Steubenville: Who's to Blame? Anyone have a mirror?

Real and effective prevention of sexual assault teaches accountability.

Posted Mar 21, 2013

Let me also add, somewhat angrily, that the victim would be no less of a victim if the perpetrator were an athlete or non-athlete. We need to provide more support and treat victims, prosecute aggressively the criminals, and most importantly, have real, practical, effective prevention models; rather than reactive judgment while avoiding pointing the finger at ourselves.

To begin, it is a fair assessment to state that, had the perpetrators not been football players, this would not have been a news story--and definitely not a national news story. There are so many factors and issues involved in this case, but the reality is, they are commonplace in our youth. Underage drinking at parties? Check. Young men using alcohol as a weapon to “loosen up” girls? Check. Girls seeking approval often related to low self-esteem, and displaying poor judgment (though the punishment for poor judgment should never be rape)? Check. Groups of young men having an insular bond of protection so that no one will challenge the groupthink? Check. These issues are afoot throughout our society…and one can argue that it is even more prevalent within the frat houses on campuses than the athletes (both groups share many characteristics….pointing to it not being directly about sports…). The point I am making here is that there are MANY converging factors that contribute to these events…ALL of which need better attention if we are going to put a dent in the incidence of these events.

Having presented to both male and female athletes on the topic of dating violence prevention, it is strangely not very rewarding, that the Steubenville case represents what I have been banging the drum about for years. Most violence prevention programs for athletes focus on a peer-mentoring model. Train the athletes to stand up and say what their teammates are doing is wrong. It is one of the most ridiculous things I have ever heard. It is as naïve as ignoring the “Blue Wall of Silence” – believing that police officers will reliably turn in a wrong-doer in their midst. Nice idea, but don’t count on it. The model that must be used is an accountability model. One where each athlete is taught the legalities of sexual assault. The reality is that the laws are more liberal than they used to be. In an effort to make rape convictions easier to obtain, the bar has been lowered, and men don’t know this. Laws differ from state to state, but in many, if a male and female are equally drunk and she, as the recipient of the penetration, cannot competently consent, he can be arrested. The idea that someone cannot give consent if they are severely intoxicated (or mentally deficient in some other manner) should be no surprise. But, many men are surprised to hear about a concept known as “forcible compulsion”, that if a woman consents to sexual activity because of the fear of physical harm due to a threat, “expressed or implied”, it is an illegal act. So, for the strapping football player, all 6 foot 3 of him who thinks that a young lady is consenting, but covertly may be doing so because of the fear of harm if she doesn’t, he may get a knock on his door and arrest the next day. Young men are clueless to this, and the coaches that are guiding them, for the most part, are no better informed. Young men in general, and male athletes that may have a sense of entitlement compounding the issue, are unaware of the complexities of consensual sex--and even more ignorant as to how behavior that they may think is benign carries heavy legal penalties attached to it.

While on the topic, there are still some Neanderthal-types who argue that women cry rape when it never happens. Reliably, the FBI has shown that sexual assaults are not falsely reported, on average, more than any other crime. If you add fame and money to the kitty, might you have slightly more false reports? Perhaps…as the Duke scandal demonstrated, false reports do occur, but more commonly the victim’s credibility is so overly scrutinized that many victims relent far before the case comes before a grand jury. Rape shield laws that were designed to protect the victim when they come forward have proven to be a travesty as victims don’t come forward for justifiable fear of retraumatization during a Rape Kit and cross-examination. Personally, I believe that a single false report kills the legitimacy of a thousand true victims, so the collateral damage a false report yields is astronomical. There are complicated psycho-legal factors here that athletes, coaches, and society don’t know or care about, until it is in your backyard.

Based upon the media’s presentation of the case, Coach Reno Saccoccia, who has been inducted into the Ohio Coaches Hall of Fame, knew about the assault and actively tried to protect his players from prosecution. What many people may not realize is that the “good ol’ days” of “Coach’ll fix it” are dwindling. This case reminds us that there are still pockets where it is alive and well and instead of coaches teaching responsibility, they foster a culture where the players are special and deserve special treatment. This is less frequent than in the past precisely because coaches and schools are increasingly held accountable for their athletes’ behavior, yet it still exists and more effort has to be put in to obliterate the idea.

Let me be clear that I am not exonerating the coach, but what about everyone else in that town who deifies Big Red football? What about all of the other towns throughout our country where sport is religion? True enough, young athletes, male and female, do start getting different treatment when their athletic success begins to be actualized. They start to win more, their confidence grows. They start getting inflated grades, excused from class to go to practice and games, they start to be shielded…they are given an artificial environment and then we are surprised when they don’t follow the rules? Who the hell is teaching them the rules? It is not just the coaches (and by the way, there are thousands of AMAZING coaches out there teaching young men discipline, accountability and the importance of good character), but it is our society. Millions of dollars thrown at a twenty year old because he can throw a stone 95 miles per hour while our teachers, policemen and firemen get a mere pittance. Endorsements and advertising thrown at young men hoping that they will be responsible. This is just another case where we blame a sport for behavior that we as a society condone.

Practically, what can we do? One could argue that the efforts to raise children with solid self-esteem that would protect them from putting themselves in dangerous situations haven’t hit their mark. Whether it is because the economy demands both parents to work (if both are even involved in the child’s life) and so there is less supervision of the children, the movement to ban corporal punishment because of the potential for abuse that it brings leaves children less fearful of authority figures and more spoiled and challenging of adults and social mores, or a laissez-faire approach to child-rearing and school supervision that leaves many youngsters feeling alone and vulnerable to bullying, the self-esteem movement has been a monumental failure. At the core of building self-esteem, is teaching self-awareness and self-respect. Respect yourself. Respect your family. Respect your friends. Respect others. Respect and loyalty have become catch phrases for marketing companies, not core foundations that children are raised with. Athletes are falling short, as the rest of our youngsters are, and we need to teach them better.

How? Education--and I mean education that hits people where they live. There is no longer any place for single workshops asking for everyone to hold hands and be nice. This is about personal responsibility and accountability. I don’t care how many yards you ran last game, how far you hit the ball, or how high you can jump; we have a code of conduct. You go outside the lines, you’re gone. I have a colleague who happens to be a prison administrator and a coach and he recently told me the story of how he cut an athlete for not showing up to practice for a week. That athlete went on to become a pro athlete…and even in high school, he was very talented, but the coach was going to make a point…you are not bigger than the team. I have expectations of your actions and I will hold you accountable if you don’t meet those expectations. Was this coach that unique? Probably not…there are many great coaches that demand their athletes to be accountable. But, simultaneously, coaches like these aren’t as common as we would like either.

Sexual assault prevention must use an accountability model and it needs to be in place from middle school on, for young men and women, athlete or not. Caution needs to be taken to not address the boys with a male-bashing approach…that is why it is usually better for a male to give these presentations to young men; they are more likely to shut down when a woman gives the same exact message. For young women, accountability should also be the central message. Don’t drink from open containers. Always buddy up at parties. Don’t get separated from your friends. Look after one another. The haste with which some of the Steubenville female students jumped to the “blame the victim” position is alarming considering the statistical realization that they could be next (1 in 4 is the conservative estimates of women being sexually assaulted in some manner over the course of their lives). Again, asking young women to exhibit good judgment is not the same as blaming the victim. Perhaps, in some cases, better judgment could prevent some of the victimization…but as mentioned above, the punishment for poor judgment should never be rape.

Most importantly, the adults and coaches need the same message--that protecting players involved in such transgressions from prosecution is criminal as well. I have heard for years the mantra of, “Well, we need to let the criminal justice process runs its course before we can do anything”. Nonsense. It is exceedingly rare that someone gets innocently plucked up and accused for a crime when they had absolutely nothing to do with it. Let the athletes know, if you get caught up in something, you will be suspended until (or if) it gets sorted out…so make sure you don’t get caught up. Growing up, there was one kid who was always afraid of getting in trouble, and you know what, he was always gone way before behavior got out of hand. I still marvel at his maturity and foresight, but he knew the consequences his parents would give him were far worse than the police would if he was around deviant behavior. His parents taught him right from the beginning.

So where does this rant end? Right here. These situations are no longer isolated events. Do we want them to go away? Let’s take prevention seriously – for both potential victims and perpetrators, and when a transgression happens, aggressively investigate, hold people accountable and don’t hide behind your school colors to prevent you from doing the right thing. If we want to raise responsible men and women, we need to model the expectations.