This past Saturday, May 2, Adam Johnson entered a Premier League game for Sunderland as a late-game substitute. He played the final ten minutes, plus stoppage time, and contributed to Sunderland’s surprising 2-1 victory over Southampton. Johnson’s appearance would typically be a non-story, but it was made a story a week earlier when Adam Johnson was charged with some quite serious crimes.
On April 24, Adam Johnson was charged with a variety of sex offenses all related to his relationship with a 15-year-old girl. Initially, Sunderland suspended Johnson upon his arrest in early March, but the club relented later that month and rescinded his suspension. Johnson suited up for Sunderland three times since his arrest, but his appearance against Southampton was the first since being formally charged with these offenses involving a minor.
Before this past Saturday, it appeared Sunderland manager Dick Advocaat would leave Johnson out of the club for the remainder of the season. While Advocaat played Johnson after the lifting of his suspension, he held Johnson out of the club the day after charges were levied. On April 25—the day after Johnson was officially charged—Advocaat left Johnson out of eighteen entirely, claiming that the winger was fit but “not mentally right.” But despite the formal charges, Advocaat returned this past weekend to the post-suspension, pre-charges status quo of deploying Johnson as a second half substitute.
When asked about the possibility of leaving Johnson out of the eighteen this past weekend, Advocaat deferred to Sunderland officials. His most recent response to the question of whether selecting Johnson was difficult or not, Advocaat responded “No. The club has made a statement and I will stay behind that and we will wait and see what the future will bring.” When asked about possible backlash, Advocaat urged opposing fans to refrain from excessive abuse directed at Johnson, again citing the player’s unknown mental state.
Critics have called upon Advocaat and Sunderland to consider what is more important: the mental health of Adam Johnson, or the club’s public reputation and—most importantly—the physical and mental well-being of a young girl.
Dick Advocaat and Sunderland officials have caught themselves between two positions. On one hand, club officials reportedly cannot agree on whether or not to ban Johnson from the club while charges are pending, choosing to list Johnson’s status “under review.” To Advocaat, this means Johnson is still eligible to play. However, Johnson’s “mental state” limits him to the role of late-game substitute as of late. As it currently stands, Johnson is a player in a sort of de facto limbo—no longer a starter due to his legal problems, but not officially suspended either. But for every minute Johnson plays, Sunderland runs a greater risk of public relations disaster.
Johnson is due to appear in Peterlee Magistrates’ Court on May 20, the day Sunderland play Arsenal, and the club plays two more games between now and then. Sunderland’s season ends four days later with a visit to league champions Chelsea. These final games will very likely determine Sunderland’s relegation fate.
Thus far, the outcry directed at Sunderland is comparatively mild. While Johnson is certainly innocent until proven guilty, Advocaat and Sunderland officials must surely be aware of the hole they are digging themselves. Just within the past year, several clubs were met with severe backlash for expressing interest in signing convicted rapist Ched Evans. Other comparable stories come from the Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Greg Hardy, and Darren Sharper scandals in the National Football League along with the ongoing Jameis Winston allegations. If Johnson is convicted—or if more damning evidence comes forward publicly—the backlash against Sunderland will be sudden, severe, and incredibly damaging to their business.