At the beginning of 2015 the Professional Footballers Association, the Football Association, and Oldham Athletic found themselves in a conversation they never wanted to have: how would they address the misogyny that swirled around football culture in Britain? If they could challenge racism - and they have - why not sexism?
After weeks of ‘will they, won’t they’ take on Ched Evans, Oldham Athletic Football Club finally decided not to employ him. ‘Mob rule,’ he protested. Ched Evans had been released from prison in October 2014 after serving half of a five-year sentence for raping a young woman so drunk that, according to the judge, he must have known that she could not consent.
He is out on license, and will remain on the Sex Offender Register for a minimum of 15 years. Meanwhile his victim has been forced to change her name and move home several times after being illegally named by his website.
When Oldham Athletic’s sponsors threatened to withdraw, Evans’ prospective father in law, millionaire businessman Karl Massey, promised to plug the financial holes.
If Oldham Athletic could ignore the ethics of rape, it could not withstand the economy of football. For a decade the ailing club’s future had depended upon investors motivated less by the sport than by property speculation. However, the club depended not only private capital and sponsors (some of whom had pulled out), but on a regeneration deal with Oldham City Council, and the council didn’t want a remorseless player convicted of rape.
Oldham Athletic had been forewarned: when Sheffield United contemplated taking Evans back, it was forced to changed its mind after a change.org petition attracted 169,000 signatures, the public support of local Olympian Jessica Ennis Hill, and club patron and TV presenter Charlier Webster, Lib-Dem party leader Nick Clegg and Labour leader Ed Miliband. Latterly Prime Minister David Cameron and two Police and Crime Commissioners, Vera Baird and Tony Lloyd, pitched in.
Not for the first time football is a space in which some big stuff gets aired. Not for the first time a rape story has thrown light upon a larger landscape than a dark alley. But this feels like the first time that sex and violence, football, capitalism and democracy have crashed into each other in a perfect storm.
Football has constituted itself as the premier expression of national, popular culture. It captures more pages in our national newspapers than any other issue. More than the BBC, the NHS, the monarchy, politics, football is minted as the currency of national treasure.
Football institutions recklessly blethered about rape and Evans’ conviction without bothering to check the facts about either. Football fans were revealed as more heterogeneous. This may be the beginning of the end of football as a man thing.
It was not always so. Almost a century ago women’s football was a mass spectator sport. But the FA stopped that. Women’s football ‘offended the middle class propriety of the FA’s ruling council and, perhaps more importantly, it was grabbing some of the limelight from the male game,’ writes the historian of women’s football, Gail Newsham; this was ‘a state of affairs that wouldn’t be allowed to last.’ In 1921 the FA banned women’s football.
Thus began the game’s correlation with masculinity. Like soldiering, boxing and crime, the game has created a context for the making and maintaining of working class masculinities; passionate dramas of domination and defeat, and sexism.
But we are in new times. It seems that more women now play football than netball. Women professionals are joining the Professional Footballers Association. It has an equalities network, led by the highly respected Simone Pound, that has not been inactive during the Ched Evans debacle. It is a trade union affiliated to the TUC, which has strong policy on sexual violence, not that you’d know it from the pronouncements of PFA leader Gordon Taylor - it is years since a union leader sounded so inept.
Whilst defending the principle of rehabilitation, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady insists, ‘that doesn’t mean all offenders have the right to return to the same job, especially when a crime as serious as rape is committed and the perpetrator has shown no remorse.’ The industry needed to ‘step up and show zero tolerance.’
When the Latics offer collapsed, the story was overwhelmed by the massacre of staff working at the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in Paris by supporters of the Islamic State. Yet, Hebdo was appropriated in the football/rape debate: Daily Telegraph journalist Allison Pearson tweeted that threats to Oldham Athletic ‘are the same intolerance that silenced Charlie Hebdo.’ The same? She accused Jean Hatchet, the woman who had launched the Sheffield United petition, of being ‘a jihadist’ who ‘wants to kill people who disagree with her.’ What brought the rhetoric of exterminating religious war into this? It is as if football, like rape, like Charlie Hebdo, is about everything.
The exchange is a reminder that the emancipating ease of Twitter’s 140 characters can give women a public voice, and simultaneously broadcast ‘symbolic violence’ that reiterates populist traditions of contempt and domination, and the annihilation of nuance, ambivalence, or just thinking aloud.
Professor Deborah Cameron, not a football fan, but a linguist and popular culture participant/observer, reckons that nevertheless, ‘this saga has done more than anything ever to dramatise what feminists mean by 'rape culture' and to shine a light into some of its less obvious corners.’
Jean Hatchet believes that ‘if we can take anything from this, it's that we have put the debate about rape culture everywhere, in every pub, over every gate, in every kitchen.’ Football fans and civilians have been discussing what rape is and isn’t, risk and trust, who is to blame and who isn’t; why a rich father would want his daughter to be betrothed to a man convicted of rape; about women getting legless; men trawling for women too drunk - by definition - to be capable of consent.
It was in response to Hatchet’s Sheffield campaign that Allison Pearson wrote in the Daily Telegraph that she and staff at a local beauty salon - is this the woman’s journo’s current equivalent to the proverbial taxi driver, or man on the Clapham omnibus? - believed that a woman should not expect a bloke ‘to know whether you want it or not.’ But knowing is exactly what is required by the 2003 Sex Offences Act.
Pearson reckoned that ‘the football pitches of England would be half-empty this Saturday afternoon if you removed every player who has done what Evans did. (And so would many of the clubs and pubs.)’ Pearson was championed by former Telegraph writer James Delingpole, a right wing Mr Nasty, who introduced another dimension to the debate - should feminists have a say in this anyway? How many of the campaigners ‘are really interested in football?’. His estimate, ‘about six.’
He hadn’t checked Jean Hatchet’s provenance. When I asked her whether she was a football fan, she said she’d never been asked before. Yes, she was - lifelong.
Like many feminists whose activism is online, she uses a pseudonym because the twitter sphere is unsafe. After thousands of abusive and threatening tweets and sleepless nights, she worried that ‘I was losing my sense of humanity when I didn’t react to the vile and horrific, sexually explicit abuse.’
She is especially surprised by the motifs of her mainly 15-25 year-old accusers; ‘they come out with archaic sexism, like ‘get back to the kitchen’, or ‘haven’t you got ironing to do?’ as if nothing had changed between my father’s and this generation. Though some of the more rapey things they say, I’m not sure older men would come out with.’
Evans’ trial, and the reaction to it, opened a window on a sexual culture ‘we don’t know about. Someone pointed out to me that the trolls are young and saying they all have drunken sex at weekends.’ Hatchet asks them, ‘are you sure you are not raping women? Are you sure about that?’ It is an interesting question, and not one it seems that football’s clubs and youth academies are answering.
Is Pearson right, have half of our footballers, not to mention any group of men, ‘done a Ched Evans’? Professor Liz Kelly, Britain’s premier researcher on sexual violence, and a passionate football fan, resists the view of masculinity as uncontrollable, as predatory, ’Of course, when footballers are set up as celebrities, some young women see having sex with a footballer as an achievement. The issue is: do you exploit that status? Or do you act ethically?’
Jean Hatchet believes that the campaign has exposed sexually-explicit abuse uttered by men ‘without blinking, or thinking or linking it to the women they know. I think we've shone a light on their past. I think we've flicked a big light on their future. I think we've poked a torch into a few memories they have. Memories that were safe.’
Now they’re not.
Could it be that Ched Evans’ rape not only shamed football, but changed it ?.