Recently, I worked closely with athlete Connor Clancy from Colby College on a Change.Org petition – the brainchild of my near and dear SPARK movement – asking the National Federation of High School Associations to develop and offer an annual educational program on sexual assault prevention to coaches as part of a required yearly training. In the wake of Steubenville, it’s clear that it’s time for us to take action collectively to make athletes part of a more proactive, humane culture. That process can begin if we take the right steps to #EducateCoaches.
The Steubenville rape case, in which two high school football players are accused of repeatedly assaulting, raping, and otherwise humiliating a debatably unconscious teenage girl after carrying her limp body from party to party last August, goes to trial today.
The case involves Ma’Lik Richmond and Trent Mays, two high school football players being charged with the sexual assault of an unnamed 16-year-old girl. Both a part of Steubenville’s Big Red football team – which is the steel town’s last shot to be “on the map.” The team’s acclaim has saved their town from desolation, keeping television crews within the confines of the once-packed, now sparsely populated town.
What went down exactly is unknown, mostly because the tale comes of hearsay and the victim herself remembers next to nothing. But the rumors aren’t pretty: various Instagram posts and tweets discussed and showed an unconcious Jane Doe being carried by her wrists and ankles out of a party, flashing everyone while presumably blackout drunk in their car, and lying topless on a sidewalk. A video shows Michael Nodianos, an Ohio State student from Steubenville, giggling about the “rape,” which he describes as such in the YouTube post he created that night,while comparing his buddies to famous rapists. Tweets from his account describe “a wang in the butt” and “a dead person.” Facebook posts express not having “sympathy for whores.”
The assistant coach had been the father of one of the party hosts from that August night, when the boys carried a drunk girl from house to house. He “didn’t like what he saw,” and asked them to leave.
But when the situation was exposed, head coach Reno Saccaccio was unphased. A local hero and successful coach, he regards his athletes as “his sons” and is one of the underlying reasons for the Big Red phenomena. He claimed when he asked the team about rumors of the incident and the details that were coming out, they told him they’d done nothing wrong. He “doesn’t do the Internet,” so he chose to simply ignore that photographs and messages that had been publicly posted by his team members. His demeanor when interacting with press was angry and defensive. He didn’t bench the accused boys and spoke out to invalidate the victim’s experience.
Now, as the trial is set to finally begin, a community remains divided and tensions remain high. By now, Steubenville is at best a hot mess and at worst, an absolute crash-and-burn of a community tragedy. The case has been mishandled in all directions; various members of the community at various levels and moments failed to accept accountability, students rallied against alleged rapists and disavowed a victim, parents turned down opportunities to learn and grow as a community in the spirit of further denial, and law enforcement, for the most part, stood by scratching their heads. And when given a chance to strike down the culture which often glorifies violence and accepts bad behavior while forsaking the humanity of women, the Steubenville coaches, and especially coach Saccoccia failed.
We can’t expect more from our sons if we can’t expect a peep from their fathers. And in a culture where athletes are too often treated preferentially and excused from typical social, legal, and academic standards, it’s become increasingly clear that we can’t expect more from sports culture until we fix our rape culture.
Coaches guide generations of boys through a gritty learning process. They’re legends and heros, and often rightly so. As leaders in their communities and mentors to their athletes, coaches hold unique places in the lives of their teammates. And if we give them the keys to having productive, empowering conversations about violence and respect with the boys they work with every day, that may be the key to ending the culture that created Steubenville.
Sports culture doesn’t have to be a rape culture. Sign the #EducateCoaches petition today at Change.Org/EducateCoaches. Use the tag #EducateCoaches to spread the word.