By Doug Barry
If you followed the Steubenville rape trial through to its conclusion yesterday morning when Judge Thomas Lipps handed down “deliquent” verdicts to high school football players Trent Mays and Ma’Lik Richmond for raping a 16-year-old girl after a party last August, you probably subjected yourself to some pretty graphic trial testimony, as well as the needling worry that justice, even after all the visual evidence and testimony the news-gathering public has been bombarded with over the last few months, might not be done. How many times have we seen the justice system, the media, or just casually callous observers with too much access to social media shame a sexual assault victim for brining about her or his own ruin? So many, in fact, that this website has an entire tag devoted to victim-blaming.
Anyone who thought we might trudge through another high-profile sexual assault case involving student athletes without suffering through a barrage of victim blaming from ignorant rape apologists or conservative conspiracy theorists is clearly a delusional optimist. Athletics occupy a special nook in the American psyche — our athletes have achieved a godlike status in pop culture, and our athletic diversions have become sacred. That’s why the legislative branch of our government seems to only overcome its partisan differences when it’s trying to investigate whether or not people cheated in the hit-the-ball-with-the-stick game. Or whether football is too dangerous, as if it’s somehow news that repeated blows to the head are bad for you.
It’s also why some people can take to Twitter and spout geysers of shit from the tips of their typing fingers. There’s waaaaay more victim-blaming on Twitter, more than you can probably stomach in a single sitting. There seems to be no limit for the amount sympathy some people can muster for Mays and Richmond, and, conversely, no limit to the amount of callousness they can muster in dismissing, discrediting, or flat-out blaming the 16-year-old girl, the only — and we really shouldn’t have to say this — real victim in this rape trial.
Sports worship is also big reason why, in the case of the Steubenville saga, certain media outlets (ahem, CNN) have pushed a sympathetic narrative about Mays and Richmond, the two “deliquent” (that’s the juvenile court equivalent of “guilty”) teenagers who also happened to be stand-out athletes on a well-regarded high school football team. The banter between Candy Crowley and general correspondent Poppy Harlow after the trial ended Sunday, in which they cluck-clucked over these “two young men [who] had such promising young futures” — and who, they added, were “very good students” — shocked a lot of people, many of who rightly wondered whether CNN, so sensitive to the wrecked football careers of Mays and Richmond, had reserved any sympathy for the 16-year-old rape victim.
CNN wasn’t alone in trying to drum up sympathy for the fallen football stars. Good Morning America‘s extensive pre-trial coverage last Tuesday hammered out pretty much every angle, but concluded with an emphasis on the shattered football futures of the two guilty teenagers:
When the trial commences Wednesday, there will be no jury involved. Instead, a juvenile judge will decide the fates of Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, who face incarceration in a detention center until their 21st birthdays and the almost-certain demise of their dreams of playing football.
Then again, another pre-trial article from ABC focused on Richmond’s state of mind the night of the sexual assault for which he’ll now be serving time in juvenile detention. He was excited, the article explains, for the August doldrums to end and the football season to finally begin:
It’s no surprise that he was in a celebratory mood. But even Richmond admits that some of what happened at the parties he and several of his teammates attended that night crossed the line.
“Crossed the line” is certainly one way (a shitty way) of putting it. Another way is to say that he and teammate Trent Mays raped, filmed, and mocked a 16-year-old girl who was too intoxicated to even consider consenting to any of the sexual acts her unconscious body was subjected to that night.
Images of Mays and Richmond crying in the courtroom and quotes of them lamenting their sentences are part of the Steubenville story. News outlets are obligated to report things like Richmond collapsing into the arms of his attorney when the guilty verdict came down, sobbing, “My life is over. No one is going to want me now.” That reaction shouldn’t surprise anyone (Richmond is 16-years-old), though it might make it a little harder for some observers to outright despise him. People want a monster when heinous crimes are committed, but part of what makes even the most violent criminals so insidious is that they’re not monsters at all — they’re people, sometimes people we might have, in other circumstances, held a door open for.
What’s so distressing, though, about the way major news outlets like CNN or ABC wring the sympathy out of the Steubenville story is that they’re tapping into America’s collective yearning for its worshipped athletes to be pure, to be somehow incapable of committing a crime like rape. That’s obviously not true, but there always seems to be a reluctance (or flat-out unwillingness) for some people to believe that athletes could sully the sports we venerate. When an athlete commits a heinous crime or, God-for-fucking-bid, cheats, the collective outrage is palpable — a lot of people who’ve invested a lot of time and emotional devotion into sports feel betrayed, and that betrayal can make people lash out at the offender (like with Lance Armstrong), or even defend the offender at all costs.
CNN and ABC know this. They know that American sports fans go batshit, tongue-lolling crazy when they see wall-length portraits of Michael Jordan putting an inflated rubber sphere through a 10-foot-tall hoop. They know that, against all evidence to the contrary, some people still want to believe that Mark McGwire really hit all those home runs that one, electrifying summer when his face was caricatured all over packets of Big League Chew. And they know that some people, steeped in reverence for America’s new pastime of watching hyper-muscled humans run into each other on a gridded field, will feel their heart strings plucked for the ruined football careers of two young men.
That, however, is not what the Steubenville story is ultimately about. It’s not about a rust-belt community suffering the woes of an enfeebled steel industry, and it’s not about how important it is for Steubenville to simply “get over” its ignominious moment in the national spotlight. It’s about a 16-year-old girl who was raped by two young men who thought that being good at throwing and catching an inflated ovoid meant that they had cultural carte blanche to behave however they wanted. Being good at a sport doesn’t entitle anyone to automatic public sympathy, and delving into our cultural sympathy reservoirs to bemoan the tragedy of a football player’s young career cut cruelly short does not make news coverage sensitive.
Maybe Richmond and Mays cried at their sentencing, fine. They should have cried. They should feel very fucking sorry for what they did, because it’s awful. We, however, should not feel sorry for them because a university will most likely not give them a scholarship to play a game. The sooner this country comes to terms with that fact, the more civilized and empathetic a place it will be.