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The Semantics of Steubenville

In Culture, Football on March 19, 2013 at 5:40 pm

The Steubenville rape case has received national attention and significant media coverage as an example of the cult of high school sports. But have we missed the real narrative?

Two teenage boys in Steubenville, Ohio were convicted Sunday of raping a teenage girl.

You’ve heard this story already? I’ll bet it was introduced to you a little differently:

Washington Post: “Two members of Steubenville’s celebrated high school football team were found guilty Sunday of raping a drunken 16-year-old girl…”  

Ohio Plain Dealer: “On trial in Jefferson County Juvenile Court are two Steubenville High School football players accused of raping a 16-year girl…”

NBC: “Two Ohio high school football players have been found guilty of raping a drunken 16-year-old girl…”

CNN: “Two star football players in Steubenville, Ohio, have been found guilty of raping a West Virginia teenager.”

You see, it wasn’t just any pair of young men found guilty of rape. It was a pair of football players. Star football players. Promising young athletes. Hometown heroes.

If you’re wondering why that’s relevant, why media coverage is being framed in that context, you’re not the only one. Why on earth does it matter what extracurricular activity the perpetrators preferred?

For the victim, it doesn’t. And media coverage should tell her story. News outlets wisely refrain from reporting the identities of sexual assault victims, a policy which poses some challenges. But there are ways to maintain respect for victims’ privacy while appropriately keeping the focus on the actual crime, not some sob sideshow. The Steubenville boys should have saved their tears; they already had their chance to tell their side of the story, and a judge found them guilty. By offering only sensationalized accounts of the perpetrators’ perspectives, the media does the opposite of protecting the female victim: it erases her narrative — and, therefore, her power — entirely.

The football detail doesn’t matter to the justice system either — or it shouldn’t. Being a popular high school athlete does not exempt one from the reach of the law, although evidence introduced during the trial suggests it apparently makes it less likely that those who should help expose the truth — coaches, parents, school officials — will cooperate with investigations. Thankfully, Ohio attorney general Mike DeWine announced plans to launch an investigation about the possible cover-ups related to the case.

To whom, then, does it matter? Apparently, to the people of Steubenville. To small towns across the country with big sports dreams. To us. The media’s obsession with the football aspect is telling because it reflects our own prejudices and delusions about young men idolized not for their character but for their skill on the field, about boys in cleats encouraged to develop not humility, but swagger. If the accused had been two loners who played video games in their basements instead of two popular guys who played high school’s most hyped team sport, it’s difficult to believe that CNN correspondent Poppy Harlow and legal contributor Paul Callan would have mourned the loss of their “promising futures” the way the reporters did for Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays, “very good students” whose new identities as sexual offenders “will haunt them for the rest of their lives.”

In treating football-playing convicted criminals as tragic heroes, the media has handled this rape case poorly. But the fallout may yet be used constructively. The coverage of the Steubenville rape case invites us to question why the punishment of sexual assault is somehow still controversial, and why it drives those who find the reality threatening to go to great lengths to diminish the seriousness of the crime. And it begs us to reexamine the shocking lengths to which adults who should know better blindly celebrate adolescent athletes, as if forever trapped in the warped logic of high school.

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