Dave Zirin : Steubenville and the Bond Between Jock Culture and Rape Culture

Image from Serious Insanity.

The verdict:
Steubenville shows the bond
between jock culture and rape culture

”I think that if rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it.” — Bob Knight, Hall of Fame basketball coach, 1988.

By Dave Zirin / TThe Rag Blog / March 21, 2013

Progressive sportswriter Dave Zirin will be Thorne Dreyer‘s guest on Rag Radio, Friday, March 22, 2013, 2-3 p.m. (CDT), on KOOP 91.7-FM in Austin and streamed live on the Internet. The show will be rebroadcast on WFTE-FM in Mt. Cobb and Scranton, PA, Sunday at 10 a.m. (EDT). Zirin will speak live at Chicago’s Heartland Cafe, Sunday, March 24, at 3 p.m., and at the Belo Center for New Media on the University of Texas campus in Austin, Monday, April 1, from 7-9 p.m., an event sponsored by the Texas Program in Sports and Media.

As a sportswriter, there is one part of the Steubenville High School rape trial that has kept rattling in my brain long after the defendants were found guilty. It was a text message sent by one of the now convicted rapists, team quarterback Trent Mays. Mays had texted a friend that he wasn’t worried about the possibility of rape charges because his football coach, local legend Reno Saccoccia, “took care of it.” In another text, Mays said of Coach Reno, “Like, he was joking about it so I’m not worried.”

In this exchange we see an aspect of the Steubenville case that should resonate in locker rooms and athletic departments across the country: the connective tissue between jock culture and rape culture. Rape culture is not just about rape. It’s about the acceptance of women as “things” to be used and disposed of, which then creates a culture where sexual assault — particularly at social settings — is normalized.

We learned at the Steubenville trial that not only did a small group of football players commit a crime, but 50 of their peers, men and women, saw what was happening and chose to do nothing, effectively not seeing a crime at all.

We need to ask the question whether the jock culture at Steubenville was a catalyst for this crime. We need to ask whether there’s something inherent in the men’s sports of the 21st century, which so many lionize as a force for good, that can also create a rape culture of violent entitlement. I am not asking if playing sports propels young men to rape. I am asking if the central features of men’s sports — hero worship, entitlement and machismo — make incidents like Steubenville more likely to be replicated.

There are many germs in the Petri dish of sports. Growing up I had the great fortune of big-hearted, politically-conscious coaches, some of whom patrolled sexism in the locker room with a particular vigilance. As the great Joe Ehrmann has written so brilliantly, a “transformational coach” can work wonders. But different germs also exist. Ken Dryden, Hall of Fame NHL goalie, once said, ”It’s really a sense of power that comes from specialness… anyone who finds himself at the center of the world they’re in has a sense of impunity.”

On colleges, there is reason to believe that the same teamwork, camaraderie and “specialness” produced by sports can be violently perverted to create a pack mentality that either spurs sexual violence or makes players fear turning in their teammates. A groundbreaking 1994 study showed that college athletes make up 3.3 percent of male students but 19 percent of those accused of sexual assault. One of the study’s authors, Jeff Benedict, said,

Does this study say participation in college sports causes this? Clearly, no. We’re not saying that. We just think that at some point there is an association between sports and sexual assault… the farther you go up, the more entitlements there are. And one of those entitlements is women.

That was two decades ago but there is no indication that anything has changed. A February 2012 Boston Globe article about sexual assault charges levied against members of the Boston University hockey team, reporter Mary Carmichael wrote about the findings of Sarah McMahon, “a Rutgers University researcher who studies violence against women.”

McMahon “said it is unclear whether college athletes are more likely to commit sexual crimes than other students. But she said her work had found a unique sense of entitlement, sexual and otherwise, among some male college athletes, especially those in high-profile or revenue-producing sports like BU hockey.”

You can’t extricate the entitlement at the heart of jock culture from McMahon’s comments about its particular prevalence in revenue-producing sports. The insane amounts of money in so-called amateur athletics and the greasy desire of adults in charge of cash-strapped universities to get their share also must bear responsibility for rape culture in the locker room.

They have created a system where teenage NCAA athletes can’t be paid for what they produce so they receive a different kind of wage: worship. Adults treat them like heroes, students treat them like rock stars, and amidst classes, club meetings, and exams, there exists a gutter economy where women become a form of currency. You’re a teenager being told that you are responsible for the economic viability of your university and everything is yours for the taking. This very set-up is a Steubenville waiting to happen.

If people think that this doesn’t translate to high school, they’re wrong. I spoke with Jon Greenberg, an ESPN journalist and also a graduate of Steubenville High. He describes a school “with a pretty high poverty rate” that was still able to get state funds to build “a swimming pool, a new on-campus gym, cafeteria and more.” The dynastic “Big Red” football program drove those changes.

As Greenberg says,

The football players themselves, at least in my experience, weren’t treated as heroes or above the law, but the team itself was put on a pedestal, especially when they were good… There are some very good people who played Big Red football and coached football. But there needs to be some changes, most importantly a very serious seminar, for all male students, on the definition of rape and similar curriculum.

In thinking about Steubenville, thinking about my own experiences playing sports, thinking about athletes I’ve interviewed and know, I believe that a locker room left to its own devices will drift toward becoming a breeding ground for rape culture. You don’t need a Coach Reno or a Bob Knight to make that happen. You just need good people to say or do nothing.

As such, a coach or a player willing to stand up, risk ridicule, and actually teach young men not to rape, can actually make all the difference in the world. We need interventionist, transformative coaches in men’s sports who talk openly about these issues. We need an economic setup in amateur sports that does away with their gutter economy. But most of all, we need people who recognize the existence of rape culture, both on and off teams, to no longer be silent.

As for Steubenville, Coach Reno needs to be shown the door, never to be allowed to mold young minds again. Football revenue should go toward creating a district-wide curriculum about rape and stopping violence against women. And “Jane Doe,” the young woman at the heart of this case, should be given whatever resources she and her family needs to move if they choose, pay for college, or just have access to whatever mental health services she and her family may need.

After the trial, testimony and verdict, they deserve nothing less.

This article was also posted to and first published at The Nation.

[Dave Zirin is sports editor at The Nation and the author of the new book, Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down (The New Press). Receive his column every week by emailing dave@edgeofsports.com. Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com. Read more articles by Dave Zirin on The Rag Blog.]

See “Dave Zirin, the Man Who Politicized the Sports Pages” — Ron Jacobs’ review of Zirin’s latest book, Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down — on The Rag Blog.

The Rag Blog

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7 Responses to Dave Zirin : Steubenville and the Bond Between Jock Culture and Rape Culture

  1. Anonymous says:

    Zirin’s great. Thanks for posting. Have a good program Friday!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Re: They have created a system where teenage NCAA athletes can’t be paid for what they produce so they receive a different kind of wage: worship. Adults treat them like heroes, students treat them like rock stars, and amidst classes, club meetings, and exams, there exists a gutter economy where women become a form of currency. You’re a teenager being told that you are responsible for the economic viability of your university and everything is yours for the taking.

    Wow. What an interesting point. I have often wondered why so many college athletes keep getting arrested for theft, fighting, and assault. You would think their outstanding success in athletics would fulfill them. Obviously, there’s something missing. I guess when they are being worshipped in stadiums with 80,000+ fans and return to their dorms as *normal* students (their economic status the same while the University makes millions off of them) they seek or feel entitled to some sort of tangible payment. I love college football but, with all the research coming out on impact of concussions and constant news of sport-associated violence, I’m wondering whether I should continue to play a role in all of this as a fan.

  3. Ozzie Maland says:

    I wish those calling out the domination aspects of US sports would more often draw parallels to the culture of our military-industrial complex. Consider the 2012 autobiography of Chris Kyle, “the most lethal sniper in US military history.” Kyle did four tours of Iraq and had over 160 confirmed kills. In his book he sees himself as the purveyor of good over evil, following a moral code. For a time, he fulfilled the fantasy of superhuman strength so worshipped by fans of football and other violent sports. But then, in early 2013, he died when Eddie Ray Routh, a fellow Iraqi vet with PTSD, shot him and another man several times..Chris Kyle’s life and death, like the Steubenville rapes, show what happens when a country organizes its identity around violence, dehumanization and personal power.

  4. Bob says:

    I believe the “relax and enjoy it” comment is attributive to Clayton Williams, former Republican candidate for governor back in the day.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Lets count. It’s the coaches fault. It’s the jocks fault. It’s the sport cultures fault.

    No, primarily it’s the kids fault. Followed very closely by their parents. Any 16 yo skank running around to all night parties and drinking till she passed out undoubtedly had parents that many of you would be proud of. Same is true for the teenage boys that shouldnt have been out drinking and drugging and acting like thugs all night.

    These parents didn’t make a judgment about the behavior of their kids lest they seem to be provincial. They didn’t teach them morality lest they seem to be intolerant. These parents didn’t teach that drugs and alcohol should be left alone after all. And god forbid that they might actually impose some rules like be home at midnight, don’t drink at parties, and stay away from people who do.

    Mostly what you see in this example is the stinking fetid result of 50 years of progressive societal experimentation.

    – Extremist2ThdDHS

  6. Anonymous says:

    Re: ets count. It’s the coaches fault. It’s the jocks fault. It’s the sport cultures fault.

    No, primarily it’s the kids fault. Followed very closely by their parents. Any 16 yo skank running around to all night parties and drinking till she passed out…”

    Shame on you. Young people do all sorts of things they wouldn’t do as they get older. It’s called being young. In the case of the boys, yes it is their fault completely. But how dare you (1) refer to a girl who has been raped as a “skank” and (2) how dare you insinuate that what happened is her fault. Rape is never the victim’s fault. Really! shame on you.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I dare to call her a skank quite easily actually. Plus you make my point for me.
    Women who are snatched off a street or molested by someone in their home are victims or a rapist.

    Women who go to drug fueled parties and drink till they pass out are victims of their own stupidity. If you make yourself a victim, then dont be surprised when someone victimizes you!!

    Its only the non judgemental left that is incapable of even that simple application of common sense. The next logical step is to then apply that by telling our kids “dont do that”. But of course that requires one to make the moral judgement that drinking till you pass out at a party is .. “wrong”. And we know how much you folks on the left avoid EVER having to determine that partaking of drugs and alcohol is wrong. So as I said, progressive social dogma in practice is a stinking pile of feces, or in this case, a vomit covered girl whose mom was too “hip and progressive and non judgemental” to keep her stupid ass away from that kind of behavior.

    – Extremist2TheDHS

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