Stacey Gill examines a culture that protects the perpetrators and perpetuates sexual assaults.
Like much of America, when the news of the football “hazing” scandal at Sayreville War Memorial High School broke in early October, I found the accounts shocking. But equally shocking, in my view, was the community’s reaction to it.
The reports of sexual assault perpetrated on children by other children while on school grounds were immediately followed by accounts of the community’s outrage over the cancellation of the remaining football season.
While alarm and anger are natural reactions to such situations, here the outrage seems to be misdirected. Serious criminal acts perpetrated routinely and openly by classmates during school activities were alleged, and yet somehow the public outcry was over the fate of a football season?
What’s more disturbing is that these reactions aren’t unique.
I’m not condemning this particular community as the “atmosphere of recrimination” that has followed in the wake of these charges, as reported by The New York Times, is sadly all too common. Rather, I’d like to illuminate a pattern and examine a culture, as Robert Silverman did so clearly in his piece in the Daily Beast. A culture in which the victims of such crimes evoke a backlash while the perpetrators – in this case and the ones that follow all athletes, specifically football players – inexplicably, engender community support. Because this can happen anywhere. And it does.
Remember Maryville? When on the early morning hours of a frigid January day a 14-year-old girl was dumped outside her home and left for dead after being raped by a classmate and popular football player? The victim, Daisy Coleman, who has come out to speak against rape said after drinking from a tall shot glass termed the “bitch cup” by the perpetrator, Matt Barnett, and his friends, she blacked out with no memory of the rest of the night. Luckily, another classmate and athlete filmed the rape with his cell phone. The victim’s 13-year-old friend who was with her that night was also raped.
After the allegations came out against the two athletes from prominent families, the victims’ harassment began. Coleman couldn’t go out in public for fear of being menaced and bullied and stopped attending school. Online her torment continued with cyber-bullies encouraging her to kill herself. She tried twice. Her mother lost her job and the family’s home mysteriously burned down. Ultimately, the family was driven out of town.
And they were the victims.
The assailants, meanwhile, enjoyed the protection of the community. The charges in the case were initially dropped. With the traditional argument for being unable to prosecute rape cases being the old one word against another, in this case the perpetrators themselves videotaped the crime. Still, the victim couldn’t get a case brought let alone a conviction.
Eventually, the case was reexamined by a special prosecutor, one that didn’t have ties to the prominent families of the defendants, and brought to trial. Barnett pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and was convicted of a misdemeanor for child endangerment. His sentence? Two years of probation and a four-month suspended jail term.
I suppose four months in jail would’ve been too harsh a penalty for rape. Of course, his conviction was for a lesser charge, but if a reduced charge is necessary just to get some sort of conviction, maybe let the perpetrator suffer the full penalty allowed by law.
I mustn’t forget. His punishment also included not being able to drink, go to bars, or contact the victim or her family. So in that case, justice served.
Speaking of fair punishment, we all remember the Steubenville rape case. In that one the rapists publicized their own crimes. Documenting their criminal acts on social media, they proudly applied such terms as “rape” and “whore” along with hashtags like “#deadgirl.” They took pictures and cell phone recordings while carrying the incapacitated 16-year-old girl by the wrists and ankles from party to party before digitally raping her, attempting to orally rape her, ejaculating on her and, finally, urinating on her. Afterward, they even posted a 12-minute video on YouTube, announcing their crime and joking about it. Joking.
Which might be an indication of the seriousness with which our society views rape and the nearly impenetrable fortress of protection the perpetrators, in all of these cases football players, receive.
The Steubenville case is particularly disturbing in that it went beyond the criminal acts to the cavalier and callous mindset of a whole group of boys who proclaimed themselves the “rape crew.” It wasn’t the act of a lone, unstable individual. And it wasn’t hidden. It was perpetrated, out in the open, by a group of teenage boys all of whom saw rape as a game, done for sport.
The case was especially shocking for the many witnesses at the various celebrations who were privy to the crime and did nothing to stop it. It’s remarkable for the savagery it displayed eagerly and enthusiastically, even boastfully.
For all of this, one of the attackers, Trent Mays, was found delinquent – the equivalent of guilty in a juvenile court – and given a minimum of two years in detention. Ma’lik Richmond was given a minimum of one year. Mays received the extra year because he was also charged for illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material.
Apparently openly and unabashedly raping someone is equivalent to taking a nude photo of them in the eyes of our criminal justice system.
Once again in this case, as has become fairly customary, the victim was blamed by members of the community for her own rape and for casting a negative light on the football team and the town.
That’s right. It’s the girl’s fault for pressing charges. Never mind the crimes committed. Why does she have to be such a downer? Why must she ruin the lives and career prospectives of her rapists? Some people can be so inconsiderate.
And these were the successful cases, the ones in which victims survived the public condemnation and vitriol on behalf of the rapists and the heralded high school football teams. Where sentences were actually won, however meager they might be. We shouldn’t forget Rehteah Parsons and Audrie Potts, who were sexually assaulted by classmates at parties while intoxicated and relentless bullied online until both took their own lives.
For those concerned about the future of the rapists, there’s good news. Steubenville’s Ma’lik Robinson is already back on the team. Thankfully, CNN’s Candy Crowley no longer has to wonder about the “lasting effects” on the criminals’ lives. Which is what she lamented after the verdicts were handed down, and to which legal contributor Paul Callan responded, “There’s always that moment of just— lives are destroyed. But in terms of what happens now, the most severe thing with these young men is being labeled as registered sex offenders….That will haunt them for the rest of their lives.”
Yes, that must be hard on them.
As for CNN’s Poppy Harlow, who had an “incredibly difficult,” time watching “as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believed their lives fell apart.”
You mean by their own actions? Haven’t we gotten it a little backward here? How is this thing so twisted around that we have the national news pitying the rapists? To say nothing of the actual victim.
One final note on Steubenville. The superintendent was charged with hindering the investigation of another rape that occurred earlier the same year. Which brings me back to Sayreville.
These abuses don’t occur in a vacuum. They don’t come out of nowhere. They are not lone, random incidences. They are created, cultivated, stoked by an adoring culture that celebrates these teenage boys, that allows, even encourages, these kids to think they are above all else. All because they’re good at a game. They’re adept at a high school sport.
And it continues because the rest of society allows it.
I commend the Sayreville superintendent for taking a stand, having principles and trying to do the right thing under what I imagine is immense pressure. That doesn’t happen too often. I don’t know if it would happen in my town, not all that far from Sayreville, where I witness the same hero-worshiping of athletic adolescent boys.
In light of all this I have a hard time seeing the critical nature of a football season.
Photo Credit: Cover photo (AP/New Jersey)
For additional Good Men Project Sports coverage of this issue, see:
- The Good Men Project, What’s Unusual About Sayreville’s Locker Room Sexual Assaults? Nothing, by Michael Kasdan
- Salon.com, A Nation of Sayrvevilles: Why locker room sexual assault is all too common, by Michael Kasdan
- The Good Men Project, With Football and Hazing, History Repeats Itself, by Brian Patrick Harmon
- BBC News, ‘It’s rape’: Sayreville High School players face charges of abusive hazing, citing and quoting Michael Kasdan of The Good Men Project.
- The Good Men Project, How Many More Sayrevilles?, by Michael Kasdan