A sheriff’s vehicle patrols the area around Steubenville High School. (Reuters/Jason Cohn)
Perhaps the most disturbing feature of the Steubenville High School rape trial involving several members of the school’s storied football team wasn’t the crime itself as much as everything that surrounded it. It was the fifty people who stood around and did nothing while an unconsious young woman was being carried around like a slab of beef. It was the adults in authority who seemed all too eager to push this under the rug until photos were displayed for the world to see and the justice system was shamed to act. It was those who threatened the life of the young woman for daring to press charges, requiring armed guards outside her family’s home.
Symbolic of this unholy marriage of jock culture and rape culture was the revered Big Red football coach Reno Saccoccia who didn’t seem to give a damn that his players could have treated a woman this way. Given Coach Saccoccia’s controversial behavior before and during the trial, which drew national scrutiny, many of us thought he at the very least would be shown the door after three decades of service. We all thought wrong. Today we learned that “Coach Sac,” as he is known, has been granted a two-year contract extension by the Steubenville school board. They made this decision despite the fact that a grand jury is meeting next week to assess whether he and others obstructed justice in the case. Saccoccia was legally required to report the sexual assault as soon as he was aware it took place. The grand jury will determine whether or not he in fact knew and tried to sweep it under the turf.
Whatever the conclusions of the grand jury, the question of whether Saccoccia should remain in a position to mold the minds of young men should not have been difficult to answer. Not when there are text messages sent by now-convicted team quarterback Trent Mays that read, “I got Reno. He took care of it and shit ain’t gonna happen, even if they did take it to court. Like he was joking about it so I’m not worried.” Not when Saccoccia went nose-to-nose with a woman reporter looking into the rape case and said, “You’re gonna get yours. And if you don’t get yours, somebody close to you will.” Not when Coach Sac oversaw a locker room where the jock culture become inextricably connected to a rape culture.
When Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond were convicted as juveniles of rape, I was glad because the message that would have been sent by their acquittal—being passed out equals consent—would have been deeply harmful. The message to extend Coach Sac‘s employment with grand jury deliberations hanging over his head is perhaps equally harmful. I spoke to a friend who is a rape counselor in DC and asked her what she thought of the decision. First she erupted with a “What the hell!” Then after a deep breath she said, “The school board chose to send a message. That message was that the health and continuity of the football team is more important than the health and safety of young women in that community. It’s a regrettable message and I truly hope they come to their senses. We’re all watching.”
One can almost pity the Steubenville school board because they still don’t get it. The demand for accountability and justice in Steubenville will not begin and end inside their school district. This is now a high school in the national spotlight because it’s become symbolic of too many communities broken by the act of sexual violence and the bystanders who have looked the other way. Over 134,000 people have signed a petition at change.org demanding that Saccocia be fired. Until Coach Sac is sacked, the spotlight will only get hotter.
In rape tragedies, Jessica Valenti writes, the shame is ours.