offer King a way back will make all the right noises about everyone deserving a second chance. But, unless the nuns have taken over the boardroom, that's not why they will be signing King. They will see a proven marksman in the big leagues prepared to take a huge pay cut and drop down a level or two to begin the re-ascent. To them, King will be nothing more than a bargain with baggage. To be blunt, if and when he succeeds, his new club will be gaining from a situation which saw a female fondled and her nose broken.

Please explain to me how morals, football and his crime are not intertwined in that scenario.

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