Soccer watchers are no strangers to moralizing. Players, fans, and pundits alike are never too shy to express their indignation at, say, how a player should react when fouled. Or what the proper way is to celebrate (or conspicuously non-celebrate) a goal. Or what they would do if – heaven forbid – another player was to spit at them on the field. Amid all pontificating on mostly inconsequential topics (who really gives a shit about diving anymore?), there are some topics that are notable by their absence from the back pages. Foremost among these is the topic of violence against women. For all the legions of indiscretions that get the soccer world up in arms, huffing and puffing and condemning and tut-tutting, acts of domestic and sexual violence barely move the outrage needle.
Outside of soccer, domestic violence involving athletes has gotten some long overdue attention from the media recently, primarily because of the spotlight that boxer and serial batterer Floyd Mayweather has been under. In the weeks leading up to last weekend’s championship bout, Mayweather — arguably for the first time in his career — took significant heat for his history of domestic violence convictions and accusations. Boxing, a sport that is becoming ever less relevant, had largely dismissed Mayweather’s appalling track record of violence against women, with Mayweather’s crafted, brash and arrogant public persona even working in his favor. Flashing cash, belittling opponents, repeatedly striking the mother of his children in their presence – it all was excused as the lore of a villain.
For some, the belated scrutiny was just bare-faced hypocrisy. The increased focus on Mayweather stood in contrast to other public figures who were not similarly called out. But Mayweather should get more attention for his crimes. He’s the highest paid athlete on the planet, with one of the highest profiles of almost any sportsman alive. It’s right that his particularly egregious history, and all the years of collectively looking the other way, be used as a lightning rod to draw attention to a larger issue. Violence against women has been swept under the rug for far too long. And even in just the sports world, boxing is by no means the only culprit sticking its head in the sand.
Troublingly, soccer clubs, almost without exception, tend to ignore cases of violence against women. Once the legal system gets involved, clubs are happy to wash their hands of the situation, bemusing given they routinely administer their own sanctions for other non-sporting indiscretions. Suspend players for being pictured out too late? National teams refusing to select players guilty of ill-discipline while with their clubs? As a player, you can expect to miss the next match and get a stern public dressing down if you have a few too many pints on a night out. But if you slap your missus around and she calls the police, the club will almost inevitably “leave it in the hands of the law.”
While still at Newcastle, Andy Carroll was twice charged for assault against women. He received a caution for the first case (assaulting a woman at a nightclub), and the second (assaulting his then girlfriend) was eventually dropped. In the time between receiving that second charge and its eventual dismissal, the striker continued playing, even receiving an England call-up. Carroll, one of England’s many former next great hopes, is often described as an throwback. And he is – to the time when center forwards were physical battering rams, and when no one so much as batted an eyelid when a man assaulted his girlfriend.
Stan Collymore, now a prominent member of the media, viciously attacked his then-girlfriend in 1998, dragging her to the floor and kicking her in the head. But it had little to no effect on his relationship with his employers, Aston Villa, nor on his future prospects. He went on to play for three more clubs before embarking on a career in broadcasting. But then again, if clubs don’t mind employing an odious twat and known woman beater, why should the media covering the sport be any different?
In 2009, Marlon King was sentenced to 18 months in prison for sexually and physically assaulting a woman. But before that incident that saw him eventually fired from Wigan, he had already been involving in multiple instances of violence against women. After serving the 2009 sentence, King played professionally for two other clubs. He is now in prison, again, for injuring a man while driving dangerously. Had he not almost killed someone while speeding and eating ice-cream behind the wheel, he would no doubt still find work in soccer. Apparently, having a history of consistently abusing women is outweighed by having a history of scoring a goal every three games or so at the second-tier level.
When instances of violence against women arise involving young players, these cases are somehow filed under “bad behavior” and not given much further consideration. Judging by the tepid reactions of fans and media, being accused of assaulting a woman falls under the same umbrella as being frequently late for training. Both Ravel Morrison and Raheem Sterling were charged with assault against former girlfriends. Although both were eventually cleared, neither case received any more attention than, say, rumors of Morrison stealing a watch at training or Sterling refusing to sign a new contract. Judging by the relative outrage, the worst crimes committed by today’s young players are wearing flashy boots, failing to apply themselves, and asking for too much money in wages. Punching and slapping a woman and threatening to throw acid in her face – as Morrison was alleged to have done – doesn’t garner nearly as much indignation.
Clubs and national associations may bear the bulk of the responsibility for failing to address the issue, but fans are equally guilty of happily turning a blind eye, or worse. Rubén Castro, currently awaiting a hearing on four counts of assault against his ex-girlfriend, is still playing for Real Betis. Far from calling into question their club’s judgment, some Betis fans have instead taken to singing stomach-turning chants in support of the player. “Go Rubén Castro, go Rubén Castro, it wasn’t your fault, she was a bitch, you did well!” This is soccer’s response to domestic abuse.
Soccer may lack a single polarizing figure like Mayweather, but its problem with violence against women is just as severe. The most recent case to make headlines is that of former Sheffield United striker Ched Evans – a convicted, unapologetic rapist, reportedly under consideration to be signed by a number of clubs shortly after being released for prison. This is not to suggest that anyone who has been convicted of a crime should not be allowed to resume their lives and reintegrate into society, but rape – and all violence against women – is not just any crime. And soccer is not just any job.
Soccer players are not saints, and should not be expected to be anything more than they are – men who are good at kicking a ball around and who get paid a fortune to do so. Grappling with the reality that your favorite player is probably an asshole is something we all have to do at some point. But there’s quite a wide range of behavior between “ideal role model” and “potential rapist and/or batterer” in which it’s not unreasonable to expect that players fall. Clubs are not just businesses, either; they are cultural institutions, and they represent more than their owners or shareholders – they represent entire communities. So yes, the standards are different, and they should be.
The failure of our society to deal with this still pervasive issue extends far beyond soccer or sport. But for those of us with vested interests in this game, it is not enough to hide behind the large scope of the problem. It may not be exclusively our problem, but it is still our problem.
Ignoring domestic violence and sexual assault has been an ongoing moral failure in the soccer world. With the issue finally coming to the forefront in other sports, now is as good a time as any to start correcting that failure.