It has been reported that Simon Corney, the owner of Oldham Athletic FC, has indicated a desire to sell the club.

This is following the club’s decision to not sign convicted rapist Ched Evans, which was made following a petition from 60,000 people, the withdrawal of a sponsor (Nando’s) and, crucially, alleged threats of violence.

So, what are the legal issues of employing an ex-offender, and are there any learning points from this case?

Ched Evans is a professional footballer who, prior to his imprisonment for rape, played for Sheffield Utd and Wales.  He was convicted of rape in 2012 and sentenced to 5 years imprisonment. Having served half of his sentence, he was released on licence, which means that as long as he is not convicted of any criminal activity during the remaining 2.5 years of his sentence, he will not return to prison.

Notwithstanding his release on licence, Ched Evans is appealing his conviction and maintains his innocence.

Shortly after his release, it was reported that Ched Evans would be training with Sheffield Utd. Although he was only going to be training with (as oppose to playing for) the club, tens of thousands of people signed a petition saying that they did not want him to do so, as it tarnished the image of the club. Olympic heptathlon champion Jessica Ennis, whose name is on one of the stands at the club, came out and said that if Ched Evans was allowed to train at the club, she would want her name removed from the stand.

As a result of this pressure, Sheffield Utd said that Ched Evans would not be training with the club. However, Oldham Athletic FC subsequently indicated that they were interested in signing him.

From a legal perspective, Oldham Athletic FC were entitled to offer employment to a convicted rapist if they wished to do so. Similarly, Ched Evans is entitled to seek employment with, or accept an offer of employment from, any football club in the UK.

The approach which was originally taken by Oldham Athletic FC was that Ched Evans was no different to any other offender who had been released from prison. In other words, there was no legal reason why they could not employ him. Indeed, other football clubs have employed players who have been released from prison (albeit for lesser offences).

From purely a footballing perspective, signing Ched Evans would probably have been a good move for Oldham Athletic FC, as he is an international striker who has played at a higher level. Also, he would have been relatively cheap.

However, due to the popularity of football, and the place which it holds in the lives of many, the argument is that this is much more than a footballing issue.  Footballers are high profile. Although Ched Evans is not in the same league as David Beckham (literally or in terms of profile), his case transcends football and has propelled him into the spotlight. He is now known by those who have no interest in football, sport or celebrity. Although he is not the first (and will not be the last) sportsman to be convicted of a criminal offence, his name will forever be associated with sportsmen who wish to return to their sport after a period of imprisonment.

This is not a legal issue.  His conviction is not “spent” (ie he has to disclose it), and given his profile, everyone knew of it anyway. Rather, it is a moral/ethical issue. However, it is complex, as different people have different views on what is “right”. Some say that he has served his punishment (as prescribed by the law), so he is entitled to seek employment, which, given his skills and experience, means playing football. Furthermore, there is no rule or law which prevents him from doing so. Others say that given the nature of his conviction (and his refusal to fully apologise to the victim), he should not be allowed to return to such a high profile position, particularly as it may result in him being idolised by thousands.

Whether you agree or disagree with Oldham Athletic FC’s original intention to sign Ched Evans, the fact that ultimately they decided not to do so due to threats of violence (if indeed this was the case) is shocking.

Whether you own a football club or a local business, if your sponsors, suppliers and customers will not stand by your business decisions, you may have no business to speak of. One thing which is clear from “Chedgate” is that whatever the legal position, the public view can be critical.

If you would like to discuss any issues raised in this article, we have specific employment law expertise in advising in this area.  For further advice, please contact Andrew Gilchrist.

Please note this information is provided by way of example and may not be complete and is certainly not intended to constitute legal advice. You should take bespoke advice for your circumstances.

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