Society has made great leaps in terms of social issues over the last century.
That being said, occasionally, an event comes along that proves we still have a ways to go. Last August, a 16-year-old girl was raped in the town of Steubenville, Ohio by two members of the town’s high school football team. For this crime, Trent Mays, 17, and Ma’lik Richmond, 16, have been sentenced to at least one and two years, respectively, in a juvenile correctional facility with the possibility of being held until they turn 21 at the state’s discretion.
A heinous crime on its own, the public reaction has been equally reprehensible, thus exposing a culture that has made it acceptable to blame a victim while simultaneously sympathizing with the perpetrator of the
The details of the rape are especially disturbing. For six hours, the unconscious victim was dragged from party to party, sexually violated, photographed and filmed naked. Many of these photos and videos ended up being posted on social media sites and shared via phone. The victim awoke the next morning without her shoes, phone and underwear with no recollection of what had happened the night before.
According to The New York Times, Mays attempted to orchestrate a cover-up, telling a friend to “just say she came to your house and passed out.” Mays also attempted to convince the victim not to go forward with charges. Texts, tweets and other comments were exchanged by partygoers making jokes at the victim’s expense and made several references to rape. Despite this, the victim did move forward with pursuing charges against her attackers. And somehow, the situation only managed to get worse.
As the trial progressed, the victim and her family were harassed and threatened by members of the Steubenville community. The victim has been accused by many residents of putting the Big Red football team in a “bad light” and implying she had put herself in the position for this to happen.
To top this victim-bashing off, some members of the community and press actively sympathized with the assailants. Among them was CNN’s Poppy Harlow, who stated it was “Incredibly difficult, even for an outsider like me, to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believed their lives fell apart…when that sentence came down, (Ma’lik) collapsed in the arms of his attorney… He said to him, ‘My life is over. No one is going to want me now.’ ”
Meanwhile, when approached by reporters questioning why he hadn’t benched other players who had been involved with the spread of the photos and comments, Stuebenville High School football coach Reno Saccoccia lashed out at reporters, quoted by The New York Times as saying “You’re going to get yours. And if you don’t get yours, somebody close to you will.”
This case has served to highlight a perpetuation of two societal detriments: a pervasive rape culture and the deification of scholastic athletes and athletics.
The FBI estimates 37 percent of rape victims come forward, while the Department of Justice estimates 26 percent of victims come forward. And only about 3 percent of rape cases end in a conviction.
I have friends who have gone through this tragedy, and this type of treatment of a victim is exactly why many of them, and so many others, have been afraid to come forward. This type of treatment of a victim is why so few of them will see justice. And the victimization of the convicted does nothing but send a message that if you’re in a position of power, you can get a free pass.
And that brings me to the deification of athletics. The rabid defense of the football team and the shifting and absolution of responsibility is on par with the fan reaction during the Penn State abuse scandal.
I’m reminded of the riot that broke out after Joe Paterno was fired. I’m reminded of the people who still try to absolve him of his role in deepening the scandal while claiming the university doesn’t deserve punishment.
These people are no different from those who are blaming the downfall of these two boys and their beloved football team on the victim. These boys committed a very serious crime. When a player puts on their uniform, no matter the level or entity they’re affiliated with, they have become ambassadors for their team on and off the court. These boys failed in their ambassadorship.
Their demise is nobody’s fault but their own. In this case, the culprits left many victims. There is the girl, who will have to live with the psychological trauma of not only that night, but the aftermath it has created. There is the girl’s family, who has endured non-stop harassment from their own neighbors. There are even the families of the convicted, both immediate and extended who have now been forced to grapple with the fact that someone in their own family committed such acts. And then there are the women, children and even men who have been deterred from coming forward with their own sexual assaults because of how this case played out. These are the victims of Steubenville. The boys who stand convicted are not among them.
Reach columnist Rob Nielsen at Rob.Nielsen@coyotes.usd.edu