A few days ago, my friend Xander sent me this message via Facebook:
"Yikes, not a good time to be an Ohio football fan, I take it."
At first I wasn't sure what he was talking about; I mean, the Buckeyes have just finished an undefeated season, Urban Meyer is killing it on the recruiting trail, numerous angel sightings... life is pretty good, right? Plus, what would a Cali bro of mine know about Ohio football in general? There's literally no reason for pigskin in the Buckeye state to even be on his radar except in the event of some ridiculously dire or all-around bad situation.
Like say, a sex scandal in a small town related to a beloved high school football team and a cover-up that's drawn national attention.
The Steubenville rape case and controversy is tailor-made for a generation of people taught that the Varsity Blues/Friday Night Lights/Any Given Sunday motif of attitudes toward football are real and force the worst aspects of the sport into the spotlight. There's even an almost insultingly ready-made comparison in the Jerry Sandusky scandal, as if the controversies in Steubenville are simply the most recent example of a sporting culture gone mad.
The problem with this line of thought is that it is simplistic and wrong. Jerry Sandusky was able to rape children for years because of an insane, willful ignorance on the part of a small group of people who valued protecting the reputation of their school over prosecuting a rapist. It was horrific, but it's hard to believe that the Jerry Sandusky scandal would've perpetuated itself at another university. I hope beyond hope that what happened at Penn State was an incredibly unique situation.
I don't believe that is the case in Steubenville. Not because of the easy scapegoat of football, but rather, I believe that these kinds of incidents are the logical end result of a culture (not a sports culture, but a societal culture) that allows things to be "taken care of" away from the prying eyes of people who might hold their actions in judgment. A culture that exists, in some fashion, in small towns throughout the United States.
I graduated from high school in 2003. Three years after that, my high school principal, a Catholic priest, died. The Archdiocese described it as a "one-car accident." Other, more accurate reports described it as a crash that resulted from high speeds and a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit at 3 a.m. on a Tuesday.
I respected that man immensely. He personally helped me through several tough times in my life, and he was able to connect with students in a way that I've seen few educators emulate. He was a good priest and an excellent principal.
But the Rev. Charles Mentrup drove drunk at 3 in the morning and it cost him his life. As much as I mourned the man, I also knew that it was equally important to remember the way in which he died, because anything else would be a lie. The same kind of lie that many would like to perpetuate out of some misguided sense of preserving the memory of a good man is now being used to help cover up for a group of potential rapists and molesters. And that makes me sick.
People want to blame the assault and subsequent cover-up on sports, and that's understandable. After all, who wants to confront the idea that this type of awful, disgusting assault happens and is glossed over in small towns and cities all around the country on a regular basis? Who wants to consider that maybe it's not a misguided sports culture, but a misguided social culture, that allows these things to happen?
It's a lot easier to assign blame than to look internally. Football as a sport lauds machismo and swagger, and as such the sport as a whole becomes an easy target when football players do something wrong. "Ugh, those damn Jocks!" said every 80s movie nerd caricature and real life person who lacked any kind of will and conviction to try to change the reality of the world around them.
But no, we'll continue to keep our secrets. Small towns will operate under a code of silence when it suits them, as they always have, because the truth is simply a minor casualty of comfort.
Steubenville Big Red football is just another avatar of those secrets. A judge and prosecutor have recused themselves because of their connections to the Steubenville football team, but in case you haven't noticed, Big Red football is a medium-sized fish in a very shallow thimble. Football is ubiquitous there, but this could be any hockey-mad town in Minnesota, any village that relies on a regional Walmart, or any city that is crazy about the local hardcore punk scene. These places, many holding on by the skin of their teeth, have the most to lose through scandal, and will go to great lengths to cover it up.
The point is this: people keep secrets because they are protecting something, and secrets are often bad because what they're protecting ends up being worse. Ultimately, that's why I'm glad that Anonymous and whichever internet watchdog flavor of the month is on this case, despite their often times ham-handed efforts at "justice." Because a messy truth is always preferable to the alternative in the long run, and as long as there are eyes on Steubenville, maybe the stories of other victims in other Steubenvilles will finally be considered with the respect and urgency that they deserve.
So honestly, Xander, it's still a pretty good time to be an Ohio football fan. But it's not a great time to be from a small place in Ohio.