By Tim Baffoe-
(CBS) Between whistles, I don’t care. The person wearing the jersey I’m rooting for isn’t a person. He or she is a means to winning a game, and besides anything statistical, he or she has no past. Only present. The game is all that matters in the vacuum of the immediate. The athlete is an object of my emotions.
To be a fan of sports at their highest levels is to almost certainly root for a collective of people with flaws ranging from the very human to the very inhumane. If you expect the games you enjoy played by the best to also be played by the best of character, you need to find a new outlet for enjoyment (and should probably not turn to actors, musicians and a lot of other physical artists).
For the first time in a long time, though, I was recently conflicted in my usual compartmentalization. Ma’lik Richmond, who just finished serving 10 months of a one-year sentence for the sexual assault of a high school girl, has returned as a member of the Steubenville High School football team.
I went through the jaw-dropping processing of that information like you probably did initially. Then I considered what I’ve applied to professional athletes: He committed a crime, he served the penalty deemed appropriate by the legal system and his football superiors (regardless of whether I believe either should be lengthier), and he should thus fall into the category of a person I don’t want to be in the same room with but whom I won’t deny the chance to ply the trade at which he’s best.
Except in this case I can’t do that. While the person in the jersey I root for isn’t a person during the game, the girl Richmond raped during real life was not a person to him. She might still not be a person to him today. Football isn’t a trade for a high schooler. It’s an extracurricular activity. And any school that would allow a convicted rapist and currently registered sex offender to participate in its largest sport in which much of the embattled town invests as a catharsis doesn’t deserve accreditation as an educational institution.
But Steubenville High gave its head coach, Reno Saccoccia, an extension after his two players were found guilty of rape amid reports he both knew of the rape before authorities did and tried to cover it up. Of course, he wants his talented convicted rapist back on his team.
“He breakfasts regularly with the sheriff,” Barry Petchesky wrote of how Saccocchia never lost his job let alone got rewarded for it. His sister-in-law also worked in the county’s juvenile court, where he is licensed as a mediator.
And in those terms or something else coachy, Coach Sac — as a text message from one of the convicted rapists referred to him — would probably tell you that allowing Richmond back on the team is one of those “molding young men” opportunities.
“I feel that we’re not really giving him a second chance,” Saccocchia said this week. “Some may look at it like that. I feel he has earned a second chance. We don’t deal in death sentences for juvenile activity, and I just feel that he’s earned a second chance.”
Normally I’m all for second chances, especially with kids. And Richmond was a kid when he committed that awful crime for which the victim will never fully recover. His second chance, though, shouldn’t be in a position to be cheered and celebrated in a high school. That’s not molding. That’s not helping a boy become a man.
That’s not helping Richmond or every other hormonal, testosterone-fueled manchild from high school age into faux manhood that thinks “boys will be boys” when it comes to demeaning or assaulting girls and women.
Saccocchia is likely a coach who calls himself a teacher. Allowing Richmond to play football — the very thing that gave Richmond a local celebrity status that almost allowed him to get away with rape — sends nothing close to the correct message to Richmond, his teammates, his classmates and boys everywhere who, in my experience actually teaching, genuinely have no concept of American rape culture or buy into victim blaming, exceptionalism, etc. Oh, and it’s the wrong message to girls, too.
“It shows they don’t care at all about women, they just care about their football team,” said Hayleigh, a student at a different school near Steubenville. “That’s just promoting rape culture. It’s just saying, ‘That’s OK for you to do those things, but you’re a good football player and what you did doesn’t really matter to us.’”
We give the accused a pass on the field when they entertain us at the highest levels, sometimes even tripping over ourselves to defend them, sad as that is. Ben Roethlisberger, Jameis Winston, Brendan Gibbons, and Prince Shembo, just to name a few on the football side. Other sports have theirs.
I think to my own work as a classroom teacher, though, and whether I could divorce myself from my rooting interest in a student not just helping the team win but also helping his college and future life prospects, as Richmond may be, with the character of the student. Disallowing someone his perhaps best or only outlet toward higher education doesn’t help you, me or him. My very job is to prepare kids for college.
But I know that the sexual assault problem in this country is more important than one kid playing football. And if that one kid can be an example in Steubenville and then Chicago and then countrywide, then we can maybe all be taught something. And maybe a little bit of that rape culture we hate to acknowledge dissolves.
And we can then continue to look at personally flawed athletes as objects. But maybe we stop looking at real people as such. That’s teaching.
You can follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe.