When I was a 14-year-old with healthy knees and an obtuse overestimation of my own athleticism, I played for a basketball club team in New York City. One moment from that season looms above all others. We were in the locker room after practice, joking around and half-naked, when Coach Dan came in through the door. Coach Dan wasn’t much of a coach but he made up for it with relentless, flower-power positively. He was a hippie living in the wrong era, with a ponytail that went down his back, and a pocket of trail mix that would dribble out of his mouth like chewing tobacco. Dan never allowed any rough housing, did “vibe checks” and spoke to us about pacifism while we stifled smirks. He knew we were laughing at him but didn’t really care.
On this day, Dan told us with his typical camp counselor enthusiasm to get our clothes on because one of the girl's coaches, a woman I just remember as Coach Deb, was about to come in and speak with us. We groaned but still reached for our pants. Everyone that is, but Tim. All I remember about Tim was that he was string bean tall, painfully awkward, and masked some deep insecurities by cracking jokes at Rodney Dangerfield speed. Tim saw this as a moment for humor and said, “Let’s keep our pants off because then we can rape her!”
I wish I could tell you whether laughter followed, but we didn’t even get the chance to react. In a flash, Coach Dan backhanded Tim across the face. Seeing a coach or adult authority figure hit a 14 year old, even a huge one like Tim, was shocking enough. Seeing Hippie Dan do it was akin to watching the Dalai Lama stomp someone with his sandals. We all stood there breathless and I’m not sure if Tim or Dan was shaking more. Coach Dan finally spoke and said, “I’m sorry but there are some things you don’t joke about.” He then walked out of the locker room and practice was done. The incident was never mentioned, but Dan was never quite so positive, Tim stopped making jokes and that was the first and last locker room rape joke of the season.
This seared itself into my memory because my brain seems to regurgitate it every time men’s sports lurks in the background of a sexual assault. Earlier this year, it was seeing Notre Dame players who had been implicated in two sexual assaults, take the field without uproar in their national championship game, led by a coach who thought the accusations were cause for humor. This week the trial opens in Steubenville, Ohio, where two members of the storied high school football team are facing youth prison until the age of 21 for sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl. The defense has described the young woman as “a drunk out-of-town football groupie.”
The fact is that rape culture—conversation, jokes and actions that normalize rape—are a part of sports. Far too many athletes feel far too empowered to see women as the spoils of jock culture. The young woman in Steubenville was carried like a piece of meat with the brutality documented like it was Spring Break in Daytona Beach. It was so normalized that dozens of people saw what was happening and did nothing.
Why would the players feel so entitled to not only act this way but also document their own behavior? Why would their peers watch and do nothing? It starts with understanding Steubenville, a small city not so different from many others in the former rust-belt. This is a damaged post-industrial town where there is little hope and excitement beyond the dynastic “Big Red” high school football program. As one local resident said to Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports, "We have 16,000 people in Steubenville and a 10,000-seat stadium. That says it all." The team’s website even says that Big Red football is “keeping Steubenville on the map.”
Because high school football is at the center of the social, psychological and even economic life of Steubenville, youth are treated like demigods with the adults acting like sentries guarding the sacred program. Whatever the results of the trial, it speaks volumes that the young woman is in lockdown in her own home under armed guards because of death threats.
A tone for this attitude toward the accuser was set by the team’s legendary football coach of 30 years, Reno Saccoccia, whose first response upon hearing the charges was to take no action against either the accused players or those on the team who were present and did nothing. When a female reporter asked him why, Coach Reno went “nose to nose” with her and said, "You’re going to get yours. And if you don’t get yours, somebody close to you will.”
I don’t believe that rape culture is an endemic part of men’s sports. I do believe that rape culture is an endemic part of teenage boys being treated like gods by adults for their ability to play games. I also believe that rape culture in locker rooms can be destroyed with the active intervention of coaches who take violence against women seriously. We shouldn’t have to ask them to hit their players to get this message across. As Zerlina Maxwell might say, these young men can be taught not to rape.
Reno Saccoccia is an icon. I have no idea what happened to my own Coach Dan but I know who I'd rather have coaching my kids. Rape culture is a part of Coach Reno’s locker room but it sure as hell wasn’t a part of mine for which I'm forever grateful. Hopefully Tim is out there, finally grown into his six-foot-five frame, and a part of him is grateful too.