LONDON – Football was accused of having a “cultural problem” as former England international Adam Johnson was sentenced to six years in prison after engaging in unlawful sexual activity with a 15-year-old fan.
Johnson, once a winger with Sunderland and Manchester City, was found guilty on Thursday following an incident in his Range Rover car in County Durham, northeast England, last year.
It has become increasingly commonplace to hear English football fans voicing their disillusionment with the cash-rich Premier League.
One criticism is that in paying the likes of Johnson a weekly wage of £60,000 (S$116,230), more than three times the average annual salary in the town where they play, clubs such as northeast side Sunderland have created a generation of spoilt players, who then expect to be indulged off the field as well.
It was a view that found echoes in a letter sent by Britain’s NSPCC children’s charity to the chairman of England’s governing Football Association, Greg Dyke, on Thursday.
“The NSPCC’s concern lies not in the behaviour of a single individual – although that is horrifying – but in the approach taken by Sunderland… We are worried this could be a cultural problem within football as a whole,” wrote Peter Wanless, the charity’s chief executive.
Johnson, 28, was sacked by struggling Premier League side Sunderland straight after his guilty plea.
But the fallout saw the club’s chief executive, Margaret Byrne, resign on March 8 after she accepted making a “serious mistake” in being party to letting Johnson play on for nearly a year despite knowing he had admitted to kissing a 15-year-old girl.
Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of England’s Professional Footballers’ Association, insisted his organisation took child protection seriously and that his members were aware of “danger zones” involving young female fans.
“It’s not as though we don’t know the law of the land and we don’t expect footballers to be immune from it,” Taylor told BBC Sport after Johnson was sentenced.
“Of course there will be times when there are danger zones. With young women, particularly girls, then that’s even more dangerous.
“So they (footballers) need to be very, very mindful and there’s a line beyond which they just do not cross,” insisted Taylor, who added the PFA needed to “work even harder on these child protection and safeguarding issues”.
Taylor said Johnson’s chances of playing professionally again were “very remote”, a view backed up by the experience of former Wales striker Ched Evans.
Evans, currently appealing against his conviction for raping a 19-year-old woman, was released from prison in October 2014. He then saw an attempt to resurrect his career with third-tier club Oldham Athletic collapse amid a public outcry.
That Johnson was later revealed, when reporting restrictions were lifted, to have also been arrested for possessing extreme pornography is unlikely to have shocked fans who have grown used to lurid tales involving footballers.
Star France striker Karim Benzema, cleared on all charges in an underage sex trial in Paris two years ago, was indefinitely suspended from international duty in December after he was placed under investigation over an attempt to bribe France team-mate Mathieu Valbuena for a sex tape.
It has still to be decided if Real Madrid forward Benzema will feature at the European Championships in France in June.
Passing sentence at Bradford Crown Court, Judge Jonathan Rose said Johnson had taken advantage of a “young teenager’s adoration with celebrity”.
But the recent imprisonment of several British entertainment industry figures showed football does not have a monopoly on illegal sexual conduct.