Saturday 1 October 2016

Richard Sadlier: How badly does a footballer have to behave before he loses his job?

Published 06/03/2016 | 15:56

Adam Johnson
Adam Johnson

You won’t always get consensus on the severity of a particular offence. First of all, the context and circumstances in which it was committed must be taken into account. There may also be developmental issues or childhood experiences to be considered.

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Environmental and social influences can be relevant too, but all of these can be interpreted in many different ways.

Other details are also important in evaluating a particular crime, but surely everyone has a point where mitigating factors don’t apply. Kissing a child when you’re 28 years old would be one example of this, but the actions of Sunderland FC would suggest they mightn’t necessarily agree.

Last week Adam Johnson was found guilty of sexual activity with a 15-year-old girl and was told to expect a substantial prison sentence. When the verdict was returned, the judge told him to go home to say goodbye to his baby daughter. He will be placed on the list of registered sex offenders for the rest of his life and will be a social pariah upon his release. Though he is said to be considering appealing the conviction, his career in professional football has come to an end. His life as he has known it is over too.

At the beginning of his trial two weeks ago, he pleaded guilty to two of the four charges and Sunderland sacked him. It has since emerged the club were aware from the outset that he had kissed the girl in question, which begs the question why they didn’t act sooner. There are several cases where clubs have stood by troubled players in the past, but just how badly must a footballer behave in order to lose his job?

Surely it’s not as simple as making a decision based on the needs of the team, but I’d imagine there are some fans who see it that way. Johnson was bought for £10m, earns 60 grand a week and his club are in a fight for their lives near the bottom of the league. Until a judge passes a verdict, where’s the harm in standing by someone who’s still innocent in the eyes of the law? I assume some owners and administrators see it that way too. They pay footballers to play football and nothing else matters.

Sunderland certainly benefited from Johnson’s continued availability. He scored in last month’s 2-2 draw at Anfield, for instance, helping to earn a valuable point in their attempt to avoid relegation. That point could be the point that keeps them in the Premier League come the end of the season. If they stay up at the expense of, say, Newcastle United, will that be vindication for the decision in the eyes of their fans?

Sex offences with children are not seen as a crime like any other so there’s no point in pretending they are. I can talk about the wayward antics of footballers I knew, more than a few of which would have resulted in custodial sentences had the details been presented before a judge. Though they would tie in to a wider discussion on where the line is drawn, they’re not directly comparable to what Johnson did to his victim. Of course there are examples when clubs should support their players if they lose their way, but there are some cases when immediate sacking is the right thing to do. How Sunderland didn’t grasp the seriousness of this issue immediately is beyond me.

During the trial Johnson’s defence included claims of “slow progression” in this area due to being a footballer. The PFA has since spoken about the need to do more to educate players around personal integrity, sexual consent and standards of behaviour. Given how Sunderland handled this case from the start, there is clearly a lot of work to be done with clubs too.

I’m sure there are some Sunderland fans who are indifferent to Johnson’s continued appearances for the club since his original arrest. After all, justice was done in the end. Maybe others think the club should offer to replay the game with Liverpool, such is their disgust that a known sex offender was selected to represent them.

Clubs are privy to all sorts of details about the personal lives of their players which they rightfully keep in-house to protect everyone involved. Sunderland can say what they like about thinking Johnson wasn’t going to plead guilty but they weren’t acting in the interests of the child he groomed and abused. The message it sends to their fans is another thing entirely.

Sunderland certainly benefited from Johnson’s continued availability

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