In Steubenville, a small, struggling former steel town on the bank of the Ohio River, the last five days of an excruciating rape trial and the months leading up to it have been racked with angst and division.

But at issue for many residents was not the specifics of the case alone: whether two stars of the town's much-loved high school football team raped a drunken teenage girl during a night of wild parties.

It was also whether the town itself was being seen to be on trial. Some of the reporting had seemed to suggest something rotten in Steubenville, with stories of other teenagers sharing lurid pictures of the incident, and whispers – quickly denied – of a wider cover-up in the town.

It's the biggest story to bring the spotlight to Steubenville since the huge steel mill was finally closed after a long decline in 2005.

Its hulking chimneys and vast factory sheds sit idly rusting on the edge of town just a few blocks from the juvenile court where the trial was held and the town's high school where the two defendants were pupils and star football players.

In between, the small downtown area is a shell of empty, crumbling shop fronts and derelict, boarded-up houses interspersed with the odd bar, ramshackle residential street and tracts of wasteland.

"There's nothing for teens to do in Steubenville. Downtown is horrible, there are drug problems there and shootings and you can find illegal gambling, all close to where the high school is and the kids are exposed to those things, and I think it affects them," said Dalte Beal, 26, a shop assistant at the airport in Pittsburgh, about 40 minutes away.

"Kids just want to get drunk or high at the weekends, some hang out at the mall, though there's not much there any more either, but for a lot of them they don't have much vision for the future except maybe getting a job at the convenience store or the airport. There's no mill jobs. Some join the military, but the best way by far to make it big in the town – and if you want to get out – is sport, especially football," she said.

Beal grew up in Steubenville but now lives across the bridge over the river, which also serves as the border between eastern Ohio and West Virginia, in the smaller town of Weirton, where the girl who accused the boys of rape is from.

Steubenville High School is legendary throughout the region for its football team, nicknamed Big Red.

The 10,000-capacity stadium where Big Red plays, up the hill from the downtown area, is disproportionately large for a school team in a town of only 18,400 but it is packed for every home game during the short autumn season.

The elder defendant in the trial, Trent Mays, 17, was the quarterback; co-defendant Ma'lik Richmond, 16, was the wide receiver. Both were stars of the team until they were arrested last August and taken into custody.

"I don't think what happened in Steubenville is unique. But I think the industrial decline has pushed more importance onto the football team – which was already a local obsession – so that a case like this ends up taking over a small town and, if we are not careful, defining it," said a middle-aged teacher standing outside the court building after a day's proceedings last week.

She used to teach both the defendants and said that staff at the local middle and high schools had been told not to speak openly about the case, so she would have to speak anonymously.

"I was shocked when I heard what went on at these parties. Both Trent and Ma'lik were good students, both bright and courteous. They were easily going to be able to get sports scholarships to college. As well as football, Trent is a champion wrestler, and Ma'lik is a basketball star. That all may be ruined for them now," she said, speaking before the guilty verdicts.

At the shopping mall a few miles up the hill from the high school, two young men are taking a cigarette break from their jobs at stores inside.

Alex Donahue, 19, says he would like to try to move out of the area with his girlfriend.

"But I'll wait until she has our baby in a few weeks' time," he said.

Both he and his friend Jacob Yeager, 20, who is working in retail to help pay his way through a criminal justice course at a local college, thought that Mays and Richmond should have been tried as adults and were hoping for a guilty verdict.

"There are some really nice parts of Steubenville and some really good people around here. It shouldn't be all about this. But it's going to be hard for the town to move on," said Yeager.

A young couple arrived at the mall for a lunchtime pizza.

"I'm a good friend of the accuser, she texted me the night before she was going to go on the stand and said she was throwing up she was so nervous. I think she's been incredibly brave," said the female half of the couple, 16, who preferred not to be named.

Several of the accuser's best friends in school turned away from her after she complained to the police. Some of them testified on behalf of the defendants yesterday, saying the girl was a known liar.

The accuser is an honors student and a proficient athlete at school, who told her parents she was going to a friend's to sleepover on the night of August 11 when she went to a series of parties with Big Red football players.

"It's not right that girls turn on each other in a situation like this. They've been calling her a whore, which is not the case. I have always believed her and stood up for her," said the girl at the mall.

But she added that Big Red football parties had a reputation for being wildly drunk, some attendees probably took drugs, and girls could easily find themselves at risk.

"My parents won't let me go to Big Red parties," she said.

Her boyfriend, 19, is studying psychology at college.

"My grandfather played baseball for Big Red and is as diehard a fan of the football team as they come. But even before there is a verdict he is so appalled at what happened that he's said he will never go to another game," he said.

The young man also said he was shocked that friends of the defendants who were at the parties and took pictures and video of what was happening did not intervene and stop it, or call the police.

"I can only imagine they were all joining in the spirit of it," he said.

'The town pours its pride into the team'

Steubenville police chief William McCafferty complained last autumn that very few people were prepared to come forward to talk about the case.

"It's a small town where everyone knows everyone and no-one wants to stand out and criticise the football team. So there ends up being a wall of silence," said Patrick Macombs, a 54-year-old laid-off steelworker drinking in an Irish pub in Weirton.

Weirton is completely dominated by its own enormous steel mill, which is barely operational these days with only around 800 workers instead of the 14,000 it employed in the 1970s.

"Steubenville scouts for miles around for the best kids for its high school football program, and the town pours its pride into the team. It's sort of all they've got, so of course no one is going to rat on its stars," said Macombs.

His drinking companion, Jeff Lahach, 64, said: "Steubenville is the bottom of the barrel. It's had a reputation for years for prostitution, drug-dealing, rackets and gangs. A lot of the businesses are shut down, and if you are big in the football team there you think you are something and you can get away with a lot."

Steubenville is pronounced Stoobenville, which has also fuelled a nickname it has in other towns in the region – Stupidville.

"Yes, people call it Stupidville because it's known for crime and corruption and having the most arrogant football team in the universe," said a 17-year-old arriving at the cinema next to the shopping mall. She is from the neighbouring town of Mingo Junction.

But Sarah Bartsch, 27, a health researcher at the University of Pittsburgh who was sipping coffee at a cafe near the mall said: "This case has brought a terrible stigma to Steubenville. But it has also highlighted issues around teenage drinking, respect for women, peer pressure and the hazards of social media that go far beyond this town," she said.

It's very important that these have been aired, "it's just a shame it was Steubenville that had to air them," she said.

Katie Hanna, executive director of the Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence, sat in the court room through the entire trial, and agrees.

She complained that Ohio state does not put any money into sexual violence prevention programmes for schools and, after this case, said that has got to change.

"The consequences of drinking should be a hangover, not rape," she said outside the court building.

"And I think the teenagers involved in this case have had to come to terms with the issue that rape is not just about violent forced sex, it's about boundaries and whether someone has actively consented to what's going on," she said.

The teacher outside court said her school had gone into lockdown in recent weeks because of a bomb threat related to the court case.

"We need to get this behind us, learn the lessons and try to come back from it before Steubenville's reputation is destroyed and even fewer people want to live here," she said. © Guardian News and Media 2013

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[High school football via Shutterstock]