TIME NFL

NFL Players Give Six Reasons Thanksgiving Football Can Stink

Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork (75) pushes back New York Jets guard Brandon Moore (65) into quarterback Mark Sanchez (6) causing Sanchez to fumble the ball during the NFL Thanksgiving Day game between the New England Patriots and the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J on Nov. 22, 2012.
Mark Sanchez's butt fumble is one of many low moments in the annals of Thanksgiving football Chris Szagola—ZUMA Press/Corbis

Vets recall butt fumbles, near-brawls and other moments that spoiled their holiday

Ask an NFL player how it feels to play on a day most Americans are relaxing in front of the TV with a belly full of stuffing, and nearly all will say the tradeoff is worth it.

“It’s your opportunity to be the entertainment,” says former NFL linebacker Bart Scott, who played on Thanksgiving for the New York Jets in 2012. “You know everyone in America is watching you,” says former Detroit Lions quarterback Scott Mitchell, who played in three Thanksgiving games with the Detroit Lions in the 1990s. “And that’s a cool thing. I never felt deprived. If you think about it, a lot of people go and play football on Thanksgiving anyway. We just felt we had our own little pre-Thanksgiving pickup game. It just happened to be on national television. In front of millions of people.”

For Hall of Fame Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin, the Thanksgiving game had its gastronomic advantages. “All the dudes that play on Sunday, they can’t really enjoy Thanksgiving,” says Irvin, now an NFL Network analyst. After all, with a game coming up in a few days, they can’t overindulge. But Irvin’s Cowboys had a ten-day break after their Turkey Day clashes, enough time to feast like a civilian. Irvin remembers coming back to his place after the games — Dallas and Detroit always play at home — and raiding the fridge. “Eat, fall asleep, eat, fall asleep,” he says. “You can go three of four rounds. It was a treat.”

But that doesn’t mean playing on Turkey Day doesn’t have a downside. The NFL’s longstanding tradition of Thanksgiving day games has produced plenty of moments that ruined players’ holidays. Below, former NFL players recall games that spoiled their sweet potatoes.

1. Bounty Bowls

Who wants to spend a holiday getting smacked around by three All-Pro defensive lineman? When Troy Aikman was a rookie quarterback for a 1-15 Dallas team back in 1989, Philadelphia’s trio of Reggie White — a future Hall of Famer — Jerome Brown, and Clyde Simmons pounded Aikman in his inaugural Thanksgiving game. Philly won 27-0. “At the end of the game,” says Aikman, now the lead NFL color analyst for Fox, “they X-rayed both my knees, both shoulders, and my elbow. I would have sworn they were going to have to put me in a cast.”

The beating was so severe that Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson accused Eagles coach Buddy Ryan of offering a $500 bounty on Aikman and a $200 bounty on Cowboys kicker Luis Zendejas, whom the Eagles had cut earlier that year. ”It’s stupid to have a coach like that in the N.F.L., the fat little guy,” Zendejas, who suffered a concussion after being hit on a kickoff, said of Ryan. ”He can’t take you out himself, so he pays somebody else to do it for him. That’s about as low as you can get.” Johnson said he would have confronted Ryan after the game if Ryan hadn’t gotten “his big, fat rear end in the dressing room” so quickly. Ryan denied the bounty charge, and took mock exception to all the talk about his weight. “I resent that,” Ryan said. “I’ve been on a diet, I lost a couple pounds, and I thought I was looking good.”

Turns out Aikman was OK — but he wouldn’t have necessarily minded a short stint on the injured list. “We played Philadelphia two weeks later, so I was almost hopeful that something was wrong,” says Aikman. The first game was christened Bounty Bowl I. The Eagles won again in Bounty Bowl II, two weeks later, and Philly fans pelted the field, and CBS broadcasters Verne Lundquist and Terry Bradshaw, with ice balls.

Following the Thanksgiving debacle, Aikman — who will call Thursday’s Dallas-Philly game, hopefully not Bounty Bowl III — drove back to his parents’ place in Oklahoma. “I had plenty of time to reflect,” says Aikman with a laugh, “on that season, that day, and why I decided to play professional football.”

2. Butt Fumbles

Scott, then a Jets linebacker, didn’t see exactly what transpired on Thanksgiving night, in East Rutherford, N.J., two years ago. He was on the sideline when Jets QB Mark Sanchez muffed a handoff, then tried to run forward before colliding into the behind of lineman Brandon Moore. The ball popped loose, and Steve Gregory of the New England Patriots picked it up and ran for a 32-yard touchdown, giving New England a 21-0 lead in the second quarter (the Pats would go on to win the game 49-19). A little later that night, Scott, now a studio analyst for The NFL Today on CBS, saw the clip that launched a million memes: the Butt Fumble.

Any Jets fan can relate to Scott’s reaction: “Hey man, only us, man. Did that just happen? What? Maaaan. No. Really?”

Really.

3. Disrespected Kickers

Between 1992 and 2012, Detroit kicker Jason Hanson played on Thanksgiving every year except one, 2010, when he was injured. In 2003, Hanson kicked five field goals to lead Detroit to a 22-14 win over Green Bay. Near the end of the game, Hanson started to get giddy — he thought he was going to win Fox’s Galloping Gobbler award, given to the MVP of its Thanksgiving game. After all, Hanson scored 15 of Detroit’s 22 points. But when it was time to hand out the turkey trophy, Detroit cornerback Dre’ Bly, who intercepted Brett Favre twice, got the nod. “So there I was, saying ‘yeah, I’m going to get an award on national television,'” Hanson says. “All of a sudden, I see Dre’ Bly mugging it up for the cameras. That’s when you’re reminded that your’e just the kicker.”

4. (Near) Bathroom Brawls

As starting quarterback for the Detroit Lions, Mitchell was 2-1 on Thanksgiving. In 1995, he even threw for 410 yards, and four TDs, in a 44-38 victory over the Minnesota Vikings. But Mitchell’s loss, a 28-24 defeat to the Kansas City Chiefs in 1996, almost sparked what would have been one of the most infamous moments in NFL history: a post-game melee with fans in a Pontiac Silverdome bathroom.

This was a rough year for Mitchell, who was bothered by injuries, and Detroit, which finished 5-11, in last place in the NFC Central. And the game was excruciating: after a Hanson field goal gave the Lions a 24-21 lead with 8:41 left, Kansas City used its running game to hold onto the ball for the next 7:55, and march 76 yards downfield. Marcus Allen scored the game-winning, 1-yard TD with 46 seconds left.

Afterwards, Mitchell waited to face the expected media scrum at his locker. And waited. But the reporters never came, because they were squaring off with Lions coach Wayne Fontes. “I’m waiting, waiting, waiting,” Mitchell says. “Finally I’m like, ‘I want to go home, I’ve been here a long time, we lost the game and it’s Thanksgiving.'” So Mitchell, who has shed 98 pounds as a contestant on this season’s The Biggest Loser, headed up a Silverdome elevator to the suite where his family watched the game. As he walked down the corridor towards the suite, four fans passed him. “One of them recognized me and makes a comment: ‘Mitchell, you suck.'”

Mitchell brushed off the remark. He peeked in the suite, but his family had already left. Suddenly, he sort of snapped. “Something in my mind in that moment, I was like, ‘you know, I’m not going to take this from this guy.’ So I turned around, left the suite and started chasing four guys down the corridor in the Silverdome.”

Terrible idea. The fans went into the bathroom, and Mitchell followed. When the quarterback got there, they were in the stalls. “So I make a general announcement,” he says. “‘Anybody in here have a problem with me?’ And all of a sudden these four guys walk out of the stalls. I’m standing there, and they’re looking at me. I think they were as shocked as I was that we were going to have this conversation.” One heckler said that he indeed had a beef with Mitchell, and Mitchell told the guy he wouldn’t last a second in the NFL. Third grade stuff, on Thanksgiving. “He said to me, ‘you’d like to hit me, wouldn’t you?'” Mitchell says. “And I said, ‘yeah, actually, I would.'”

“And then the strangest thing happened to me,” says Mitchell. “In the corner of the bathroom was a janitor. And he started talking to me, he says, ‘Scott, you’ve got to leave right now.’ And I was like, ‘you’re right. I do. I need to go.'” And I turned around and walked right out. To this day, I don’t know if it was in my mind because no one was in there when I walked through the doorway.”

Scott Mitchell has a guardian angel that saved him from infamy. “I had lost it,” Mitchell says. “I don’t know if I would have won or lost. But there would have been a fight. It was going to be bad.

“So that was kind of a Thanksgiving moment.”

5. Death by Coin Toss

For Jerome Bettis, the Thanksgiving game against the Detroit Lions in 1998 was supposed to be a happy homecoming. The Pittsburgh Steelers running back known as The Bus was a Detroit native who learned about football while watching the holiday games; he bowled on the weekends growing up, so Bettis didn’t watch on Sundays. He had 80 friends and family at the game. And the night before, his family hosted around 60 Steelers teammates for an early Thanksgiving feast. Turkey, ham, macaroni and cheese, the works. “We didn’t just have the little guys,” Bettis, now an ESPN analyst, says. “We had the offensive linemen, defensive linemen. Those guys don’t shy away from calories.”

The game was a tight one. Pittsburgh and Detroit ended regulation tied 16-16 and headed for overtime. At the coin toss, Bettis initially started to call heads, then quickly changed his mind to tails. Referee Phil Luckett missed the switch, and when the coin came up tails, he awarded the ball to the Lions. The Steelers flipped out. “It was like, ‘Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa,'” says Bettis. “‘Wait a second.'” Hines Ward was a rookie wide receiver for Pittsburgh. “It was just shock and confusion,” says Ward, now an NBC commentator.

Back then, overtime was simple sudden death. On Detroit’s first possession, Hanson kicked the game-winner. “That was a rough flight back to Pittsburgh,” says Bettis. The Bus would never take part in a coin toss again. “I got fired,” he says.

6. ‘Not. Leon. Lett.’

“That was the weirdest day ever,” says former Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson, talking about Thanksgiving Day in Dallas, 1993. First of all, a rare snowstorm blanketed the Metroplex. “I remember driving to the game that day — oh my God, I’ve never been more afraid,” says Irvin, then a Cowboys receiver. “My God, they’re going to cancel the game.”

That didn’t happen, and Dallas took a 14-13 lead over the Miami Dolphins into the final seconds. With the game on the line, Miami kicker Pete Stoyanovich lined up for a 41-yard field goal in the sleet and snow. Lined up to block it was a special addition to the Cowboys’ defense.

Before the game, Dallas special teams coach Joe Avezzano had an idea for Johnson. Because of the snow, Avezzano figured, the Dolphins offensive line might have trouble with its footing. Why not put Leon Lett, a 6’6,” 290-lb. defensive lineman, on the field goal blocking team? Maybe he can get his hands on one. Johnson agreed, but no one realized that Lett wasn’t all too familiar with the special teams rules. So when Dallas’ Jimmy Jones blocked Stoyanovich’s attempt, seemingly clinching the Dallas win — owner Jerry Jones raised his victorious arms on the sideline, while Aikman and Irvin embraced — Lett came charging out of nowhere towards the ball, which had sailed past the line of scrimmage and trickled towards the end zone. By rule, the ball was dead, and the game was over, unless a Cowboy player picked it up, or touched it. And Lett’s foot indeed grazed the ball as he slid on the snow: Miami recovered the now live ball, giving Stoyanovich another chance to win the game for the Dolphins, which he did.

Lett had already made a famous gaffe in the previous season’s Super Bowl. With Dallas destroying Buffalo 54-17, Lett recovered a fourth quarter fumble, sprinted towards the end zone for a surefire touchdown, and began to celebrate early. Buffalo’s Don Beebe, however, chased him down, and knocked the ball out of Lett’s hands before he scored. That was embarrassing, but it didn’t cost the Cowboys the game. “Leon Lett, nooooooo,” NBC commentator Bob Trumpy shouted during the Thanksgiving game. “Not. Leon. Lett.”

The season before, Johnson had cut a running back for fumbling during a meaningless game. “I would have bet everything that Leon Lett, the next day, would not have been on the team,” Aikman says. But Johnson actually consoled Lett, who was crying in the training room, telling him he’d be part of the team as long as Johnson was in charge. “Leon was actually one of my favorites, even though he made two of the more famous blunders in NFL history,” Johnson, now a Fox studio analyst, says. “He was a really good player, and a good person.” Lett spent a decade with the Cowboys, winning three Super Bowls, and is now an assistant defensive line coach for the team. Irvin says he thanked Lett for keeping him off the next day’s front pages. “That may have been the worst game I ever played,” Irvin says. “I remember dropping so many passes. I told him, ‘I’m so glad you did that, man.’ They would have been all over me. It would have gotten crazy.”

What was left of Johnson’s holiday — he says he never really celebrated Thanksgiving as a coach — was pretty much ruined. “I doubt if I had any turkey,” Johnson says. “I probably had some nachos and a cold beer. That’s my normal Thanksgiving.”

 

 

TIME NFL

Adrian Peterson Promises Never to Beat His Kid With a Tree Branch Again

From right: Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson and his attorney Rusty Hardin speak to the media after pleading no contest to an assault charge on Nov. 4, 2014, in Conroe, Tx.
From right: Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson and his attorney Rusty Hardin speak to the media after pleading no contest to an assault charge on Nov. 4, 2014, in Conroe, Tx. Pat Sullivan—AP

'I won't ever use a switch again'

Adrian Peterson, the Minnesota Vikings running back suspended over child abuse charges, has apologized for using a switch to discipline his son, and promised never to do it again.

“I won’t ever use a switch again,” the player said in a USA Today interview published Thursday. “There’s different situations where a child needs to be disciplined as far as timeout, taking their toys away, making them take a nap. There’s so many different ways to discipline your kids.”

Peterson pled no contest to misdemeanor reckless assault earlier this month, and was subsequently suspended from the NFL for the remainder of the season. In the interview, Peterson said he planned to speak with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to discuss his suspension. The league said that Peterson would have to undergo rehabilitation and counseling before he can return to the league.

“Ultimately, I know I’ll have my opportunity to sit down with Roger face to face, and I’ll be able to say a lot of the same things that I’ve said to you,” Peterson said. “I regretted everything that took place. I love my child, more than anyone could ever imagine.”

[USA Today]

TIME NFL

Raiders Stun the Chiefs for Their First Victory

Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr celebrates after the Raiders defeated the Kansas City Chiefs 24-20 in an NFL football game in Oakland, Calif., Nov. 20, 2014.
Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr celebrates after the Raiders defeated the Kansas City Chiefs 24-20 in an NFL football game in Oakland, Calif., Nov. 20, 2014. Marcio Jose Sanchez—AP

The Raiders hadn't won a game since Nov. 17 of last season

The Kansas City Chiefs entered Thursday looking like clear Super Bowl contenders, having won five straight to chase down Denver in the AFC West standings. The Oakland Raiders appeared to be on their way to 0-16 and had gone 368 days without a regular-season win.

So of course, in this incredibly unpredictable NFL season, the night belonged to Oakland.

The Raiders used a 17-play touchdown drive (their longest of the season at 7:21) and a late defensive stop to pull off the shocking upset, 24-20. It was their first victory since a 28-23 triumph at Houston on Nov. 17 of last season. Since then, the Raiders had come up short in 16 consecutive games, including all 10 to start 2014.

“These losses have been hard,” Raiders QB Derek Carr said in the aftermath of his team’s win.

Carr dropped to his knees and threw his hands up toward the sky after Alex Smith‘s final fourth-down pass fell incomplete. His teammates celebrated with equal exuberance, almost to a fault. After a sack of Smith one play earlier, Oakland linebacker Sio Moore celebrated with his teammates behind the line of scrimmage for so long that DE Justin Tuck called timeout to avoid an offside penalty.

The Raiders’ celebration was on for good just a few seconds later. Three thoughts on Oakland’s breakthrough:

1. This was no fluke: Kansas City clearly is the more talented of the two teams, but it hardly looked that way for much of Thursday night. The Raiders came out firing on all cylinders, streaking to a 14-0 lead behind stalwart efforts at the line of scrimmage, both offensively and defensively.

The tables turned for a bit late in the third quarter, with the Chiefs running off 17 straight points to take the lead.

But with their backs against the wall, the Raiders responded via that epic game-winning drive, which included three third-down conversions and a 4th-and-1 QB sneak from Carr to move the chains. Carr then capped the possession by slinging one to an open James Jones in the end zone, sending the Black Hole into pandemonium.

“I needed this win like I need to breathe,” said veteran DB Charles Woodson, who Thursday became the first player in NFL history with 50 interceptions and 20 sacks over his career. “The whole team, this whole organization needed this win tonight.

“[The Chiefs] fought back, they made it interesting but we [were] going to get this one,” Woodson added. “We needed it.”

Perhaps it’s fitting that Jones made the grab. He was one of several relatively big-name free agents added by the Raiders this offseason with an eye on moving forward from back-to-back 4-12 seasons. Several of those pickups — Maurice Jones-Drew, LaMarr Woodley and others — have fallen far shy of expectations.

Oakland had been a deserving 0-10, even with Carr and first-round pick Khalil Mack offering a silver lining. Thursday, the Raiders looked nothing like a winless squad.

2. On Kansas City’s play calling … : Following a couple of Kansas City losses earlier in the year, head coach Andy Reid criticized himself for not getting Jamaal Charles enough touches. He might sound a similar tune after this costly setback.

Charles wound up with 23 touches (19 rushes, four passes), but on a night when the Chiefs’ offense was sluggish for extended periods, though, the number probably could have been higher.

That goes for the final drive, too. Kansas City was up against it, trailing by four and without a timeout. There still was plenty of time to work in a Charles run or two, especially with the Raiders so focused on not getting beat over the top. The star running back’s only work on the decisive possession came on a 4-yard pass from Smith.

The Chiefs also waited until they faced a 17-3 third-quarter deficit to really lean on talented TE Travis Kelce. He made two catches to help set up Kansas City’s first touchdown, then hauled in a 27-yard completion to open the Chiefs’ next offensive series.

There undoubtedly will be questions asked of Smith, who is three months removed from signing a $68 million extension. Plenty of Smith critics remain skeptical of his ability to take the Chiefs deep into the playoffs or past the Peyton Manning-ledBroncos in the AFC West. Performances like the one he endured Thursday only add fuel to the fire.

Smith was all out of whack in the early going, misfiring badly on several short throws. He did connect on a pair of second-half touchdown passes, yet came up short in the closing seconds. Smith took a sack on 3rd-and-6, despite solid initial protection, and then came up well short of Frankie Hammond on fourth down.

Give credit to the Oakland defense for disrupting its opponent up front. The Chiefs failed to find any counters in the first half, opting for (often unsuccessful) screens or inside handoffs to Charles.

That said, Reid’s offense left some points on the field.

3. Latavius Murray’s all-too-brief brilliance: Murray was headed toward a potential all-timer type of night before a concussion sent him to the locker room. On just four carries, spread over the first and second quarters, Murray piled up 112 yards and scored twice. His 90-yard touchdown scamper was the longest ever allowed by the Chiefs and had CBS play-by-play man Jim Nantz recalling a Bo Jackson highlight.

Once Murray left a few minutes later, the Oakland offense absolutely bogged down. Only when the coaching staff bailed almost completely on Darren McFadden and Jones-Drew in favor of hybrid fullback Marcel Reece did any oomph return, and just in time for the late drive that won the game.

Hopefully, Murray can recover in short order, because the starting running back job ought to be his moving forward. The 2013 sixth-round pick out of Central Florida has a burst that neither McFadden nor Jones-Drew possesses any longer.

He could be a perfect partner for Carr in the backfield as the Raiders continue their rebuild. And Murray helped set the tone vs. Kansas City, landing a couple of haymakers early in the upset.

This article originally appeared on SI.com

TIME NFL

Bills-Jets Game Will Be Played in Detroit on Monday

Signora said the decision to not play Sunday in Buffalo was made "due to public safety concerns and the ongoing weather emergency"

The New York Jets-Buffalo Bills game will be played at Ford Field in Detroit at 7 p.m. ET on Monday, the NFL announced Thursday night.

The game will be televised by CBS in the Buffalo and New York City markets.

NFL vice president of football communications Michael Signora earlier announced that the game wouldn’t be played on Sunday in Buffalo. Signora said the decision to not play Sunday in Buffalo was made “due to public safety concerns and the ongoing weather emergency” and that the league was in the process of rescheduling and relocating the game.

Earlier Thursday, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Bills coaches were preparing for the game to be held in Detroit, Pittsburgh or Washington, D.C.

FOX Sports’ Mike Garafolo reported that one of Buffalo’s contingency plans was to fly out on Friday to wherever the game wouuld be played. Bills president Russ Brandon said that it “may not be possible” to get the team out of Buffalo for a game elsewhere.

A source told Schefter that Buffalo “will be hard pressed to get [the] stadium ready” for its Nov. 30 home game against the Cleveland Browns.

The Buffalo area has received more than six feet of snow this week and the region is expected to receive an additional 20 to 30 inches of snow Thursday, according to CNN.

The Bills said Wednesday that Ralph Wilson Stadium is currently under an estimated 220,000 tons of snow and the organization has offered to pay fans $10 an hour plus game tickets to shovel it. On Thursday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said it is “impractical” for the Bills and Jets to play on Sunday due to the snow.

ESPN’s Rich Cimini reports Jets coach Rex Ryan said he has contingency plans in place in the event the game and/or date is changed.

This article originally appeared on SI.com

TIME NFL

The Buffalo Snowstorm Is Really Causing Problems for the Bills

Wintry Weather New York
A band of storm clouds moves across Lake Erie and into Buffalo, N.Y., on Nov. 18, 2014 Gary Wiepert—AP

Fans who help shovel snow will be paid $10 per hour and receive game tickets

Snow accumulation in the Buffalo area is approaching apocalyptic amounts. Some places are expected to receive up to six feet. This is obviously posing massive problems for Western New York residents, including the Buffalo Bills.

The hardest-hit area is south of Buffalo, which includes the town of Orchard Park, where the Bills’ stadium is. Orchard Park reported more than four feet of snow, leaving Ralph Wilson Stadium, where the Bills are supposed to play the Jets on Sunday, completely buried.

As you can see, the snow has let up for the time being, but more is expected overnight. The stadium will have to be cleared out, even as snow continues to fall. The team estimates there are 220,000 tons of snow in the stadium, enough to fill the practice facility eight times over. It’s a monumental task that will require massive amounts of manpower, so the Bills are enlisted their fans to help.

Fans who help shovel snow will be paid $10 per hour and receive game tickets. They hope to have people working 24 hours a day in order to get the stadium ready by Sunday.

The coaches are planning to sleep at the team facility. They’re also distributing the gameplan digitally because they can’t hold team meetings.

As for the players, they can’t practice because roads in most of the area are completely closed. How often do pro athletes get snow days?

This article originally appeared on SI.com

TIME Football

NFL Suspends Adrian Peterson For Season

Peterson pled no contest to charges of reckless assault

Minnesota Vikings Running Back Adrian Peterson has been suspended from the National Football League without pay for the remainder of the 2014 season, the league announced Tuesday. Peterson pled no contest this month to charges of reckless assault after he was accused of hitting his son with a switch.

In an open letter, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told Peterson that the player’s ability to return to the field would depend on his completion of counseling and treatment.

“You must commit yourself to your counseling and rehabilitative effort, properly care for your children, and have no further violations of law or league policy,” said Goodell, who has come under criticism in recent months for turning a blind eye to player misconduct.

Peterson will not be permitted to return to play before April 15, Goodell said.

TIME Know Right Now

Know Right Now: From the Pope’s Planned U.S. Visit to the Chocolate Shortage

Watch today's Know Right Now to catch up on the latest trending stories

In today’s trending stories, the Pope confirmed plans for his first U.S. visit as pontiff in 2015. He will hold mass on the Ben Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, where an estimated 2 million people are expected to show up.

The nation is preparing for the grand jury’s decision over whether to indict Ferguson cop Darren Wilson in the August shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown.

The DEA conducted spot-checks on the medical staffs of several NFL teams for allegedly administering possible illegal drug prescriptions.

And lastly, chocolatiers say dry weather, fungal disease and farmer migration are slowing down the production of cocoa, leading to a worldwide shortage of chocolate.

TIME U.K.

Soccer Star Convicted of Rape Returns to Training Amid Angry Debate

Ched Evans playing for Sheffield United in 2012.
Ched Evans playing for Sheffield United in 2012. Stu Forster—Getty Images

More than 163,000 people have signed a petition against his return

Correction appended Nov. 15.

The story told by Ched Evans in an Oct. 22 video statement posted on YouTube features two victims. First among these is his girlfriend Natasha, who nestles alongside him in the film and remains in the relationship despite the crime Evans committed in a Welsh hotel room in 2011 which he terms “my act of infidelity.” The second is Evans himself. The soccer player, released from prison last month, uses the video to deny the rape verdict that put him behind bars. “The acts I engaged in on that night were consensual in nature and not rape,” he says, pledging to “continue to fight to clear my name.”

There is, of course, another victim—the unnamed 19-year-old woman Evans assaulted. Since Evans left prison, heated debate around whether or not he should be allowed to return to work at his former club Sheffield United risks creating further victims still. “Jean Hatchet”—her name is a pseudonym—has been subjected to online abuse since starting a petition calling on Sheffield United to drop the player.

And on Nov. 14 police started an investigation after a Twitter troll posted a tweet about Jessica Ennis-Hill. The Sheffield-born athlete, who won gold in heptathlon for Britain in the London 2012 Olympics, has threatened to remove her name from a stand at the Sheffield United grounds if the club reinstates Evans. “Those in positions of influence should respect the role they play in young people’s lives and set a good example,” she said in a statement. “I hope [Evans] rapes her,” the troll responded.

Heat and hostility threaten to obscure the deeper questions at the heart of the discussion. Evans has served his time—or at any half of the five-year term originally meted out—and now seeks rehabilitation. Isn’t that the way the justice system is supposed to work? Evans seems to think so. “It is a rare and extraordinary privilege to be able to play professional football,” he says in his YouTube non-mea culpa. “Now that I’ve served the custodial part of my sentence of two-and-a-half years, it is my hope that I’ll be able to return to football. If that is possible, then I will do so with humility having learned a very painful lesson. I would like a second chance but I know not everyone would agree.”

That last point is undeniable. More than 163,000 people have signed Hatchet’s petition in support of her view that “to even consider reinstating [Evans] as a player at the same club is a deep insult to the woman who was raped and to all women like her who have suffered at the hands of a rapist.” Charlie Webster, a sports television presenter, lifelong fan of Sheffield United and patron of the club, resigned that after learning that the club had allowed Evans back to train. A victim of sexual abuse as a teenager, Webster has used her public profile to try to encourage other victims of sexual abuse to speak out. In her view Evans’s public profile means that he cannot simply be allowed to return to his old life. “We cheer him on as a role model and he’s influencing the next generation of young men who are currently making their decisions on how to treat women and what sexual mutual consent is,” she told the BBC.

Neither Sheffield United nor the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), the players’ union, accepts this view. Sheffield United issued a statement on Nov. 11 confirming that Evans was back in training, but denying any final decision about his future. “The club rejects the notion that society should seek to impose extrajudicial or post-term penalties on anyone,” the statement said loftily. “In a nation of laws, served by an elected parliament and duly constituted courts of law, there can be no place for ‘mob justice’. The club believes that the only penalties following from a conviction on any charge should be those set forth in law and deemed appropriate by a court of competent jurisdiction.”

PFA chief Gordon Taylor made a similar point in more demotic language: “I didn’t know there was a law that said once you come out of prison you still can’t do anything.”

Such discussions are hardly unique to English soccer. Across the Atlantic two prominent National Football League players are currently serving suspensions after admitting acts of violence. In September, the Baltimore Ravens dropped Ray Rice, already suspended by the NFL for hitting his then-fiancée, now wife, after publication of a second and more graphic video of the attack. Adrian Peterson, running back for the Minnesota Vikings, is waiting a decision on his status as a player after pleading no contest to one count of misdemeanor reckless assault for whipping his four-year-old son with a switch.

Sporting history is garnished with individuals who serve as role models not only in their chosen disciplines but through their life choices: philanthropists, activists and all-round good eggs such as Ennis-Hill. But the same history is also full of flawed heroes and monstrous egos and yet darker tales. A question largely ignored in the current discussions is why that might be. Is sport simply a microcosm of the world, for good and ill, or might the people who run sports bear a greater share of the responsibility?

Football teams—soccer and American football—recruit kids young and work the raw material to create winners, but not necessarily rounded human beings. Joey Barton, a soccer player who returned to the professional game after serving a jail sentence for assault and affray and now aims to be a manager, gave a revealing interview when he retired as a player in September.

“I used a lot of the dark energy to make myself a footballer,” he told the Daily Telegraph. “If I’d been a balanced person I’d never have been an elite-level sportsman. There were a lot of players more technically gifted than me but what I had was an ability to harness my anger at the world. I used anger like a fuel, a propellant, to turn in to performances.”

He argued that his flaws—and criminal record—should not rule him out as a role model. “I realized, wow, I can’t be a role model for the squeaky clean because I’m not squeaky clean. There are a lot of kids out there who feel disconnected, a bit lost. They relate to me.”

That, of course, is only a good thing if the lesson they draw from Barton is to learn from mistakes, or hopefully to avoid them in the first place, because such mistakes often take a toll not just on the person who commits them but on other people.

These are lessons team managements and sports bodies must do better in imparting to their rising stars. Their messaging must be clear and unequivocal. That is why many people believe Sheffield United should not reinstate Ched Evans.

Correction: The original version of this story mischaracterized the career of Joey Barton. He is currently a player with Queens Park Rangers.

MONEY Sports

NBA Chief Says, ‘Place Your Bets!’

Nationwide legalized U.S. sports betting just got a surprising ally: NBA commissioner Adam Silver.

TIME NFL

Former NFL Player Orlando Thomas Dies Of Lou Gehrig’s Disease

Minnesota Vikings v Tennessee Oilers
Orlando Thomas #42 of the Minnesota Vikings looks on against the Tennessee Oilers at Vanderbilt Stadium on December 26, 1998 in Nashville, Tennessee. Joe Robbins—Getty Images

The former Minnesota Vikings safety first revealed he had the disease in 2007

Former NFL player Orlando Thomas died in Louisiana on Monday after succumbing to Lou Gehrig’s Disease, his agent told Bloomberg.

The 42-year-old former Minnesota Vikings safety had revealed in 2007 that he was battling the disease, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and named after the former New York Yankees star who died of it in 1941.

“If there was ever a test to strip your fight, courage and toughness and make you wallow in self-pity, this would be the disease and yet he was so incredible in his fight and never once made it about him,” said Thomas’ agent Mark Bartelstein.

Thomas spent seven seasons with the Vikings after joining as a second round draft pick in 1995, and notched up 22 interceptions during his career before retiring in 2001.

[Bloomberg]

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