Sports Indoctrinated: When Winning Wins

RenoNot only did he overlook rampant underage drinking by his players, he also overlooked rape by his players. Fortunately for him, the only record that matters to his bosses is the winning one he has on the football field.

“HE” is Reno Saccoccia, the head football coach at Steubenville High School, in Ohio. He has held that post for nearly three decades, and has won three state titles during his tenure. He has also won 85% of the games he coached. The football field is named after him.

Last summer, several of his players traveled from house party to house party. Over the course of that alcohol-fueled night, two of his players – Ma’Lik Richmond and Trent Mays – raped a 16-year-old girl. They were arrested, and earlier this year they were found “delinquent” – the juvenile court equivalent of being found guilty in criminal court. Coach Saccoccia provided favorable character testimony on their behalf in the hearing over whether their case should go forward in juvenile court, rather than having them tried as adults.

After winning their argument to be treated as juveniles, Richmond and Mays proceeded to trial. Text messages were read into the record that indicated that Coach Saccoccia knew about the then-alleged rape and took no measurable action.

In a text message to the victim just days after the crime occurred, Mays quoted his coach as saying “[Ma’Lik and I] raped you.” His coach’s incrimination fed Mays’ desire to talk to the victim and get some “control” over the situation. Despite Coach Saccoccia’s stated conclusion that two of his players were rapists, Mays also told friends that the coach did “nothing really” in response; the coach asked him and Richmond to “stay in for a week” and warned that “next time,” they would be “suspended from games for a month.” Mays went on to say that his coach “took care of it for us” and was “joking about it.”

With that evidence in the public record, and with the subsequent convictions of the two perpetrators, Steubenville leaders spoke out. The City Manager insisted that the “moral fiber” of the community is more important than football. The superintendent of schools released a statement saying that what “we’ve heard so far is deeply disturbing,” but that no action would be taken until the legal process had been “play[ed] out.”

That was mid-March. About a 45 days have now passed. Actions have been taken. Some might surprise you.

Actions of the unsurprising variety include the posting of petitions on and Facebook demanding that Coach Saccoccia be fired. In addition, there are ongoing investigations by Ohio legal authorities into Coach Saccoccia and other school officials for failing to report a crime. Grand juries have been convened, and interviews have been requested. Coach Saccoccia has consistently declined to comment.

Actions of the surprising variety include the Steubenville School Board refusing to make Coach Saccoccia available for questioning. The real whopper, though, is that the school board has given the coach a two-year “administrative contract” that supplements his ongoing coaching contract, which has two years remaining on it.

So much for a “moral fiber” taking precedence over football.

In many towns, turning a blind eye to underage drinking would be enough to put a coach on the proverbial hot seat. In Steubenville, a coach can foster attitudes of entitlement, irreproachability, and aggression – can turn a blind eye to rape – only to be asked if his chair needs another cushion. A coach can joke about sexual assault and still participate as a figurehead in the public life of a place that pretends to some modicum of human decency.

While it goes without saying that an outsider can never know the basis for an internal decision, it is difficult to find a legitimate ground for extending Coach Saccoccia’s platform at Steubenville High School. His reassuring words, his devil-may-care reaction, and his fundamental heartlessness have not been questioned. He is the subject of an active criminal investigation. If he is not in violation of school policy, that points more to deficiencies in school policy than to the soundness of his actions (or, better stated, inactions).

Steubenville professes to be an upstanding community, but it is allowing a man to remain at the helm of a football institution that has been roundly criticized as contributing to the degeneracy of Richmond and Mays’ actions. It is teaching children confused and confusing lessons on accountability, respect, and priority. It is enabling at best a narcissist and at worst a criminal. It is confirming the disappointed suspicions raised months ago: that winning is more important than just about anything, at least in Steubenville.

Certainly more important than the treatment of another person. Especially of a girl. Who, after all, didn’t even play football.

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