This morning, Sunderland AFC issued the following statement following charges being brought against Adam Johnson following his arrest seven and a half weeks ago relating to accusations of engaging in sexual activity with a 15 year old girl:
"Following yesterday’s statement from Durham Constabulary, the club recognises that the formal legal process must take its course and whilst our position remains unchanged, we will keep the matter under review. The club will not be making any further comment."
Upon the initial arrest of Johnson the club immediately suspended his contract and he was released on bail by the police pending further investigation. When new head coach Dick Advocaat joined the club, Johnson’s suspension was lifted.
The club faced criticism in the media for the reversal, especially in the wake of high profile celebrity sex abuse cases and the recent Ched Evans saga. The bail date was extended, but yesterday Durham Constabulary announced Johnson had appeared to face charges of three counts of engaging in sexual activity with a minor, and one of grooming.
Johnson - wealthy, young and talented, of course - provides the perfect target for a mass media that have for years thrived on Premier League sex scandals. His £10m price tag and England playing record has only fuelled national interest. Outlets such as The Sun continued to publish details of the circumstances of his arrest, including a manipulated photograph of the alleged girl involved, despite Durham Constabulary warnings of liability in identification of the victim or in anyway compromising her anonymity.
It must be reiterated that comparisons to the Ched Evans case are contentious, as he was trialed and imprisoned for his sex offence and technically Johnson remains innocent in the eyes of the law. But today’s decision confirming his availability for selection, in the club’s effort to survive relegation, is undeniably going to cause questioning of the club’s stance and huge media criticism. The PFA, an association representing footballer’s interests, has too released a statement reiterating his right to a fair hearing and suggesting they stand in line with Sunderland’s view of innocence until proven otherwise.
Traditionally, Sunderland’s club stance has been hard-line toward players involved in legal controversy. Former defender Titus Bramble was not allowed to resume playing until he was cleared at Newcastle Crown Court of sex offences. The zero-policy era towards club morality has prematurely left handfuls of former players out of favour and sold off, including Sean Thornton, Liam Lawrence, Chris Brown and Ben Alnwick. Since these decisions though, there have been many changes at the top level at the club and perhaps Chief Executive Margaret Byrne’s criminal law background has influenced the club’s decision to stand alongside Johnson pending the trial outcome.
While it is true he remains innocent until proven guilty it is debatable whether it is morally right for him to remain in Sunderland shirt given that the CPS and Durham Police have clearly established what they consider adequate evidence for a trial. For a club who prides itself on its’ family-friendly atmosphere, offering price incentives to local school children and families buying season ticket deals; any accusations of child sex offences associated with a current player has to be worrying and the decision is likely to split the fan base.
Huge media scrutiny on the decision should be expected, and especially given his inclusion in tomorrow’s squad against Stoke City. Already opposition fans have sang bad taste and inappropriate songs about the accusations, and this will surely intensify now Johnson has been officially charged. One can wonder how a twenty-seven year old with a long-term partner and young child can possibly be in the right frame of mind to play under such incredible scrutiny in front of large crowds with this hanging on his mind, but I digress.
I have a feeling that the scrutiny we will see will be on level intensity, if not probably worse, that that felt during the appointment of Paolo Di Canio. I hope not, as it is not the kind of publicity the club needs right now, especially when struggling. I worry about the public image of the club, standing by someone accused of such offences, and hope the decision has not been taken for financial reasons or desperation toward our league position.
I personally do not agree with the club’s decision and fear it risks tarnishing our name in the national press. I have had a season ticket to attend games with my parents since I was four years old, and have always prided myself on the club’s family atmosphere. One has to doubt whether this decision would have been taken with the precedents a few years ago, under the nostalgic era under the Chairmanship of Niall Quinn. No matter how good a player is they ultimately come and go.
One thing is constant and that is the club and our reputation, especially amongst our supporters. No one is bigger or more important than that.