Wednesday afternoon, former Sunderland footballer Adam Johnson was found guilty of one count of sexual activity with a child under 16 years old. He had already pleaded guilty to grooming and another count of sexual activity with a child prior to the trial starting.
Understandably the court case has received vast media attention. However, what seems to have slipped under the radar slightly is the fact that his former employers knew of his guilt in the months after his arrest back in March 2015.
During his evidence, Johnson stated that he admitted to the club that he had kissed the underage school girl and had been sending explicit text messages to her. These messages were then given to the club so they were fully aware of what had happened.
Immediately after the former England international’s arrest, he was suspended by the Black Cats for 16 days. It is unknown at what point he confessed his actions to individuals at the club, but we do know that in early May 2015 the Chief Executive, Margaret Byrne, handed transcripts of the messages to his defence counsel. So it wouldn’t be a wild assumption to suggest that during April he broke his silence privately.
I have gone through Sunderland’s team sheets for the backend of last season and was shocked at what I saw. Johnson’s name appeared on the 5th April 2015 for the derby against Newcastle. This, I would imagine, was the first time he could play after his initial suspension. He was then involved in the remaining fixtures until the end of season, bar the 1-1 draw with Stoke on 25th April.
I have a suspicious mind but his exclusion for the game on the 25th April was the only time he missed a match after returning from suspension. It is conceivable that between the 11th April and the 25th April the club had no doubt about his guilt, removing him from the team to work out an action plan. This plan seems to be deny everything, support their 10 million pound man and hope he could help them stay up. The plan worked to a degree as Sunderland avoided the drop. This apparent support continued into this season. The FA Cup winner played regularly until his last appearance against Liverpool at Anfield, where he scored an important goal.
Other than his initial 16 day suspension, Sunderland did not punish Johnson nor act upon what they knew to be true. They completely ignored the fact that on their books was a self confessed sex offender. This player of theirs, who was earning a significant amount of money, had groomed and subsequently engaged in sexual activity with a child. This child, this victim of his disgraceful actions, was a Sunderland fan. A season ticket holder no less. Someone who trusted in the badge and who innocently believed in the values of the club. She was obviously let down by Johnson and what he did will always stay with him, but Sunderland as a club has let her down greatly.
I appreciate that everyone is innocent until proven guilty, and we have a relatively credible justice system that tries to protect us all. However, he admitted to the club that he was guilty. They would’ve been aware of his intentions to plead not guilty to all allegations. Therefore, surely there was a moral obligation within the club to act appropriately. This they did not do.
Knowing of his guilt but refusing to suspend him, instead allowing him to continue with the life of a professional footballer as if nothing had happened, is disgraceful. I am sure in the coming days and weeks more will come to light and the club will have to comment, but what does this say about the morality in our nations sport. What message does this send to aspiring sports men and women. It suggests that money protects money, a concept that isn’t alien to anyone. But this simply isn’t right. There are many footballers playing in all forms of the game that have no doubt been in trouble with the law, with their clubs no doubt taking action where necessary. In non-league players work hard in their ‘normal’ jobs whilst still pursing a dream of professional football. Had a non league player been in a similar situation, I would imagine action would have been taken by the club. The sense of community, of morality, is much stronger at grassroots level. Fans simply would not stomach their club, which is intertwined so closely with the community, continuing to play and therefore support someone who had admitted such a crime. But in the Premier League, the arrogance associated with such levels seems to extend itself to believing that with financial power Johnson would escape conviction.
I have previously discussed how communities are becoming less and less important to owners in top flight football. To me, this is yet again another example of the higher tier becoming disengaged with the community it is supposed to support. Sunderland had a chance to act morally, they had a chance to do something right, to suspend Johnson. They didn’t. Instead they appeared to focus on the financial gains of playing him, hoping his ability would help them stay up and do well. In doing this they let down those who pay to sit in the stadium, those who pull on the replica shirt and pour their hearts out on a Saturday afternoon. Above all, they turned their back on the girl with the child’s season ticket.
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