By Jessica Luther
"You have thrown away the successful career in which you were involved," Judge Merfyn Hughes QC told professional footballer Ched Evans, when he sentenced him to five years in jail for sexual assault in 2012. Evans was convicted of raping a 19-year-old woman at a Premier Inn near Rhyl, Denbighshire. Evans maintains his innocence.
Two years later, it appears that Hughes was wrong about the impact of a sexual assault conviction on Evans' career.
Sheffield United, the club Evans played for at the time of his conviction, apparently is ready to sign him to a three-year contract that will begin soon after his release from prison in October. Evans will be allowed to attend practice on day-release passes as early as next month, as long as he wears a monitor while he is out of prison. According to a spokesman for the Home Office (the UK's ministry for crime and security), "All day release visits are assessed on risk. It is part of a rehabilitation process and can include escorted visits, unaccompanied visits or tagging. In this case tagging would seem to be more appropriate."
As the feminist blogger Glosswitch recently argued in the New Statesman (before Evans' day releases were announced), discussions around convicted sports stars often begin and end with the topic of the player's life and career being irrevocably harmed: "Where is Evans' shattered reputation, his ruined life, his permanent ostracism? It's not that I want these things -- what good would they do? -- but since they're part of the standard media narrative, I can't help feeling that we're owed them. Otherwise what was all the talk of a career in ruins ever meant to achieve?" How many people here in the United States have laughed along with Mike Tyson in The Hangover or know something about how much he loves his pet pigeons? How many of those same people can name the woman he was convicted of raping or know a single thing about her life now and the impact of that assault on her?
The Evans case is the most recent example of how the celebrity of sports trumps the fact that these cases have victims -- victims who are actively written out of the narratives that surround these stories of redemption. This case is not unusual.
Sports on Earth's Tomas Rios argues that the way the Ravens have handled the Ray Rice domestic violence case amounts to their aiding "their employee in committing violence against Jenay Rice again, as well as other victims of intimate-partner violence. The message sent was, no one cares about those victims." At Deadspin, Stacey May Fowles writes that tweeting reminders that Josh Lueke is a rapist is necessary, because "it's a gesture on the part of fans who know it's unlikely Lueke will ever see his career end as a result of those actions, but refuse to tolerate his inclusion, who believe that, while a team may opportunistically decide to field a talented player who has committed an act of sexual violence, it shouldn't be immune from the disgust of the public."
When Jovan Belcher murdered his girlfriend before committing suicide, the focus was so much on Belcher that David J. Leonard penned a piece to draw attention to the way the media ignores victims, under the headline "Kasandra Michelle Perkins: We Must Say Her Name". On the other hand, in an interview with Floyd Mayweather Jr. last year, Stephen A. Smith managed to talk about Mayweather's stint in prison without once mentioning why he had been there (repeat domestic violence).
There will always be those who offer up familiar excuses, seeing each case as an isolated event. It's part of a larger pattern of the media, teams and fans dismissing or trivializing the actual violence. That makes everyone involved less likely to recognize these incidents as part of a systemic problem that arises from positioning star athletes as heroes -- and their sports as more important than the safety of women.
The case of Bruno Fernandes de Souza is the extreme example, demonstrating just how much violence a culture is willing to ignore if it prizes the athlete and his sport enough. In March 2013, Fernandes de Souza, a Brazilian goalkeeper for Flamengo whom many expected to play on Brazil's 2014 World Cup team, was convicted of ordering a hit on his ex-girlfriend, Eliza Samudio, whose body was disposed of by cutting it up and feeding it to dogs. He did this because she asked for child support for their infant son. He was sentenced to 22 years in prison. In 2010, before surrendering to police, Fernandes said on Brazilian radio that he had a "clear conscience. In the future I'll be able to laugh at all this."
Just a year after Fernandes de Souza's conviction, he has been granted a work release, similar to Evans'. The court has "allowed [him] to sign a five-year contract with Montes Claros of the Campeonato Mineiro, and he will periodically be released to train with the team as well as play in matches." When he attends practices or matches, he will receive a police escort. Soon, we will all be able to witness Fernandes de Souza step on the pitch and laugh at all this.
The president of Montes Claros said they want to "give an opportunity to the man Bruno." He went on: "For him, it is a chance to return to play. To the club, he is an athlete who can strengthen the team and a way to invest in the social side." According to Zeynep Zileli Rabanea of Al Jazeera, the argument for leniency is simple enough: "Stressing his importance to the national soccer scene, [Fernandes de Souza's lawyers] claim he has repented and wishes to pay his dues through stellar performances on the field." She continues, "it is an extraordinary claim to make: that the goalkeeper's excellence as a player should be given precedence in the eyes of the law."
And yet, when seen as part of a larger pattern, it is not so extraordinary to see an athlete and his ability held up as more important than prohibiting violence against women.
It is fair to ask what other outcome one should expect, especially in situations where the perpetrators have been convicted and served time. Melissa McEwan, a cultural critic who has written extensively about sexual assault, wrote a piece years ago about the redemption of Mike Tyson. In it, she said, "I'm all for giving people another chance. And being let out of prison is a second chance, which is why we don't impose a life sentence on everyone convicted of any crime." But McEwan went on: "I don't believe that people who have 'paid their debts' are necessarily owed the same opportunities they had before." Convicted criminals need to be allowed to resume their lives, after completing their punishments. But it matters what those lives look like, particularly if a criminal's punishment is reduced simply because of his status.
When athletes receive such lenient treatment, surviving victims have to witness crowds cheering for the violent criminals who have harmed them, resuming their careers to the delight of millions. The victims, once again, are written out of the narrative.
* * *
Jessica Luther is a writer and journalist who lives in Austin, Texas. Her writing on sports have appeared at the Guardian, the Atlantic, Salon, Think Progress, RH Reality Check, and in The Texas Observer. Her site and podcast about sports and culture is Power Forward.