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Why The Way We Think About The Steubenville Athletes Matters

It's been reported that Steubenville is a town uniquely obsessed — and maybe even biased — by its football team. But sports obsession in sexual assault news coverage isn't unique. It's the norm, and it's a problem.

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Steubenville is not special.

That’s not quite true: the alleged rape of a 16-year-old high school student by several Steubenville High students and football stars is unique for making the news in the first place. (And, subsequently, for attracting the activism of Anonymous and Roseanne Barr.)

It’s impossible to know exactly how many rapes go unreported by news media, but we do know that most — at least 54% — are never reported to the police. News media aren’t working with much information. With what information they do have, they frequently choose to write and say nothing.

The sexual assaults deemed worthy of media attention have to stand out.

Dr. Susan Caringella-McDonald, in a study examining rape coverage in national magazines in the 1980s and 1990s, found that the few stories that garnered press coverage typically featured one or more of the following sensationalistic attributes, all of which are relatively uncommon characteristics of most sexual assault: interracial victimization (especially when the suspect is black and the victim white), stranger rape, and gang rape. To this list I’d add another category: the glorified athlete suspect.

The difference between Steubenville and any other rape in the United States is not that it’s just this one particular town that is football-crazed to the point of turning a blind eye. The difference is not that just this one time, the athletic achievements of young men were considered by many to be a legitimate alibi absolving them of wrongdoing.

These things can (and do) happen everywhere.

The difference is that this time, the suspects got caught talking about it on a video we can watch. That’s something new, and it’s worth talking about. Notes The New York Times:

“The case is not the first time a high school football team has been entangled in accusations of sexual assault. But the situation in Steubenville has another layer to it that separates it from many others: It is a sexual assault accusation in the age of social media, when teenagers are capturing much of their lives on their camera phones — even repugnant, possibly criminal behavior, as they did in Steubenville in August — and then posting it on the Web, like a graphic, public diary.”

What isn’t new is the media’s inordinate, and frequently fawning, emphasis on said high school football team. In some cases, the coverage seems somewhat relevant: the authors of that Times article detail Steubenville’s economic woes and its growing drug problems, evoking a general sense of misery that must come from living in a town like Steubenville — a tidy narrative not without its own flaws, namely, that something like this could only happen someplace like here: Gloomsville, U.S.A. It’s a misery, the story’s authors write, ameliorated only by the high school football team, a “bright light” for the town’s residents. The reporters ostensibly include this information to arrive at their final point: that the locals’ “emphatic pride over high school athletes” has contributed to a populace that, according to resident Jim Flanagan, “looks the other way.”

However, a great many of the references to the football team have been not only irrelevant, but indicative of a rape culture rhetoric that seeks to glorify even the potentially tarnished heroes while implicating the victim(s) in ruining the only good thing this town (whichever town) ever had. It’s an impulse that exists at every level of sports — we're all aware of the handful of pro-sports stars who were once, or a few times, accused of sexual assault — but one that seems especially strong at the high school and college levels, when the suspects can more fairly be called “boys” — “our boys,” “good boys,” boys we know personally, who could never do such a thing.

And indeed, the New York Times reporters want you to know great the football team is: “The team … quickly became a legend in Ohio high school football. It has won nine state championships, including back-to-back undefeated seasons in 2005 and 2006.” The story notes that one of the alleged suspects has “a strong arm at quarterback,” “dominated as a quick and tall wide receiver” and “was a star of the Big Red basketball and track teams.” The reporters go on to add that both suspects “gave hope to fans that Big Red might be headed back to the top.”

To be fair, the Times piece is, by far, a better story on suspected athlete rape than most. Unusually for this type of story — especially given the need to preserve anonymity — the victim is granted her own line of positive characterization. (“She attended a smaller, religion-based school, where she was an honor student and an athlete.”) But surely this level of gushing goes beyond the background information required? It makes sense to tell us the football team is important if its importance may be contributing to bias against the victim. But do we need to know how many state championships they’ve won? Do we need to know how much the suspects, if convicted, will be missed by their teammates and fans?

As a graduate student in public policy, I studied this phenomenon, collecting data on sexual assault in colleges (a growing area of study, and one with obvious strong ties to the role athletics play in these cases’ reportage) across my home state, Minnesota, from 2000-2012. Most reports focused on a handful of cases, and the single most popular category for coverage was alleged sexual assault committed by one or more student athletes. In some respects, this is, if problematic, expected: the media likely perceives student athletes, who are often local celebrities, as more interesting to the public. What happens to them might “affect” us.

What makes less sense — but what happens time and time again — is the proportion of news coverage lent to describing the alleged suspects’ athletic achievements.

Of a 2007 case involving suspected Gopher football players, journalist Emily Gurnon wrote in the Pioneer Press, “Those who know Jones well were shocked…[the allegation] seemed out of character for a guy who was honored for his leadership numerous times in high school.” Another report, in the Star Tribune, on the same case finds another journalist, Rochelle Olson, writing that, “[the suspect] was the best defensive player, perhaps the best player on the whole team. He was seen as a leader by coaches and teammates for his disposition as well as his smart, aggressive play.” Journalist David Hanners wrote in the Pioneer Press that the suspect was “a former standout football player” who “was considered the Gophers’ outstanding defensive player” and “also did well in the classroom.” In another Pioneer Press report, Hanners wrote that the suspect “excelled at returning punts and kicks; he set a school record by returning 32 kicks for 786 yards.” When the suspect was convicted, Ms. Olson wrote that his “loss” was “traumatic” for his team. [Note: full citations, as well as additional examples, can be found in the full thesis here.]

In newspaper coverage of a 2006 suspected rape involving Mankato hockey player suspects, journalist Myron Medcalf, after referring to the hockey team’s high game attendance, included the following quote: “’It’s too bad either way justice has to take so long,” said Joe Frederick, a Mankato city councilman who has season tickets for men’s hockey.'”

It is a shame.

The factual accuracy of these athletes’ prior successes — and the degree to which their potential absence might hurt their teams and their fans — is immaterial. Whether or not suspected athletes have committed the crimes of which they are accused, the things they've accomplished in sports have nothing to do with it. If athletes suspected of rape are eventually found innocent, it won't (or, at least, shouldn't) be because they've done such a good job for their teams. Can a young man not be an excellent quarterback and a rapist all at once? Unless we believe that athletic prowess in and of itself contributes to goodness of character, unless we believe that our heroes can do no wrong simply because they are our heroes, these records and these achievements have no place in media coverage of violent crime.

The question we must ask, then, is this: do we believe it?

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