Sports

Should Sexual Consent Classes Be Mandatory For All Soccer Players?

We spoke to Rape Crisis England and Wales, the PFA and others about how to properly educate young footballers on sexual consent, and what can be learned from the Ched Evans trial.
December 9, 2016, 8:58pm
PA Images

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

In the same week that a high-profile retrial cleared him of raping a 19-year-old woman, Ched Evans commented that there should be more education for footballers on issues surrounding alcohol and consent. "When they are drunk, think twice about it," said the 27-year-old striker, sounding like a particularly harrowing PSA on how to not violate another human being.

Advertisement

Fucking duh. This pearl of wisdom is pretty rich coming from a man who has admitted in court that he had sex with a drunk woman without ever gaining her consent. By his own admission, Evans lied to get the key for the [woman's] hotel room and did not speak to her before, during or after sex.

I have spent the duration of the Ched Evans saga banging my head against a brick wall until it bleeds because no one acknowledged the inescapable truth that having sex with someone without their vocal and enthusiastic consent is rape. If someone's passed out drunk and unable to clearly articulate whether or not they're down to fuck, then that's rape, too.

Evans has also suggested that he would like to speak to young players about the risks they are taking when sexual consent is unclear, which to me sounds about as appropriate as a workplace diversity day led by Malky MacKay.

Evans, who now plays for League One side Chesterfield, said: "I was young at the time…I was stupid and I wasn't aware of the situations you could potentially find yourself in that would land you in trouble.

"I have never been taught about anything like that. In this day and age people need educating on alcohol and consent."

His presence on a football pitch might remind me that reports of rape are frequently not taken seriously, but Evans' comments genuinely highlight an important issue regarding sexual consent, and a lack of understanding about what this involves. The question is, whose responsibility is it to ensure players are properly educated about this topic?

READ MORE: Sexism Still Rules in British Football

I talked to Katie Russell, on behalf of Rape Crisis England and Wales, to ask her what she thought the Ched Evans case had taught us about our attitudes to rape culture.

"We would really welcome a decision by sports' governing bodies to take a stance which says that they understand that sexual violence is a serious and heinous crime," said Katie.

Advertisement

"We need to go back to basics and raise awareness about the fact that women are humans too. They are not objects or animals to be done with as someone pleases.

"Consent is not a complex concept. It's not a grey area. It's just something that must be fully and freely given by someone with the capacity to do so. Consent is not something indirect… or [something] that can be assumed because someone has previously had consensual sex."

I think it is fair to suggest that a degree of responsibility lies with the governing bodies. When I asked the Football Association about sexual consent and related issues, they told me, in rather vague terms, that they would support anything that raises awareness and educates people.

"Matters that fall under the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system must rightly be dealt with by the appropriate authorities. However, it is important that sporting bodies such as ourselves reflect on the issue of behaviour and attitudes where the conduct an individual may reflect more widely." The spokesman added that there "remains scope for a wider discussion around future guidelines or codes of conduct in regards to what constitutes public or private communications and behaviour."

When I got in touch with the Professional Footballers' Association (PFA), I was pleasantly surprised to learn that consent is soon to be included in the education of young players. It's fair to say that the PFA Equalities team do a lot of vital work in partnership with the Premier League to promote equality and diversity in relation to age, disability, faith, gender, race and sexuality.

PA Images

In light of high-profile cases of footballers falling foul of the law and their clubs' disciplinary procedures, the PFA are working to produce a session for senior players highlighting the importance of sexual consent and respectful relationships. This is a huge step, and it's great to know that an organisation with such a broad reach is taking the issue of sexual consent seriously.

The aim is to ensure all players undergo a short session outlining the importance of off-field personal integrity, in the same manner that they receive information about gambling and the laws of the game. The programme is currently being piloted and will be rolled out to squads across the Premier League and Football League imminently.

Advertisement

Simone Pound, who works as Head of Equalities at the PFA, described the session as a "welcome addition to the education that players receive". It's will be delivered by former pros with a lawyer present, to signify the PFA's belief that it's not just the message you're telling but also who delivers it. Simone said she felt that the session really works, adding: "It's been a while in the making but I think something that's good often is."

The PFA have acknowledged that players need to receive information in this area, and Simone said she felt that this awareness was noticeable in clubs too. She told me: "I think I can safely say football has realised over the past five years that we need a greater holisitc education for players."

There is, then, some recognition that players' associations hold a safeguarding role when it comes to young talent. Evans acknowledged in his statement that players already receive training on how to navigate their way around the temptations of drinking to excess or getting sucked into gambling. Alcoholism and gambling addictions in young players can be incredibly damaging to their personal wellbeing and, perhaps most significantly, to the clubs who own them. By offering drinking and betting awareness sessions, clubs are carefully protecting their young assets.

READ MORE: What I Learned as a Woman Taking Up Football in My Twenties

However, a player's lack of understanding around sexual consent isn't going to impact a club's fortunes – to my mind, it simply holds the potential to ruin someone else's life. Ignoring the issue of sexual consent effectively leaves survivors of sexual assault to pick up the pieces where wealthy organisations have failed in their responsibility.

When you're a top player worshipped by fans around the world, I can see how a different set of rules might seem to apply. Incredible wealth can be toxically tied up with a sense of entitlement, which has horrifying implications for the privileges one assumes over someone else's body. As Evans said himself when police called him in for questioning: "We could have any girl we wanted… We're footballers".

Advertisement

Born in the Welsh seaside resort town of Rhyl, Evans represents a prime example of a relatively common theme in British football: lads who are taken out of their hometowns by large clubs and suddenly become incredibly wealthy, powerful and famous.

With all the money and adulation that comes when young men sign big contracts, I can only conclude that clubs have a clear responsibility to make sure these players don't lose their fucking minds and ruin their lives by letting it go to their heads.

Going from having nothing to having everything almost overnight must be an incredibly difficult situation to navigate – particularly when so many young players are cherry-picked before school leaving-age and told that they are the next big thing. Catapulting teenage boys into a high-pressure, high-stakes environment surely necessitates a care-giving duty on the part of football clubs, as well as governing bodies.

Evans' conviction was ultimately overturned, but other professional footballers have been found guilty of violent sexual crimes against women without subsequent acquittal. In 2008, Marlon King was jailed for sexually assaulting a student who rejected him in a London nightclub. The prosecution lawyer at King's trial said the footballer asked his victim: "Don't you know who I am? I'm a millionaire," after the 20-year-old-student told him to stop groping her. She was left with a broken nose and a split lip by a crestfallen footballer whose status seems to have caused him to forget that being told to fuck off doesn't count as foreplay.

King was convicted of sexual assault and assault occasioning actual bodily harm // PA Images

Tesfaye Bramble was convicted of rape in 2011 after testifying in court that he decided to 'try his luck' with his 19-year-old victim as she slept. Just to repeat it for those at the back who might not have heard: if you think it's okay to have sex with someone's unconscious body there's something fucking wrong with you.

The cult of celebrity and veneration afforded to professional footballers makes it easy to see how this could extend to creating a culture in which powerful young men begin to see themselves as indomitable – and this has worrying implications for an understanding of sexual consent.

Advertisement

Far from a football-only problem, this is a theme we see played out time and again: powerful men believing they can get away with whatever they want. If you don't believe me, please remember that a man with accusations of sexual assault in the double digits is the President-elect of the United States.

If you construct a culture in which some men see themselves as operating outside of normal rules then nothing is off limits and consent becomes a tenuous topic. If you're powerful enough to have anything you want then why wouldn't this naturally extend to the bodies and sexual agency of other human beings?

READ MORE: Why Are Female Athletes Criticised For Developing a 'Masculine' Physique?

Ultimately, then, it seems that the burden must fall at the feet of clubs and governing bodies if there is going to be any meaningful impact. These organisations have enough money to provide education on sexual consent to players, and for football clubs this must form an essential part of helping the young men that they take from school and effectively carry into adulthood.

Admittedly, the record on mandatory consent classes isn't great: earlier this year students in York attending the university's first ever sexual consent classes staged a walkout, protesting that they were being "patronised" unfairly and that responsible adults didn't need to be taught the difference between yes and no.

That's all well and good, except there's evidence to prove them wrong. When you consider that around 90% of rape victims know the perpetrator prior to the offence, it's obvious that rapists aren't random men in dark alleys – they're normal guys with normal jobs and normal lives, who fail to understand when they're taking advantage of someone.

At the time of writing conviction rates for rape are far lower than other crimes, with only 5.7% of reported rape cases ending in a conviction for the perpetrator. High-profile trials like Evans' could also be detrimental to reporting rates, as survivors saw his victim being tried by the media and public opinion, and having her sexual history read out in open court.

However unsuccessful consent classes have been in the past, if young footballers don't want to land themselves in the same position as Ched Evans as a result of never being taught about what he calls "the situations you could potentially find yourself in that would land you in trouble", they might just need to shut up and listen. To return to Katie Russell from Rape Crisis England and Wales: "What was so plain throughout the whole debate around the Ched Evans case was that many people don't understand what rape is, or what consent is, and that's terrifying."

And, as Evans himself said: "The best thing is just to be educated." With our understanding of consent clearly so warped, it pains me to admit that I agree with him on that.

@emiliabona