Ched Evans: The pariah of English football?

    Story highlights

    • Lower league Oldham deciding whether to sign Ched Evans
    • Evans was released from prison after serving rape sentence
    • Player maintains his innocence and wants to clear his name
    • Evans has already been rebuffed by two other clubs

    (CNN)He's an unemployed former English Premier League footballer who is desperate to resume his playing career.

    But while several clubs have signaled their interest in offering convicted rapist Ched Evans a second chance, public opinion in Britain is proving an almost insurmountable stumbling block for the 26-year-old.
      Since his release from prison after serving half of a five-year sentence for raping a 19-year-old girl, debate has raged as to whether Evans should be allowed to resurrect a high-profile career within the sport.
      Even the leader of the British Labour Party -- the UK's main opposition political group -- has weighed into the debate, asking whether a sporting role model should be offered a contract by a club.
      After being spurned by former club Sheffield United, fourth tier Oldham Athletic is the latest to be thrust into an unwanted spotlight after contemplating hiring him.
      More than 27,000 people have put their names to a petition calling on the club not to sign him in the space of 24 hours, with Oldham forced into a series of crisis meetings to further examine the issues.
      20,000 sign petition to keep rapist out of football
      Ched Evans smiles during the Wales training session ahead of their UEFA EURO 2012 qualifier against England on March 25, 2011 in Cardiff, Wales.

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      The club released a statement on Monday saying it still hadn't reached a decision and would "continue to have conversations with representative bodies ... and will conduct due diligence with regard to any decision we make on this matter."
      Evans, who started his career with current English Premier League champions Manchester City, has maintained his innocence throughout and is awaiting the outcome of a Criminal Cases Review Commission inquiry into his sentence.
      But his future in the game could hang on the outcome of Oldham's investigations. Should they turn him down, the former Wales international would be further away from the playing field than ever.
      Oldham might be in two minds, but public and political opinion, appears not to be.
      The leader of the Labour party, Ed Miliband, the local Member of Parliament for Oldham East and Saddleworth, Debbie Abrahams, and Greater Manchester's Police and Crime Commissioner, Tony Lloyd have all come out against the move.
      "I believe it would be wrong for Ched Evans to return to playing football for Oldham Athletic or any other club, as he has been convicted of rape, a violent crime for which he has neither apologized or acknowledged," Abrahams said in a statement.
      "It would send out an entirely inappropriate message to young fans and victims of sex crimes for him to be signed by Oldham or anyone."
      It's very much a case of history repeating itself for Evans.
      Clamor from the public derailed a plan for him to be allowed to train with Sheffield United, in English soccer's third tier, after the club said reaction to its decision "has been at an intensity that could not have been anticipated."
      Over 165,000 people signed a petition urging United to cut ties with him while Olympic heptathlon champion Jessica Ennis-Hill told the club she wanted her name removed from one of the stands at its stadium should Evans play for it again.
      Her decision drew praise from the British Prime Minister David Cameron, who said he "understood" why one of the stars of 2012's Olympic Games opposed Evans' return to her local club.
      Evans' official website states his belief that his conviction was a "gross miscarriage of justice" and underlines his commitment to quashing the verdict.
      It is this standpoint, allied to the perceived prestige and financial rewards that come with being a professional footballer that has helped fuel such a fevered response to Evans' place in the game, according to lawyer and Football Association agent Shehneela Ahmed.
      "A lot of the backlash has been over the fact that he's not accepted his guilt, despite having served his sentence," she told CNN shortly after his release.
      "But where does it say that a convicted criminal, who has served their time, cannot go out to work?
      "I think people are angry because normally a lot of the criminals who are sent to prison, once they've served their sentence in relation to a heinous crime, have to start from scratch trying to get employment.
      "But this is a young lad who has committed a crime, never admitted his guilt, and despite that, he comes out of prison and walks into a job which is so well paid."
      Should rapist play pro football again?
       Ched Evans of Sheffield United in action during the npower League One match between Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday at Bramall Lane on October 16, 2011 in Sheffield, England. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

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      After being rebuffed by Sheffield United, the manager of lowly Hartlepool -- currently rock bottom of England's fourth tier -- expressed an interest in signing Evans.
      The town's Labour Member of Parliament, Iain Wright, labeled Evans a "pariah" during his call for Hartlepool to steer clear.
      And the club moved quickly to dismiss the speculation, saying it understood the concerns of its supporters and the general public.
      Maltese club Hibernians were another club to reportedly contemplate handing Evans a deal but that move was effectively ruled out when the UK's Ministry of Justice emphasized its laws on convicted sex offenders working abroad.
      "We are determined to have one of the toughest regimes in the world for managing sex offenders, to stop them re-offending and to protect victims," it said in a statement.
      "Probation officers must give permission for sex offenders on licence to take up new jobs and this includes ensuring they hold regular face to face meetings -- this effectively rules out working abroad."
      As Evans adjusts to his new status as a footballing pariah, Oldham must feel a certain sense of déjà vu.
      It signed Lee Hughes in 2007 after the striker had served three years in prison for being found guilty of causing the death of Douglas Graham through dangerous driving.
      The trial of Hughes, who once played in the Premier League for West Brom, heard how he crashed into another car carrying the father of four when traveling on the wrong side of the road and then fled the scene.
      Despite the furore, Hughes spent two seasons with Oldham before going on to represent three other league clubs.
      It isn't just football that has had to deal with the focus that comes with offenders being reintroduced to sport.
      Former world heavyweight champion Mike Tyson returned to boxing after three years in jail for the rape of 18-year-old Desiree Washington, making millions in the process.
      Prior to Oldham's board prolonging its deliberations, one of its sponsors -- Verling Rainwater Solutions -- confirmed it would end its agreement with the club if they signed Evans.
      "The club know our stance and that is if they sign or allow Ched Evans to train we will be out of the door," director Craig Verling was quoted as saying by the UK Press Association.
      The issue continued to be discussed at the highest levels of British politics, too.
      Labour leader Miliband told the BBC: "I think that it is right Oldham are thinking again about whether Ched Evans should be hired by them because you are a role model, he's been convicted of a very serious crime.
      "Personally, if I was in their shoes, he hasn't shown remorse and I wouldn't take him on."
      Those sentiments were echoed by Greater Manchester's Police and Crime Commissioner Lloyd, who said: "Ched Evans is a convicted rapist and, whilst I strongly believe in the principle of rehabilitation, it will send out entirely the wrong message if they offer him a contract.
      "All offenders have the right to rebuild their lives and make amends after they have served their sentence, but Ched Evans' lack of remorse and failure to acknowledge his offense means it is simply inappropriate for him to be on a Greater Manchester football pitch week in and week out presenting himself as some kind of role model, especially to young people."
      The only person from Oldham to speak on the matter on Monday was the team's manager Lee Johnson, who was besieged by cameras when he arrived at the club's stadium.
      "It's a very difficult situation," he told reporters. "I don't really want to comment. Of course we want what's best for the club -- whatever the board decides."