WASHINGTON, DC, March 19, 2013 - On St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday known best for its green beer and corned beef sandwiches, two teenage football players from Steubenville, Ohio were convicted of raping a teenage girl from West Virginia last summer while she was drunk.
The repercussions of these two guilty verdicts shed four unwelcomed lights on how our society is getting it wrong when it comes to preventing violence of this type.
1. We promote aggression and objectification. Kids are exposed to more violence and sexual behavior than ever before. Television, movies, video games, and YouTube are filled with “tough guys” and “hot chicks.” Some sports even create fake fights in order to incite and/or please the audience.
In addition, most professional sports, and probably all but a few college and high school ones, have cheerleaders or pep squads filled with “hot chicks” who are there to motivate the “tough guys.” It’s a pattern that has stayed constant since the 1940s when the majority of cheerleaders were women, since many of the young men had been sent to World War II.
According to the International Cheer Union, cheerleading itself is considered an athletic activity and no aesthetic qualifications are listed. However, in January a Baltimore Ravens cheerleader felt she was barred from cheering at the Super Bowl because she weighed 124 pounds and was considered two pounds overweight. (This article about the remaining cheerleaders was entitled, “Check out our bus full of hot chicks.”)
In Steubenville, high school football is the most important game in town. According to several sources, football players were both revered and protected.
2. We reward inconsistently. In general, we reward kids more frequently and with more enthusiasm when they do something sports-related (snag a flag in flag football, run the bases, or make a free throw) than when they bring home a good report card. We reward good sports performances with training and educational opportunities, even when there’s an issue with grades.
In 1999, news broke that University of Minnesota head basketball coach, Clem Haskins, participated in hiring Jan Gangelhoff to write school papers for players. The U of M scandal revealed that many college athletes weren’t maintaining passing grades in their courses and tutors were being hired to help those student-athletes maintain their athletic eligibility.
In the two decades since then, competition to get into college has dramatically increased, meaning many academically qualified students are being denied admission to their preferred schools.
Additional allegations in the Steubenville case imply that several authority figures in town, while not rewarding the behavior of the players, may have attempted to cover it up in order to allow the players to play football in the upcoming season.
3. We de-value abuse victims. One of the first televised rape trials, that of William Kennedy Smith, was rife with “blaming the victim” accusations. From allegations of drinking to promiscuity to inappropriate dress, rape victims often have to defend their actions because they are believed to have brought the rape on themselves.
Nearly every alleged abuse by a professional sports figure has been discounted because the victim is accused of gold-digging, or trying to make a buck off an unsuspecting celebrithete.
Even in Steubenville, although the young victim was videotaped being drunk to the point of unconsciousness, her “real” unconsciousness was called into question, as well as her previous patterns of “lying.” Many thought she enticed the sexual abuse and should have some accountability for making poor decisions about underage drinking and partying. Some of her worst critics were other young women. Which brings us to number four.
4. We haven’t learned that supporting women doesn’t make women man-haters. Particularly in the Steubenville case, simply because many of the victim’s detractors were other young women, those women’s opinions were given great weight within the community. Two females have now been arrested for threatening the victim.
Women have sometimes found it difficult to be sympatic with men while supporting other women, without being called (derogatorily) a feminist, or worse. Particularly for heterosexual women, there seems to be difficulty balancing one’s role as a girlfriend, wife, sister, mother, etc. with one’s relationships with women. It’s as if acknowledging that objectification and abuse of women is wrong will somehow reflect poorly on the acknowledger, if she’s a woman herself.
We’re not, as individuals, actually responsible for what occurred in Steubenville, Ohio last summer. But our society’s value system, which is held dear by many Americans, just might be.
As far back as 1981, J.J. Coakley, Professor of Sociology at University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, wrote, “The commercialization of sport has led to an emphasis on heroic values (including violence) for the purpose of generating and maintaining spectator interest. And violence has come to be used as an effective tactic in winning games and enhancing the commercial reputation and popularity of individual athletes.
“The socialization experiences of athletes in many sports includes the learning of violent tactics. The approval of these tactics by significant others in the lives of young athletes serves to intensify the extent to which they incorporate violence into their own sport behavior.”
It appears we haven’t done much to change that in the last 32 years.
As Mike DeWine, Ohio’s Attorney General said last weekend, “Such incidents stem from a larger social problem — a rampant lack of respect and human decency.”
But maybe, in Steubenville, people are taking small steps toward a more humane perspective. On Sunday, City Manager Cathy Davison told the Associated Press, “Football is important in Steubenville, but I think overall if you looked at the community in and of itself, it’s the education process, the moral fiber of our community, and the heritage of our community, that is even more important.”
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