No-one will be unaware of the case of footballer Ched Evans who has represented Wales on 13 occasions.  Evans was convicted of a rape in 2011 and has recently been released from prison having served half of his sentence – he spent two and a half years inside.   

Since his release, Evans has been close to joining at least two professional football clubs in England, most recently Oldham FC. Neither move has yet transpired (though may do in the coming days), in large part due to the objections of several thousand people through online petitions, and perhaps more importantly, the threat of sponsors withdrawing financial support for the clubs involved.   

This article does not seek to pass judgment on any of the moral arguments advanced for or against his return to playing professional football, but rather it focusses on the legal position.  

Much has been made of Evans’ lack of remorse and failure to apologise to his victim, a failure compounded in some eyes by his proposed appeal against the rape conviction.  But without wishing to take petty legal points here, that is his right.  There is ample evidence that despite all the safeguards, our criminal justice system sometimes gets it wrong.  If it were otherwise there would be no point in providing for appeals against criminal convictions and only the Daily Mail would think that to be a sensible position.  The bloggers are, after all in no better position than the journalists or the football clubs to say what happened on that night in Rhyl in 2011 – none of them were there.  And if you deny rape and intend to appeal your conviction you are, with the best will in the world, unlikely to make an apology for it, the clearest form of admission there is.   

It might be argued that if he wants to play again Evans should drop the appeal, but if he is advised that he has reasonable grounds for it (and again, the baying public cannot know one way or the other), then why should he?   If he does not appeal he is forever tarred a rapist and on the Sex Offenders’ Register, his whole life tainted.  If there were a legitimate way to overturn that conviction, is he not entitled to try it?  This is not refusing to recognise the seriousness of what he did, but refusing to recognise that he did it at all, which in fact and law is a very different thing.   

Apart from Evans’ personal rights to appeal, we must look at the relevant social policy.  In the UK punishment for criminal offences is determined and enforced by the state, not by the injured party or those looking for some prominent cause to get angry about.  The fact remains that Evans has been punished for (pending appeal) his crime as the UK criminal justice system saw fit.  He has, in the vernacular, done his time.   

Some people have said that it is not correct to suggest that Evans has served his time. That seems to be wide of the mark. A person who is tried and convicted by the Courts of law, having been judged by their peers (the jury), remains in prison for such time as the Parole Board deems appropriate. It is not, from a legal perspective, up to the general public to pass judgment on the Board’s decisions or to second guess why they may have been made. Mr Evans faces a further two and a half years of having to stay out of trouble, otherwise his punishment will be a return to prison.   There is no current reason to claim that he will not be able to do so.   

The petition to be presented to Oldham FC’s Chairman begins “We believe Ched Evans has the right to work….” but goes on to say that it should not be as a professional footballer.  Easy to say, but Evans, having been a professional footballer since the age of 19 and enrolled with the youth sections of various clubs since he was just 11, is not likely to be able to take up another profession. He is a footballer and as such has only a limited number of years in which to make his mark and earn his money in the game. There is an argument that being a professional footballer comes with certain responsibilities. That is undoubtedly true. However, it is important to note that League football has no rules which prevent convicted criminals from playing the game professionally, whether they are sex offenders, or guilty of some other crime (Lee Hughes and Luke McCormick are two high profile cases that come to mind – in each case they caused death by dangerous driving, and both played professional football after their release). Such rules do exist for those in administrative (Board level) roles within football so applying the point to players has clearly been considered and rejected by the football authorities. Perhaps there should be such rules imposed, but there are none at the moment.   

It seems highly unlikely that Evans’ earning capacity will be anywhere near what it was before his conviction. There are suggestions that he will earn around £400 per week if he is signed by Oldham. Of course, footballers’ contracts can include different bonuses for personal (goals/assists) and team (league position/cup wins) achievements but it seems safe to assume in this case, at least, that he will not be paid very much for his image rights either.  Suppose the proper public revulsion for rape denies him even that Oldham job (and through the press coverage, any other  playing position) but then his appeal succeeds – who would compensate him then for the (as it would then be at law) entirely unwarranted loss of a career?  The press?  The blogger organising the petition?  The Club sponsor threatening to withdraw?   Don’t think so.  His career would have been destroyed without recourse and, legally-speaking, without reason.  It may be no coincidence that the one of Oldham’s shirt sponsors which has not threatened to withdraw its funding is a local firm of solicitors.  

Of course we all know that this debate is not just about the legal position.  

Oldham’s Board of Directors may decide that they are doing the right thing by signing Evans and allowing him to play again, to be further rehabilitated and to earn a living. The principal factor in deciding whether the risk is worth taking will be a commercial one – will the Club lose sponsors over it? Will it be worth it, given there is no legal restriction on employing Evans, on the basis that his stock is low and he will be relatively cheap to employ, but may rise in value and become a valuable asset in the future?   The fact is, sadly or not, that if he helped that Club do well, perhaps even be promoted, both fans and sponsors would soon be singing a different tune on the terraces.  

There are plenty who will feel such a clinical analysis jars in light of the emotionally fraught background to all of this. There is no wish to offend here.  The moral debate will continue, but when you take one person’s right to be employed and earn a living and perhaps even to show himself not guilty of the crime found, it is (rightly or wrongly) that analysis that will be key.