Professional footballers tend to be glamorous, physically fit and wealthy beyond the dreams of their contemporaries.
Whether or not they are role models, many people are fascinated by their lifestyle. But there have been enough instances of appalling behaviour, often involving footballers on a night out, to suggest that the game has a serious problem with sexual violence.
The latest case to bring this into focus is that of Ched Evans, the former Sheffield United striker and Welsh international who has just been released from prison after serving half of a five-year sentence for rape.
Evans's release has triggered a fierce debate about whether he should be allowed to play professional football again. It coincided with publication of the latest figures for reported rapes in England and Wales, which show a rise of 29 per cent on the previous year. Overall, crime is falling, and there is a debate about whether the figure represents an increased incidence of rape or greater willingness to report it. But Evans's absolute refusal to acknowledge that he did anything wrong offers a startling insight into outdated beliefs within the game about women and sexual violence.
"We're footballers, we're rich and we've got money, that's what girls like," Evans bragged to police after his arrest. He is not alone in this view. "Don't you know who I am? I'm a millionaire." That was the Wigan Athletic striker, Marlon King, responding angrily to a young woman who rejected his advances in a Soho nightclub. In 2009, King was convicted of sexual assault and actual bodily harm after he groped the woman and punched her to the floor. He was jailed for 18 months but it didn't stop him from playing again after his release, most recently at Sheffield United. (He is in prison again, this time for dangerous driving.)
Then there is the case of Tesfaye Bramble, who played for Football League clubs and is the brother of a Premiership player, Titus Bramble. Three years ago Titus, who then played for Sunderland, gave evidence during Tesfaye's trial for rape; he said he assumed that "when a girl's coming back to a hotel after the club it's for sex". Tesfaye Bramble admitted climbing on top of his 19-year-old victim, who had fallen asleep in a single hotel bed after a night out in Newcastle, and deciding to "try my luck". He was convicted of rape and sentenced to four-and-a-half years.
The most striking common factor in the Evans and Bramble cases is complete ignorance of the importance of consent. Evans went to a hotel room in North Wales in the early hours after getting a text from his mate, the Port Vale player Clayton McDonald, telling him he had "got a girl". He found McDonald having sex with the woman, who was 19 and very drunk, and decided to do the same when his mate had finished. (McDonald was charged with rape but acquitted.)
Evans said the woman "was moaning and groaning like she was enjoying herself", apparently unaware that groaning is often a sign of distress. His self-absorption has not been dented by his time in jail, as a statement posted on his website makes clear: "Chedwyn Evans maintains his absolute innocence and his family, friends and many who know the true facts of the case believe that his conviction was a gross miscarriage of justice."
Juries do not lightly convict men of rape: Crown Prosecution Service figures show that the conviction rate was 60.3 per cent in 2013-14, compared with an overall rate of 79.8 per cent in crown courts. Evans had his application to appeal against conviction and sentence turned down by three judges, who could see "no basis" to interfere with the verdict. But he has engaged a new legal team and made an application to the Criminal Cases Review Commission. He has also promised to publish a "very personal and profound statement" in the next few days.
When I asked the FA about Evans's future, a spokesman said any club which signs an individual convicted of such crimes is "duty bound" to liaise with the probation and prison authorities to identify what "rehabilitation work" has taken place in prison. He said it is "also important to work to integrate the player back into the club and society". But what if the player flatly refuses to acknowledge that he's done anything wrong? The FA's statement effectively gives the green light to clubs to sign players who are unrepentant about their crimes towards women, as long as they comply with probation conditions.
The FA also told me it is improving "reporting procedures... to tackle sexism" and promoting the involvement of women in the game. But this is not just about sexism or behaviour on the pitch. It is about a footballing culture which trivialises sexual violence, as though someone's ability to score goals is all that matters. Since Evans's conviction, his supporters have repeatedly used social networking sites to abuse his critics, including his victim and a woman who collected more than 150,000 signatures on a petition calling for him to be blocked from returning to Sheffield United.
Football's authorities have rightly adopted a tough line on racism. I can't understand why they haven't taken an equally clear stand on sexual violence, unless it's the fact that the highest level of the game is a multi-million-pound business. The FA says rape and sexual violence are "appalling crimes", so why doesn't it tell clubs to bring in experts to educate players about gender equality and the meaning of consent?
No matter how talented they are, men who don't accept these basic tenets of decent behaviour have no place on the pitch.Reuse content