Every time a footballer is criticised for misbehaving – particularly if it involves sex – their supporters pose the same questions: why are these young men being held to a higher standard than other people? Should a high wage and public profile come with role model duties attached? And – if so – why aren’t the same rules applied to pop stars?
We heard them when Ryan Giggs had an eight-year affair with his brother’s wife. We heard them when Wayne Rooney admitted using prostitutes. We even heard them when Ched Evans was dropped by Sheffield United after serving a sentence for rape (he’s now appealing his conviction, and may yet be welcomed back into the fold).
But what the Adam Johnson case demonstrates is that the role model debate is a red herring. The problem with footballers who overstep ethical or legal boundaries is not that the general public, or even the media, think they should behave better than other people, it’s that they believe their talent is a licence to behave any way they like. And their fame gives them more opportunity to do so than most.
From the very earliest stages of their careers (long before they turn professional) promising players, are taught to see themselves as “special” by their school-friends, their teachers and their boys’ clubs. They are led to believe the whole world should bend to them; so it’s hardly surprising if they develop a sense of self-entitlement, if they come to see themselves as above the law, particularly if they are immature and no-one is keeping them grounded.
This seems to have been the case with Johnson who was last week jailed on three counts of sexual activity with an under-age girl. Judging from his career trajectory, there was never a time he didn’t feel “chosen”. Singled out for praise by former England captain Johnny Haynes during a seven-a-side game, he joined Middlesbrough’s youth academy at 12 and made his first senior appearance in a UEFA Cup match at 17.
Around the time he committed his offences, Johnson was leading a life of self-gratification, habitually meeting girls for sex (while his then girlfriend was pregnant at home) and downloading porn. When his besotted victim asked him to sign a shirt, he doesn’t seem to have grappled with his conscience before exploiting the request as a bargaining tool for sexual favours. “I thought I would have got a thank-you kiss,” he texted.
Later he wrote: “I will get this for you, it had better be worth it.” Once he had been caught, Johnson continued to act as if the world owed him a favour, chewing gum and expressing no remorse.
As the judge Jonathan Rose made clear, it was his status as a footballer that gave Johnson the opportunity to offend, and it was his status as a footballer that made him feel he had the right to do so. His status as a footballer was also responsible for the fact the girl was trolled by fans who cared more about Johnson’s prowess than they did about child abuse. The six-year sentence Rose handed down – a longer term than many people expected – was clearly meant to send out a message: footballers are not special. They are subject to the same rules as everybody else.
That is not the signal his own club sent. The football world is adamant it doesn’t condone the grooming of under-age girls (well, you’d hope not), but sometimes you have to look at what they do, not what they say. So how did Sunderland react to the former England international’s offending? It allowed him to keep playing, even though he’d confessed to kissing his victim. Just as Sheffield United allowed Evans to train with the team after his release from jail, until sponsors started pulling out in protest. No doubt Sunderland, fearful of relegation, was swayed by Johnson’s proven ability to stick the ball in the back of the net. Between May 2015 (when he confessed to officials) and February 2016 when he pleaded guilty to one charge of grooming and one of sexual activity (and was finally sacked), he played 20 games and scored two goals. His last, on the weekend before his court case, helped the club to a 2-2 draw against Liverpool. The decision not to suspend him led to the resignation of the chief executive Margaret Byrne, but perhaps that one result made it all worthwhile. Because, at the end of the day, it’s all about the scoreline, innit?
This lowering of the behaviour bar for a key player is only an extreme example of what goes on all the time: at boys clubs, youth academies and at a professional level. Coaches and managers may talk the talk about not tolerating a bad attitude, but they know if they crack down too hard on talented players who offend on or off the pitch, they’ll soon find a place on a rival team. So they make excuses, allow them to keep playing, and their sense of inviolability grows. That’s pernicious even when all they’re doing is acting like boors, but unacceptable when it places children at risk.
It is no longer enough for clubs and the football authorities to maintain that the vast majority of players are not like Johnson. Of course they aren’t. But a handful are. And it’s not enough for them to claim there is no link between the way young players are feted and a culture of entitlement. If clubs want to convince us they condemn bad behaviour – whether it be mouthing off, physical aggression or sexual offences – they need to clamp down as soon as it occurs, even if that means losing a star, sacrificing a few victories or dropping down the league table.