That was the word spoken by Judge Thomas Lipps to two teenagers, Ma’lik Richmond, 16, and Trent Mays, 17, on March 17 in a Steubenville, Ohio courtroom.
That was the word that found Richmond and Mays convicted of rape charges, that will not only send them to juvenile prison for a minimum of one and two years, respectively (though both can be legally held in prison until they turn 21), but also make them registered sex offenders.
That was the word that placed a permanent stain on the lives of two boys younger than us college students, two high school students whose lives had been so full of promise and potential just a few short months ago.
The moment I heard the verdict, I couldn’t help but wonder what went through the minds of those two young men as they learned the true consequences of their actions. More than that, I couldn’t help but wonder what would possess them to commit such heinous acts.
Was it because they thought they could get away with it? Was it because they felt above punishment? Was it because so many high caliber football stars have gotten away with so much more? Guilty. Did these boys ever think they would hear that word?
For those unfamiliar with the case, at a series of back-to-school parties at the end of August, 2012, the victim was highly intoxicated and taken back to a house by Richmond and Mays. She eventually passed out and was sexually assaulted by the two teenagers throughout the entire ordeal, while friends of the boys recorded, texted and tweeted about their actions.
After blacking out and subsequently passing out, the victim then remembers waking up naked in an unfamiliar house with no recollection of what happened. After learning about the events that transpired, as well as discovering how users of various social media sites had mocked her and posted inappropriate and illegal images, videos and messages about her, the victim decided to press charges.
However, it wasn’t until national attention was squarely focused on the town that the prosecution moved forward. Allegations of conspiracy, attempted cover-ups and threats against the victim and her family have dogged the entire process.
One extremely ugly subplot of this tragic story is that two Steubenville teen girls were arrested for tweeting threatening comments at the victim only two days after the conviction was found. In response to all of this, a grand jury investigation has been launched to determine if a potential cover-up was possible, and if so, who was responsible. You can read more about the case here.
Steubenville, Ohio is a small, dying town that can be found along the Ohio River, right in the heart of the Rust Belt. Throughout the early 20th Century, the city was a thriving industrial center home to steel mills and various factories, but its glory days have long since passed by. The factories and mills started to close and slowly the population of Steubenville, which at its peak in the 1940’s reached close to 40,000, began to sap away.
The population is currently somewhere around 18,400 people, though a few hundred people seem to leave every year. The only constant in this hard-working, blue-collar town (the median yearly income is slightly above $30,000) has been Steubenville High School and its football team, affectionately known by its residents as Big Red. For those Friday Night Lights fans out there, there’s a pretty good comparison between Dillon and Steubenville, as in both towns high school football is highly esteemed.
Now I’m not saying with absolute certainty that football players receive preferential treatment in Steubenville, but I am saying I believe it is very possible. I am also saying that placing high school players on such a pedestal will have detrimental effects on their behavior. When you are treated by those around you as a true football star, it is only a matter of time before you begin to think and act like you actually are one.
Unfortunately, this causes players to think they are above the same societal norms, laws and behaviors expected of everyone else, which causes teenagers like Mays and Richmond to justify their actions.
But then again, why wouldn’t they? Especially since their role models and heroes have gotten away with far worse? Ben Roethlisberger and Kobe Bryant, two extremely high profile athletes who were both accused of rape and yet, both were able to escape criminal charges (As it turns out, having millions of dollars to be able to spend in an out-of-court settlement is extremely helpful when you break the law.).
Ray Lewis literally, not figuratively, got away with murder.
Notre Dame, our fine, upstanding, fellow Catholic institution, received essentially zero negative coverage about this incident, in which two women from St. Mary’s College were sexually assaulted by members of the football team and then were so cruelly threatened and harassed by other Notre Dame players and their friends that one woman refused to press charges. The other victim committed suicide.
Were any charges ever filed? No. Were any punitive measures placed on Notre Dame or its football team? No.Were the players in question even forced to miss playing time? No, they were not. High-profile athletes are protected by their money, the institutions surrounding them and even the authorities responsible for protecting all equally under the law.
In this modern day-and-age, athletes have become our role models. They are glorified, loved, cherished, and adored by millions of people.
Unfortunately, in many cases they are not held to the same societal rules and laws as the general population. I am not advocating that athletes be held to the same standards as the average person. Instead, I am stating that professional athletes must be held to a higher standard, and must be held accountable for their actions.
Athletes must be forced to face the fact that they are not above the law and, therefore, should accept the consequences of their actions. We, as the public, should not allow an athlete’s past mistakes to be erased by simply winning a trophy.
If high school athletes continue to emulate the actions of their role models (meaning partying, playing and acting like a professional football star) and believe that because they are local celebrities they too are above the law, then Steubenville will not be an isolated incident.
Why, then, is change so desperately needed? Why should we bother attempt to fight this losing battle and alter the public perception and treatment of professional athletes?
The answer is simple. One, in the eyes of the law and the public, Kobe Bryant and Ben Roethlisberger are champions. Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays are rapists.