Lesson from Steubenville

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Due to the graphic nature of the description of the events and the language associated with this post we wanted to apologize and warn our readers about the content. The language and descriptions were pulled directly from sources found at the bottom of the page based on witness testimony in court. We apologize for the language. 

The picture is bad but the descriptions are terrible. A sixteen-year-old girl held by her wrists and ankles by two boys. Her head is flung back; her hair falling to the ground. The picture was tweeted; the description that accompanied it used words like “rape” and “dead girl.” She wasn’t dead. She was intoxicated. "The drunkest one" at the party as one witness testified. What happened next formed the basis for two rape convictions and a moniker.

You won’t think of Steubenville, Ohio as a place described on its website as a “family friendly community with safe neighborhoods and excellent schools which offer a wide variety of educational opportunities.” It won’t be known as the “City of Murals” as it’s described on its Wikipedia entry. You’ll think of it the same way you will think of Columbine, New Town and any other of a number of cities and towns known for tragic events more than anything the Chamber of Commerce tries to put forth.

Steubenville is a collision point between sexual assault, social media, and an athletic department.

Don’t Do Anything You’re Going to Regret

For those not familiar with the Steubenville rape case, the facts as they unfolded in court are these.

On August 11, 2012 a 16-year-old girl from West Virginia, just across the state line from Steubenville, Ohio went to series of parties. She consumes alcohol at the first party. She becomes drunk. She encounters two high school football players from Steubenville, Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays.  The party gets out of hand and a number of students are asked to leave. Richmond and Mays leave with the girl. She is clearly inebriated. Her friends try to stop her from leaving with the boys but she pushes them away.

The party moves to a different house. The infamous photograph is taken at this home. The girl’s speech is slurring. She vomits at the home. At some point a parent asks the girl and the others to leave. The girl is laying the middle of the street in a sports bra while a crowd of boys gathers around her. Some offer money to urinate on her.

The party moves yet again. This time to the home of another Steubenville football player, a designated driver takes her there. Richmond and Mays are with her in the car. Mays digitally penetrates the girl. Photographs are taken. Texts are sent. A passenger makes a two-minute video as the girl is assaulted.

Once at the home she is seen naked, lying on the floor. Vomit is pooled next to her mouth. Mays is seen with his penis exposed near the girl’s hip. Richmond is lying behind the girl. Several people witness the scene and leave. More photos are taken. Texts are sent. A friend of Mays observes the three and implores Mays “don’t do anything you will regret.” Mays assures him, "It's all right. Don't worry." The friend leaves.

News of the ongoing incident spreads fast. Friends begin to text Mays and Richmond asking for photos of the girl. Mays is particularly brash in his texts with friends. He brags "We're hitting it for real." "LOL, she didn't move" he texts another." He writes that the victim was "like a dead body." Richmond texts a friend that the victim performed oral sex on him.

The girl wakes up. Her phone is littered with texts asking what happened to her. Photographs are sent to her as well. She confronts Mays via text. After initially denying his acts, he tells her that the two of them had engaged in sexual activity. The girl is distraught. She asks Mays how he could allow this to happen. “Why didn’t you help me?”

Who’s the Sloppy Drunk B***h

The rape convictions of Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond were secured by the unprecedented use of social media, text, and video to reconstruct an event in real time. Forensic Specialists from the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigations sifted through 35,000 texts, thousands of pictures, videos, chats, tweets and other social media postings from 17 kids. Sadly users deleted critical pieces of evidence. Perhaps the most damning evidence evaporated into the cyber space.

As telling as the timeline was, more telling were the reactions of the bystanders who sat idle while two boys dragged a sixteen-year-old girl from location to location. No one stopped them. No one called the police. No one came forward to say what’s going on here is wrong. I guess you can’t risk that social collateral to stop a rape from happening. Worse, the bystanders weren’t idle at times. They were active in the humiliation of another human being. Text and tweets clarify this point. One classmate in particular seems to revel in the girl’s plight in a video. For 12 minutes he describes a “dead girl” who “is so raped right now” and references urinating on the girl.

35,000 texts, photographs, numerous tweets and no one who encountered the girl made a substantial effort to stop the night’s proceedings. The timeline illustrates the reason, throughout these bystanders and even the perpetrators were an audience in a macabre play.

35,000 texts, photographs, numerous tweets and no one who encountered the girl made a substantial effort to stop the night’s proceedings.

According to the testimony of Mays and Richmond’s friends, they never thought there was anything wrong with what was happening. More than one texted or tweeted that the girl’s condition was self-inflicted and therefore she was getting what she deserved. They had “no sympathy for whores” according to one student. Mays and Richmond apparently thought everything was fine until weeks later as the investigation gained traction. 

For a period of several hours in August in Steubenville the worst kept secret in town was that a girl had become inebriated and was being driven around to various parties while members of the football team sexually assaulted her. The events were chronicled and filmed by dozens of people, and yet no one cared enough about the “sloppy drunk bitch” to stop it. They texted friends, tweeted followers, and shared video. They couldn’t wait to upload mountains of what would later become evidence in a rape case. The girl was dead to them. She was lifeless in every sense of the word, a prop for a humiliating play.

The World In the Lens

The Franchise was ShowTime’s series chronicling the Miami Marlins 2012 season. As part of the behind the scenes series the Marlins met Mohammed Ali at opening night of the team’s new stadium. Ali was brought into the clubhouse and a funny thing happened. The camera panned behind Ali who was literally a few feet away from the Marlins opening day roster, as the camera panned it caught 25 grown men watching Ali through the video screen of their camera phones. Feet away from a living legend, no one stopping them from approaching Ali and they all stood watching the Greatest on a four inch screen. Such is life today.

Sites like World Star Hip Hop will deliver violence on a click. Now more mainstream sites are doing the same. Big Lead recently ran a video of a street fight in Las Vegas, the camera panned to a large crowd perhaps as many as 50 people standing and watching, almost all with their camera phones or IPad's documenting the violence. Kids in Chicago play a game called “Point ‘em Out Knock ‘em Out” where they drive around spot individuals and film each other assaulting them. Two kids playing the game killed a Mexican immigrant named Delfino Mora last July.

We lost regard for the suffering of others because in many instances we are merely watching 3D live reality shows. Mays and Richmond, and more importantly their friends, seemed to have little regard or comprehension of what was actually happening. They live in an alien world, where every embarrassing action is documented and uploaded to the net for immediate consumption. Where another’s pain is a game. A world where, according to Leonard Sax, author of the revealing book “Boys Adrift,” sex is a sport. They frequent sites where videos of humiliation receive hundreds of thousands of hits. The anonymity of the web makes it easy to be both predator and prey.

But something was different in Steubenville that night. The access granted by smart phones introduces us to an odd cultural phenomena when bystanders are no longer passive. 

Kitty Genovese was returning home to her apartment in Queens on March 13, 1964. She had finished working at a bar and at 3:15 in the morning she fumbled for her keys in the ally that led to her apartment. She was confronted by her killer Winston Moses. She fled screaming as Moses stabbed her. Her screaming drew attention from neighbors. Lights came one. Windows opened. One neighbor yelled out to leave her alone. Moses fled and sat in his car watching for any police to arrive. Witnesses watched him don a hat to hide his identity and meticulously search the area. He was looking for his fallen prey. He found her minutes later crumpled near the doorway to her building. He finished his crime. The New York Times reported that 38 neighbors witnessed the crime and did nothing. This was an exaggeration. In reality there were six neighbors at most who witnessed parts of the murder. One neighbor was drunk, two called the police, still another assumed that someone else would call the police. One couple admitted they witnessed the initial attack and chose not to get involved.

Six neighbors and no one took the extraordinary act of leaving his apartment to check on the screaming woman. Some saw her injured. Some saw her attacker. Some saw both. Have we evolved? Steubenville says no. Dozens of people saw an intoxicated girl, at times fully naked, being manipulated or assaulted by her attackers. They didn't stay in their apartment in Queens. They didn't call the police or assume someone else would. Some went a step further and became active participants in humiliating the drunkest girl at the party. 

Testimony revealed that several onlookers encouraged the humiliation and the assault against the victim. They gathered around the girl to watch her vomit in the street. Offered $3 to anyone who would urinate on her. They took photos on their own or when one of the perpetrators requested. One shot a two minute video. This was beyond sitting silence, they became part of the act. 

Why did they either play along or do nothing? Was it group think? Were the witnesses afraid to intervene because the clout that Mays and Richmond carried? As the witnesses testified their reasoning for their behavior was as varied as their actions. Some didn't think the situation was particularly dangerous. The girls wasn't that drunk. Mays and Richmond gave assurances. Mays and Richmond were different, they sat atop the food change or social hierarchy of Steubenville. Mays was a quarterback with upside. Richmond a wide receiver and basketball player was one of the top 100 players in the state. Both had just finished playing in a preseason scrimmage before heading out to the various parties. Perhaps this led people to just watch. To observe. Most never considered the consequences, legal for Richmond and Mays psychological and physical for the victim. 

Consequences don't matter when you're watching something play out on YouTube. We almost have to remind ourselves that the people are real and the actions sometimes have a lasting impact. We used to shoot home moves on clunky cameras and play them on clunkier VHS tapes and VCR's. Now we all be part of the action and the action can all be uploaded in an instant. Thousands of anonymous viewers can watch it all. It never goes away. Maybe Tosh.O or any of a dozen other shows will put it on TV. The rush for exposure tramples consequence. No one seemed to care what the 16-year-old girl was going through that night. If they did, they didn't do much to help. 

We used to shoot home moves on clunky cameras and play them on clunkier VHS tapes and VCR's. Now we all be part of the action and the action can all be uploaded in an instant.

Protecting Their Own

The slow creep of consciousness began at different points during the evening and the next days. Photos and videos were deleted quickly. Perhaps not wanting Mays and Richmond to get into trouble. This was the overall tenor of the tweets in the hours and days after the attack. Here’s hoping the boys don’t get in trouble over this, that would be a shame. 

The cyber group Anonymous, famous for hacking Westboro Baptist, the Pentagon, and the Israeli and Syrian governments, hacked into critical witnesses phones and various social media accounts to disseminate photos and videos before they could be removed. They and blogger Alexandria Goddard placed the case firmly in the public's eye.

At least one of perpetrators began to fear that his actions might affect his football career. Mays texted the victim after the event seeking reassurance that should wouldn’t jeopardize his football season. “I’m about to get kicked of my football team” he pleaded with the victim. The victim refused to offer sympathy, especially after Mays admitted photographing the victim during the event and texting it to his friends. “The more you bring up football, the more pissed I get, because that’s like all you care about” she replied. Mays texted back: “You know that’s not all I care about, but that needs to be taken care of first.”  

“I’m about to get kicked of my football team” he pleaded with the victim.

Former players and even volunteer assistant coaches with the Steubenville football program came forward to say that the rape allegation was just an excuse to direct attention away from the victims drinking. Volunteer assistant Nate Hubbard told the New York Times "[T]he rape was just an excuse...What else are you going to tell your parents when you come home drunk like that and after a night like that? She had to make up something." Some said the allegations were more insidious; they were an attack on the Big Red football team. The girl was trying to damage the lasting institution of Steubenville.

I Got Reno

Steubenville sits smack dab in the center of the rust belt. The rust belt of Ohio tends to run very far below the economic mean. When manufacturing jobs went over seas areas like Steubenville were hardest hit. When unemployment in the US rises, it’s guaranteed that it’s already risen beyond the national average in Steubenville. The source of pride for a place like Steubenville is the Big Red football team. At the center of the ruins is head coach Reno Soccaccia.

Soccaccia has coached for 30 years. The stadium bears his name. That luxury is afforded a coach who's won 85% of his games and three state titles. He recently recorded his 300th win and the sold out crowd chanted his name.

The rapes occurred August 11th and 12th last summer. Richmond and Mays were arrested on August 22nd. The narrative, as it played out on cell phones and websites was well established. The police were begging for someone, anyone, to come forward with information about the assault. They were stonewalled. The victim’s parents were helpless. Administrators at Steubenville were helpless to take action as well. Reno was in charge.

Soccaccia told administrators that since none of the players involved thought they’d done anything wrong, he couldn’t suspend them. Mays and Richmond were not allowed to play due to the arrest but it wasn’t until October that any further suspensions would occur.  Soccaccia  testified as a character witness on behalf of May and Richmond in October. He said he was proud of them.

Soccaccia was approached by a reporter in November and asked why he chose not to suspend other players involved in the attack, he became angry; “You made me mad now,” he said "You’re going to get yours. And if you don’t get yours, somebody close to you will.”

Administrators at the school were apparently doing their best to dig various holes in the sand to accommodate their heads. No students were interviewed about the events in August. One administrator denied any knowledge of what happened to the girl in spite of the scope of the story. Worse, administrators trusted Soccaccia explicitly to handle the punishment for any students involved. They trusted the wrong guy.

Worse, they trusted Soccaccia explicitly to handle the punishment for any students involved. They trusted the wrong guy.

Mays and Richmond clearly felt shielded. In the hours after the event Richmond texted a concerned friend saying that everything would be ok. After a YouTube video surfaced implicating Mays and Richmond, Mays told the poster to “Deleate [sic] that off You-tube. Coach Sac knows about it. Seriously delete it.” Coach Sac apparently referring to Soccaccia. 

Another player who took photos of the naked victim was asked if he was worried about having the photos on his phone responded, “Nah, IDGAF I got Reno. Nothing’s gonna happen if it goes to court.” Mays felt similarly confident in his coach’s ability to sweep the situation under the rug. He texted a friend, “I got Reno. He took care of it and shit ain't gonna happen, even if they did take it to court. Like he was joking about it so I’m not worried.”

Richmond’s grandmother expressed a confidence in Reno’s powers of persuasion as well, “Me and Coach Reno was talking, and he said Ma’lik was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.” 

Whether Coach Reno actually conveyed a level of control over the situation or whether his players and their families inferred it, it’s clear that everyone felt that Soccaccia had the means and ability to make rape allegations go away. Worse it’s clear that Soccaccia was aware of the possibility a rape had been committed on a 16-year-old victim before almost everyone except those at the parties or in their social circle and it appears he never saw fit to contact authorities.

Administrators continue to learn the hard lesson that coaches and athletic supervisors need oversight. Coaches and AD's have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Reno Soccaccia built a kingdom in eastern Ohio. He is unchallenged. Just as students may have been afraid to confront Mays and Richmond, football stars and part of the biggest concern in town, so to it seems school administrators feared taking any sort of control away from Soccaccia.

Ohio state Attorney General Mike DeWine has assured a continuing investigation into the parents, coaches and school officials who may have tried to hide the rape.

Reno Soccaccia still has a job and to date still hasn’t answered for his inaction in August of last year. An online petition has garnered some 59,000 signatures to have him removed as head coach. A petition in support of him has yielded just over 500 signatures. Ohio state Attorney General Mike DeWine has assured a continuing investigation into the parents, coaches and school officials who may have tried to hide the rape.

There is hope that a grown-up may yet do the right thing in Steubenville.

The victim is lost in the looting of the story. We can assume that this event will cause her a lifetime of trauma in a very short time. Her parents must be crushed as well. 

In the last month, after the verdict was rendered, two girls were put on house arrest because they tweeted threats to the victim. One claiming that if she ever saw the victim there would “be a homicide”, the other promising to beat up the victim on sight. Apparently these two girls felt so moved by what happened to Mays and Richmond that they decided to take action.

If only someone had been so moved to protect the victim none of this would have happened.

Prinniefield...Alexandra Goddard's blog

The New York Times article from December on Steubenville

Yahoo Sports Dan Wetzel's coverage of the trial

Posted on April 10, 2013 and filed under Sports.