A protest at the Jefferson County Courthouse in Steubenville, Ohio, January 5, 2013. (AP Photo/Steubenville Herald-Star, Michael D. McElwain)
When I was a 14-year-old with healthy knees and an obtuse overestimation of my own athleticism, I played for a basketball club team in New York City. One moment from that season looms above all others. We were in the locker room after practice, joking around and half-naked, when Coach Dan came in through the door. Coach Dan wasn’t much of a coach but he made up for it with relentless, flower-power positively. He was a hippie living in the wrong era, with a ponytail that went down his back, and a pocket of trail mix that would dribble out of his mouth like chewing tobacco. Dan never allowed any roughhousing, did “vibe checks” and spoke to us about pacifism while we stifled smirks. He knew we were laughing at him but didn’t really care.
On this day, Dan told us with his typical camp counselor enthusiasm to get our clothes on because one of the girl’s coaches, a woman I just remember as Coach Deb, was about to come in and speak with us. We groaned but still reached for our pants. Everyone, that is, but Tim. All I remember about Tim was that he was string-bean tall, painfully awkward and masked some deep insecurities by cracking jokes at Rodney Dangerfield speed. Tim saw this as a moment for humor and said, “Let’s keep our pants off because then we can rape her!”
I wish I could tell you whether laughter followed, but we didn’t even get the chance to react. In a flash, Coach Dan backhanded Tim across the face. Seeing a coach or adult authority figure hit a 14-year-old, even a huge one like Tim, was shocking enough. Seeing Hippie Dan do it was akin to watching the Dalai Lama stomp someone with his sandals. We all stood there breathless and I’m not sure if Tim or Dan was shaking more. Coach Dan finally spoke and said, “I’m sorry but there are some things you don’t joke about.” He then walked out of the locker room and practice was done. The incident was never mentioned, but Dan was never quite so positive, Tim stopped making jokes and that was the first and last locker-room rape joke of the season.
This seared itself into my memory because my brain seems to regurgitate it every time men’s sports lurks in the background of a sexual assault. Earlier this year, it was seeing Notre Dame players who had been implicated in two sexual assaults, take the field without uproar in their national championship game, led by a coach who thought the accusations were cause for humor. This week the trial opens in Steubenville, Ohio, where two members of the storied high school football team are facing youth prison until the age of 21 for sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl. The defense has described the young woman as “a drunk out-of-town football groupie.”