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Steubenville and sports culture: a fan’s lament

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I grew up in Ohio, in a small town much like Steubenville (though my hometown’s small townishness was slightly lessened by its proximity to Columbus, the state capital). Much like Steubenville, football was king of a vast sports empire to which we all seemingly belonged, a locus of community and congeniality that revolved around Friday nights at 7 PM, when 22 young men would violently clash for two hours.

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As a man and as an athlete whose identity was forged in those Ohioan mills of character, the environment in which the Steubenville rape case played out is horribly familiar. Far from being able to condemn it, I am just deeply ashamed of the attitudes of the communities that were once such a positive part of my life. Whether you played for the Big Red or for the Blue Aces, the fact remains that as men and as athletes, we were placed on a pedestal around which the town or university revolved. That the overriding sentiment after the verdict was announced was to bemoan the rapists’ now-spoiled futures in sports only serves to make my point manifest.

The standard defense of the centrality of sports — particularly football — in our culture is that it builds “character”. Certainly, in my case, sports did that; my lifelong love of sports and my time as a member of a sports team instilled in me a greater understanding of the importance of teamwork, the benefits of playing by the rules and the value of acting like the role model others sometimes believed me to be. But I would be negligent, if not delinquent, if I were not to also say that I recognize that sports also reifies many of the worst aspects of our overall culture, including an unquestioning and unyielding worship of authority and the perpetuation of traditional male roles.

It is these aspects that we’ve seen at work in places like Steubenville this week and Penn State of late, from stem to stern — the idea that the justice system should be somehow subservient to the whims of a corrupt athletic department and that care must be paid, not to the needs of the victim, but to the desires of the perpetrators. Steubenville and Penn State certainly aren’t alone — I could write the same things about South Bend and a myriad other towns.

But I do have hope, both for the people like me who love and play sports and the victims of violence that the greater community has so clearly failed. However repellent it is that people were mourning the rapists first, the fact remains that the Steubenville rapists were found delinquent. However painful it is to have the sins of your community held up to the light, it is in doing that that we can then move beyond the community’s sins — and in so doing, we might arrive to a place where wearing a uniform isn’t a license for lawlessness, and where we can focus on justice for the (hopefully far fewer) victims rather than the on-field exploits of men who exploit others off the field.

[Aspen Photo / Shutterstock.com]

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