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The Verdict: Steubenville Shows the Bond Between Jock Culture and Rape Culture | The Nation

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Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin

Where sports and politics collide.

The Verdict: Steubenville Shows the Bond Between Jock Culture and Rape Culture


A sheriff’s vehicle at Steubenville High School. (Reuters/Jason Cohn)

”I think that if rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it.”    —Bob Knight, Hall of Fame basketball coach, 1988

As a sportswriter, there is one part of the Steubenville High School rape trial that has kept rattling in my brain long after the defendants were found guilty. It was a text message sent by one of the now-convicted rapists, team quarterback Trent Mays. Mays had texted a friend that he wasn’t worried about the possibility of rape charges because his football coach, local legend Reno Saccoccia, “took care of it.” In another text, Mays said of Coach Reno, “Like, he was joking about it so I’m not worried.”

In this exchange we see an aspect of the Steubenville case that should resonate in locker rooms and athletic departments across the country: the connective tissue between jock culture and rape culture. Rape culture is not just about rape. It’s about the acceptance of women as “things” to be used and disposed, which then creates a culture where sexual assault—particularly at social settings—is normalized. We learned at the Steubenville trial that not only did a small group of football players commit a crime, but fifty of their peers, men and women, saw what was happening and chose to do nothing, effectively not seeing a crime at all.

We need to ask the question whether the jock culture at Steubenville was a catalyst for this crime. We need to ask whether there’s something inherent in the men’s sports of the twenty-first century, which so many lionize as a force for good, that can also create a rape culture of violent entitlement. I am not asking if playing sports propels young men to rape. I am asking if the central features of men’s sports—hero worship, entitlement and machismo—make incidents like Steubenville more likely to be replicated. There are many germs in the Petri dish of sports. Growing up I had the great fortune of having big-hearted, politically conscious coaches, some of whom patrolled sexism in the locker room with a particular vigilance. As the great Joe Ehrmann has written so brilliantly, a “transformational coach” can work wonders. But different germs also exist. Ken Dryden, Hall of Fame NHL goalie, once said, ”It’s really a sense of power that comes from specialness…. anyone who finds himself at the center of the world they’re in has a sense of impunity.”

On colleges, there is reason to believe that the same teamwork, camaraderie and “specialness” produced by sports can be violently perverted to create a pack mentality that either spurs sexual violence or makes players fear turning in their teammates. A groundbreaking 1994 study showed that college athletes make up 3.3 percent of male students but 19 percent of those accused of sexual assault. One of the studies authors, Jeff Benedict, said, “Does this study say participation in college sports causes this? Clearly, no. We’re not saying that. We just think that at some point there is an association between sports and sexual assault…. the farther you go up, the more entitlements there are. And one of those entitlements is women.”

That was two decades ago but there is no indication that anything has changed. In a February 2012 Boston Globe article about sexual assault charges levied against members of the Boston University hockey team, reporter Mary Carmichael wrote about the findings of Sarah McMahon, “a Rutgers University researcher who studies violence against women.” McMahon “said it is unclear whether college athletes are more likely to commit sexual crimes than other students. But she said her work had found a unique sense of entitlement, sexual and otherwise, among some male college athletes, especially those in high-profile or revenue-producing sports like BU hockey.”

You can’t extricate the entitlement at the heart of jock culture from McMahon’s comments about its particular prevalence in revenue-producing sports. The insane amounts of money in so-called amateur athletics and the greasy desire of adults in charge of cash-strapped universities to get their share also must bear responsibility for rape culture in the locker room. They have created a system where teenage NCAA athletes can’t be paid for what they produce, so they receive a different kind of wage: worship. Adults treat them like heroes, students treat them like rock stars, and amidst classes, club meetings and exams, there exists a gutter economy where women become a form of currency. You’re a teenager being told that you are responsible for the economic viability of your university and everything is yours for the taking. This very set-up is a Steubenville waiting to happen.

If people think that this doesn’t translate to high school, they’re wrong. I spoke with Jon Greenberg, an ESPN journalist and also a graduate of Steubenville High. He describes a school “with a pretty high poverty rate” that was still able to get state funds to build “a swimming pool, a new on-campus gym, cafeteria and more.” The dynastic “Big Red” football program drove those changes. As Greenberg says, “The football players themselves, at least in my experience, weren’t treated as heroes or above the law, but the team itself was put on a pedestal, especially when they were good…. There are some very good people who played Big Red football and coached football. But there needs to be some changes, most importantly a very serious seminar, for all male students, on the definition of rape and similar curriculum.”

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In thinking about Steubenville, thinking about my own experiences playing sports, thinking about athletes I’ve interviewed and know, I believe that a locker room left to its own devices will drift toward becoming a breeding ground for rape culture. You don’t need a Coach Reno or a Bob Knight to make that happen. You just need good people to say or do nothing. As such, a coach or a player willing to stand up, risk ridicule and actually teach young men not to rape, can make all the difference in the world. We need interventionist, transformative coaches in men’s sports that talk openly about these issues. We need an economic setup in amateur sports that does away with their gutter economy. But most of all, we need people who recognize the existence of rape culture, both on and off teams, to no longer be silent.

As for Steubenville, Coach Reno needs to be shown the door, never to be allowed to mold young minds again. Football revenue should go toward creating a district-wide curriculum about rape and stopping violence against women. And “Jane Doe,” the young woman at the heart of this case, should be given whatever resources she and her family needs to move if they choose, pay for college or just have access to whatever mental health services she and her family require. After the trial, testimony and verdict, they deserve nothing less.

College students across the country are pushing their administrations to protect students from sexual assault. For more, check out this week’s “Dispatches from the US Student Movement.”

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