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Why sportspeople convicted of violence against women forfeit their right to be ‘stars’

When Floyd Mayweather took on Manny Pacquiao last year in what was billed as the “fight of the century”, the pair of us made the conscious decision not to watch the bout, despite an interest in boxing both as spectators and participants.

Unlike some reporters, who claimed to be banned from watching it – ours was a defiant choice because we were more concerned with what it must have been like for the victims of Mayweather’s domestic violence. We were – and are – disappointed that a sportsperson so lacking in moral character is afforded celebrity and status. Whatever you may or may not think about the sport of boxing, violence outside the ring is never ok and yet too often the men (because it is overwhelmingly men who engage in domestic violence) are looked up to as role models.

Mayweather was sentenced to jail for three months after being found guilty for attacking his partner, Josie Harris. The boxer, who committed the offence in front of his two children – who heard him threaten to make her “disappear” – was allowed to return to the ring where his legions of fans lionise him for doing in the ring what he was imprisoned for doing in his home. This sends altogether the wrong message on domestic violence.

Back in the limelight: Floyd Mayweather. Reuters/USA Today Sports

Or take the example of premier league footballer Danny Simpson, who served just 300 hours of community service for attempting to strangle his ex-girlfriend (the mother of his child). This hasn’t prevented him from turning out for his club, Leicester City, who are in poll position to win the league title and their players to make the leap to sporting superstardom.

This is a longstanding debate – and an important one. When Ched Evans wasn’t allowed to return to his club Sheffield United in 2014 – after serving two years of a five year sentence for rape, it allowed society to question whether people who have been convicted of crimes of violence against women should be allowed to continue to occupy the exalted status of “sports star”.

As Charlie Webster stated in her interview, after she resigned from Sheffield United as patron when the club allowed Evans to return to training after his release: “rape is not a trivial subject”. She argued that sexual asssault and violence against women should be taken more seriously than it is, particularly given the psychological and physical consequences of these crimes. Her argument was that whilst she believes in rehabilitation, she does not believe that it is right to put Evans back into exactly the same very privileged position where young boys and girls look up to him.

As it happens, Evans has not played professional football since being released on licence in October 2014 and is appealing his conviction. The case was referred to the Court of Appeal in October 2015.

But the question remains: after a sports star is convicted of crimes of violence against women, is it appropriate that they should be allowed to return to the privileged position they occupied before they offended, where they are undoubtedly role models for young fans? While these sportspeople are undoubtedly skilled and talented, is it fair that this ability overshadows the trauma they caused to their victims whose welfare is all-too-often forgotten.

Role models

If sportspeople are often seen as role models a sportsperson cannot be judged only on their sporting success because young people who choose their role models judge them on their moral character as well. Sportspeople seem to be celebrities who hold power and are given, as David Marshall wrote in his book: Celebrity and Power: “a voice above others, a voice that is channelled into the media system as being legitimately significant”.

What sort of messages do we give the younger generation if we allow people who have been convicted of abuse to continue to be sporting heroes and celebrated on a world stage where they continue to hold power and be glorified? Does this merely serve to trivialise the seriousness of domestic abuse and violence against women. When we see the Twitter jokes about Mayweather and DV during such events it’s clear that we still have a long way to go for the public to recognise the seriousness of domestic violence.

Journalist Lucy Hunter Johnston believes “a convicted rapist couldn’t be a teacher, doctor or police officer”. Shouldn’t “sports star” be among this list as well, given that “boys look up to footballers, not their Dads” and the link between major football tournaments and an increase in domestic abuse.

And if some sport stars are uniting to support the Violence Against Women campaign then doesn’t this seem to be a valuable argument to include “sports star” among this list to recognise that any violence against women is not tolerated in sport?

More than 26,000 people have signed a petition launched recently by Women’s Aid that calls for better protection of children in families with a history of domestic violence – showing that there is a widespread acceptance of the serious implications of domestic violence. But at the same time, while everyone seems to believe the general principle that violence against women is wrong, public perceptions suggest that they all too often let celebrities off the hook.

Should we give celebrities extenuating circumstances or is it too difficult to comprehend that after years of personal investment of following a celebrity or a sportsperson, we could be wrong about them? Let’s face it, regardless of how much public information we receive about celebrities or how well we think we know sportspeople we won’t know what goes on “behind closed doors”.

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