Steubenville, Ohio has become a flashpoint for the nation after members of Steubenville High’s football team were accused of raping a 16 year old girl at a party. The brutality of the alleged August 2012 crime included dragging the blacked out teen from party to party, where she was repeatedly raped, digitally, vaginally, anally, and urinated on. And sadly, as with many cases involving popular athletes, the town and coaches initially rallied in support of the alleged rapists.
What makes Steubenville different, is that the alleged attack was documented by pictures posted to social media sites and by cell phone videos posted to YouTube which have been leaked by the hacker group Anonymous. Anonymous has also organized protests in Steubenville, leaving the town sharply divided.
Once the Instagram photo of the allegedly unconscious victim being dragged by Trent Mays and Ma'lik Richmond surfaced, everyone began to take sides and the victim blaming machine kicked into high gear. Unsurprisingly, defenders of the accused found fault with the girl for “putting herself in that position” by drinking.
There was even a leaked video, posted by blogger Alexandria Goddard on her website Prinniefied, where another student Cody Saltsman is seen on video laughing it up with classmates about how the alleged victim was “deader than Trayvon Martin” and how she'd allegedly been anally raped by the accused. And as disturbing as the video is, there are still many in the Steubenville community defending the accused in the face of damning evidence. Richmond was even allowed to enjoy a six-day California vacation with his family while on house arrest.
What is it about sports that creates a sense of entitlement where women and girls are simply seen as prizes to be claimed for a stellar performance, instead of as people with agency and bodily autonomy? Steubenville doesn't exist in a vacuum; football culture is partially to blame for creating the environment under which an attack like this could occur and with the perpetrators defended despite mounting evidence.
The alleged perpetrators are to blame for the actual attack, but there is something to be said for a society which holds athletes on a pedestal implying that if they were to attack someone they would likely get away with it and be defended by their communities who value their athletic prowess more than their alleged victims.
Jacyln Friedman, Executive Director of Women, Action, & The Media and the author of Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape told EBONY, “It's bad enough that sports culture treats players as heroes, which makes it nearly impossible for fans to conceive of their idols committing an act as disgusting as rape. But the culture goes one further, treating women as the natural spoils due the winning players (witness Brent Musberger's commentary during the recent Alabama/Notre Dame showdown). When we teach boys that girls are a trophy you get for being good at football, is it any wonder we have trouble treating women's bodily autonomy at least as seriously as we treat the big game?”
Friedman has previously tackled the issue of sports and misogyny in the wake of rape allegations against Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, writing for The American Prospect, “The apologists drink from a potent cocktail of hero-worship, almost military levels of team solidarity, and old-fashioned 'boys will be boys' gender essentialism. And they would just be offensive if they weren't such an integral part of the larger culture of misogyny in sports — a culture that makes it possible for there to be so many henious acts to defend, minimize and deny in the first place. As is, they're downright dangerous, writing a blank check for athletes' behavior that too many athletes are happy to cash.”
If a community’s first instinct is to defend the accused and malign the character of a teenaged victim, something is terribly wrong. Sure, complete police investigations must take place, but in the face of pictures and videos, some amount of pause should naturally kick in for responsible adults in Steubenville…even if they are fans of the football team.
The life of the teenage girl who was carried around as a personal rape toy for hours should trump Steubenville’s football success. Sports are not bigger than life. Hopefully, after all the dust settles and the prosecutors who have attempted to take back control of the investigation with a site Steubenville Facts, justice will be done for the victim who no doubt has a long road to recovery ahead.