Steubenville and Challenging Rape Culture in Sports

When I was a 14-year-old with healthy knees and an obtuse overestimation of my own athleticism, I played for a basketball club team in New York City. One moment from that season looms above all others. We were in the locker room after practice, joking around and half-naked, when Coach Dan came in through the door. Coach Dan wasn’t much of a coach but he made up for it with relentless, flower-power positively. He was a hippie living in the wrong era, with a ponytail that went down his back, and a pocket of trail mix that would dribble out of his mouth like chewing tobacco. Dan never allowed any rough housing, did “vibe checks” and spoke to us about pacifism while we stifled smirks. He knew we were laughing at him but didn’t really care.

On this day, Dan told us with his typical camp counselor enthusiasm to get our clothes on because one of the girl's coaches, a woman I just remember as Coach Deb, was about to come in and speak with us. We groaned but still reached for our pants. Everyone that is, but Tim. All I remember about Tim was that he was string bean tall, painfully awkward, and masked some deep insecurities by cracking jokes at Rodney Dangerfield speed. Tim saw this as a moment for humor and said, “Let’s keep our pants off because then we can rape her!”

I wish I could tell you whether laughter followed, but we didn’t even get the chance to react. In a flash, Coach Dan backhanded Tim across the face. Seeing a coach or adult authority figure hit a 14 year old, even a huge one like Tim, was shocking enough. Seeing Hippie Dan do it was akin to watching the Dalai Lama stomp someone with his sandals. We all stood there breathless and I’m not sure if Tim or Dan was shaking more. Coach Dan finally spoke and said, “I’m sorry but there are some things you don’t joke about.” He then walked out of the locker room and practice was done. The incident was never mentioned, but Dan was never quite so positive, Tim stopped making jokes and that was the first and last locker room rape joke of the season.

This seared itself into my memory because my brain seems to regurgitate it every time men’s sports lurks in the background of a sexual assault. Earlier this year, it was seeing Notre Dame players who had been implicated in two sexual assaults, take the field without uproar in their national championship game, led by a coach who thought the accusations were cause for humor. This week the trial opens in Steubenville, Ohio, where two members of the storied high school football team are facing youth prison until the age of 21 for sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl. The defense has described the young woman as “a drunk out-of-town football groupie.”

The fact is that rape culture—conversation, jokes and actions that normalize rape—are a part of sports. Far too many athletes feel far too empowered to see women as the spoils of jock culture. The young woman in Steubenville was carried like a piece of meat with the brutality documented like it was Spring Break in Daytona Beach. It was so normalized that dozens of people saw what was happening and did nothing.

Why would the players feel so entitled to not only act this way but also document their own behavior? Why would their peers watch and do nothing? It starts with understanding Steubenville, a small city not so different from many others in the former rust-belt. This is a damaged post-industrial town where there is little hope and excitement beyond the dynastic “Big Red” high school football program. As one local resident said to Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports, "We have 16,000 people in Steubenville and a 10,000-seat stadium. That says it all." The team’s website even says that Big Red football is “keeping Steubenville on the map.”

Because high school football is at the center of the social, psychological and even economic life of Steubenville, youth are treated like demigods with the adults acting like sentries guarding the sacred program. Whatever the results of the trial, it speaks volumes that the young woman is in lockdown in her own home under armed guards because of death threats.

A tone for this attitude toward the accuser was set by the team’s legendary football coach of 30 years, Reno Saccoccia, whose first response upon hearing the charges was to take no action against either the accused players or those on the team who were present and did nothing. When a female reporter asked him why, Coach Reno went “nose to nose” with her and said, "You’re going to get yours. And if you don’t get yours, somebody close to you will.”

I don’t believe that rape culture is an endemic part of men’s sports. I do believe that rape culture is an endemic part of teenage boys being treated like gods by adults for their ability to play games. I also believe that rape culture in locker rooms can be destroyed with the active intervention of coaches who take violence against women seriously. We shouldn’t have to ask them to hit their players to get this message across. As Zerlina Maxwell might say, these young men can be taught not to rape.

Reno Saccoccia is an icon. I have no idea what happened to my own Coach Dan but I know who I'd rather have coaching my kids. Rape culture is a part of Coach Reno’s locker room but it sure as hell wasn’t a part of mine for which I'm forever grateful. Hopefully Tim is out there, finally grown into his six-foot-five frame, and a part of him is grateful too.

10 Reader Comments | Add a comment

An Important Topic

"The fact is that rape culture—conversation, jokes and actions that normalize rape—are a part of sports. " I couldn't agree more with this quote. I teach a course on the history of sports at a small liberal arts college, and students always resist accepting this topic when it gets brought up. Rather than accept the tendency of sporting culture to normalize rape -- one could even connect the intersecting and hyper-real images of violence, power and sex that pervade media to this process -- my students tend to blame a few malcontents.

I still remember listening to a nationally syndicated sports radio show around the time that Kobe Bryant was accused of rape. One of the hosts joked that if it was found out that the woman accusing Bryant was lying, Kobe should get one free "get-out-of-jail rape card."

Thanks for the article, Dave. On thing that is good about culture is that it is susceptible to change.

Rape Culture at Large

Dan,

Thanks for once again opening my eyes. I'd like to relate another recent news story that brought to light the insensitivity of many people towards rape. As you may know, former mayor of Detroit Kwame Kilpatrick (a former Florida A&M football player) was recently found guilty of 24 federal crimes. He's likely to go to jail for a long time. Local morning DJ Mojo from 95.5 thought it would be 'funny' to fly a banner over the courthouse as the verdict was being announced that read, "Hey, Kwame -- don't drop the soap." I was absolutely appalled and took to the DJ's Facebook page to respond. By the time I did, the post mentioning this banner was 'liked' over 2,000 times. Shortly after my post, I was told by a few commenters to "take the stick out of my ass" and lighten up -- that the sign was "all in good fun."

Disgusting. We've got a long way to go if we think trivializing rape -- and in a way, wishing it upon a public figure -- is funny.

A bad example

DZ seems to be excusing physical violence against a minor by the love-child coach because it was for a good cause. Why couldn't coach Dan punish the minor by kicking him off the team? If this was DZ's son being backhanded by an adult would DZ applaud the action? I kinda doubt it.

rape and school sports

I listened to your very good radio show on this topic. I think it's important not to single out Steubenville. This is a widespread. It was a problem when I was in high school in VA in the 60s, it just wasn't reported (who would have believed the girl?)
I agree it's about young boys, lionized, and made to feel they can do no wrong, and especially that girls are the 'reward' for being a sports hero. But it's also about boys being encouraged to think, joke, and talk about girls as skanks, sluts, meat, slits, cows, holes, bitches, and worse (much worse). And joke about rape.
Steubenville's response is shaped by the unemployment and poverty, and the pride and need for what sports can provide. It will be, already is, a loss for this declining town that it's reputation too is being snatched away. But it's not just towns like this.
It is a sports system that conveys the message that when we boys get together, this is how we talk (and think), and this is what we get - girls, there for the taking. If they come to our party, and they drink, they must 'want it'. (And who cares if they don't, they're just skanks, sluts, meat...).
I don't think anyone needs to be slapped around by a coach (sorry Dave), but what if coaches refused to have mean, ugly, derogatory talk about women in the locker rooms or anywhere. What if demeaning jokes were not allowed, with consequences. What if coaches (important role models with a captive audience) made it clear that rape is a crime that will be prosecuted, and even a hint of non-consensuality is beneath contempt and not tolerated. I like what the first commenter said, "The good thing about culture is it's susceptible to change."
We should demand that change.

rape and school sports

Dave - - keep it up - - it's so great to hear from someone into sports AND also aware it is a part of the whole of society.
As such, our schools reflect our society reflect our sports, etc. One only has to turn on the television to see what our society values, and our need to pursue heroes is part of the marketing plan. Sports pays. In a money system such as ours, aggression is manipulated, as are most of our emotions.

Being a boy in this world can suck. Boys are differently wired, yet it's the culture that teaches us how to live and behave. Individualism breeds heroes, a false and defective notion. Still, I'd rather imagine a hero being a pacifist, a humanist, and a friggin' hell of a basketball player!
Thanks for connecting the dots and showing empathy is manly! - - -

Challenging a Sexist Society...

Another great article that analyzes society we live in and the sports we love. Few dare to touch on the politics of sports. I recommend this column to people all the time because Zirin provides a much needed perspective to this arena.

I feel optimistic that so many people have commented with positivity. Sexism is everywhere in our world and we can't demand that change without being ready to change the society that fosters it in the first place. What happened at this school is an example of what happens in the professional sports world, which is an example of our society. Men run our world, and until that changes and we have true equality we will live with sexism and all the atrocities that follow.

As for the comment from Racist Moi? - I'm curious why you read this column when you clearly never agree? I don't think Zirin condemns violence against anyone... The question I have is why this kind of appalled reaction isn't evoked at every joke or suggestion of rape?

To Ella

I read DZ's column because it gives me a different perspective than the usual sportswriter. I have also(sparingly, I admit) praised Zirin for his writing. I don't believe one should just read or listen to people of their own ilk. One side is not always right and the other is not always wrong.

Re: A bad example

You said: "DZ seems to be excusing physical violence against a minor by the love-child coach because it was for a good cause."

------

It was a different era. My high school coaches did a little ass kicking too and they weren't liberal flower-children. We were also denied water during practices. Today's coaches couldn't get away with a lot of the stuff that was considered to be completely normal back in the 70s.

To Trevor

Your answer is a good one because it uses context(a different era),however I don't think DZ would accept your answer. For example would context excuse the harmful effects of segregation that blacks had to suffer. I also would pose the same question to you as I did to DZ would you want your son/daughter hit by a coach for a good cause?

The Last Paragraph Contains the Answer

"I have no idea what happened to my own Coach Dan but I know who I'd rather have coaching my kids."

Dave saw what Coach Dan did and is still willing to leave his kids under his supervision - with the risk that they could be physically disciplined if they joke about something as serious as rape.

But, yes, simply kicking the dude off the team could have been just as effective.

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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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