Sunderland’s Chief Executive Resigned After Mishandling The Adam Johnson IncidentPhoto by Steve Welsh/Getty Soccer News
Verdicts may have been reached but the Adam Johnson case is far from over.
Sunderland’s chief executive Margaret Byrne resigned her position earlier today after sharp criticism for her decision to allow Johnson to continue playing even after privately admitting he was guilty.
Last week Johnson was found guilty of one charge of sexual contact with an underage girl. He had previously pled guilty to two further counts and was found not guilty of a fourth at the end of the trial last week. He’s expected to receive five to ten years in prison.
One of the subplots in this story— to the extent that anything could or should distract from something as singularly terrible as what Johnson did— involved Sunderland and how much they knew while he was playing for them.
Johnson was initially suspended from the team immediately following his arrest a little over a year ago, but his suspension was lifted just 16 days later. He continued to play for the Black Cats through the rest of 2014-15 and through much of 2015-16, his minutes only hampered by an injury sustained last August. He was finally sacked from the club last month after entering a guilty plea for two of the charges against him.
In defending their decision to allow Johnson to play, Sunderland said that the legal process had to play out before they would act. Through all this, the club insisted that they had no special knowledge of Johnson’s guilt or lack thereof. It’s becoming clear that that wasn’t the case.
The Guardian uncovered new evidence that Johnson had spoken to Byrne in private and admitted that he had indeed committed the acts that he was being put on trial for. Byrne, a former lawyer, knew about Johnson’s guilt since at least May of last year. Despite her hearing Johnson’s confession, she continued to employ him and he continued to receive first team minutes.
In her resignation letter, Byrne expressed regret for what she called “a serious error of judgment.”
I sincerely regret that this error has impacted on the victim, the club, its supporters and all those affected in such a devastating manner. […] Mr. Johnson’s victim has endured a terrible ordeal and for that I am truly sorry. At no time was the failure to suspend him again intended to cause any harm or distress to her or her family.
Sunderland released a separate statement saying that their internal investigations showed that Byrne had made a serious mistake.
Whilst swift and decisive action was taken to terminate Mr Johnson’s employment upon his guilty plea, decisions taken prior to this, including the decision not to suspend him for a second time pending the outcome of the trial, were wrong. In light of what has been acknowledged by Margaret as a serious error of judgment on her part, we have undertaken a full review of the club’s decision-making processes to ensure that there can be no such mistakes in the future. Throughout this deeply regretful situation, we recognise that one devoted young fan and her family have been very badly let down, first and foremost by Mr Johnson and his despicable actions, but also by the club they support. We are so very sorry for this. Mr. Johnson lied to the club; he also lied to our fans and they have every right to feel aggrieved by this. Lessons have been learned and we hope that the club and its fans can move forward from this together.
Spelling out all the reasons why this situation and the way Sunderland handled it would require a thorough examination of rape culture. Yet it’s worth pointing out all the ways that both Sunderland and the wider football community gave Adam Johnson every benefit of the doubt, a grace he clearly did not deserve. Even after he had been found guilty in a court of law— something which many people require as a threshold before they’ll take allegations of sexual assault or misconduct seriously despite these being, statistically, speaking, rare; the media continued to focus on Adam Johnson’s “fall from grace” as the dominant narrative. Through it all, Adam Johnson was portrayed as a tragically flawed Shakespearean figure undone by some cruel mix of fate and hubris rather than what he really is— a sexual predator. If there’s anything remarkable about the Adam Johnson incident, it’s that people are actually being held accountable for their actions.