More Steubenville: Petitions Ask for Firing of Coach

6253243070_3928b46e69Although technology was, on one hand, a tool maliciously used for prolonging the harm done by the now-infamous Steubenville, Ohio, rape (via texts, tweets and shared photos), it was, on the other hand, also where public outcry fueled the case that ultimately saw the two teenage perpetrators convicted in March. And, once again, frustrated justice-seekers are turning to the web to try and affect change in Steubenville—this time in the form of petitions to have the high school’s football coach, Reno Saccoccia, fired.

During the rape trial against two of Saccoccia’s players, 17-year-old Trent Mays and 16-year-old Ma’lik Richmond, text messages and witness testimonies suggested that the coach was told about the August incident in which Mays and Richmond sexually assaulted a 16-year-old girl who was passed out after a night of drinking.

One text sent by Mays and read at the trial by a state investigator, said, “I got Reno. He took care of it and sh– ain’t gonna happen, even if they did take it to court.” Another text suggested that the coach had joked about the assault with the player.

In a town where football rules supreme and the winning coach is a local idol, it may not come as a surprise that Saccoccia continues to be employed at the school despite this information. But last month, the Steubenville school board extended his contract as director of administrative services for another two years—suggesting that a winning football coach can be rewarded for such behavior. (His five-year football-coaching contract, which he’s three years into, is separate.) NEWS9 in Ohio spoke to Superintendent Michael McVey, who said that the extension of Saccoccia’s administrative contract had nothing to do with his coaching position.

This decision, which reeks of a lenient “boys will be boys” attitude that feeds rape culture, has not gone over well online, where others have had to become watchdogs for Steubenville’s apparent ignorance of how to handle a rape.

A grand jury convened on April 30 to look into the rape case further. The jury was adjourned for three weeks on Thursday, May 2, to allow investigators to conduct further interviews and analyze more evidence. Ohio has a law on the books that makes it a crime not to report a felony, such as a rape, which could implicate those who witnessed the incident, knew about it and/or circulated evidence of it. How much Saccoccia knew and what he may have done or not done about it could come to light in the investigation.

In the meantime, there are some who continue to come to the coach’s defense—as of this writing, 734 people had signed a petition on called “The Big Red Nation: Stand up and support Coach Reno Saccoccia.” About a month ago, one signatory left a comment saying,

Coach Reno has been a cornerstone of this community for three decades. He is responsible for a legacy that is now respected on a national level. His integrity should not be called into question, due to the irresponsible behavior of two (or more) individuals. At the end of the day, he has always been about the success, discipline and well-being of the student athlete.

The irony of the latter part of that remark—that Saccoccia “has always been about the … well-being of the student athlete”—is that, while attempting to defend the coach, the commenter further proves where the priorities in Steubenville may lie: with the athletes, not with anyone who may jeopardize the team. The situation isn’t unique: This is just the latest in a long line of examples of sexual assault being covered up in athletic circles (Jerry Sandusky, anyone?). As CBS local reporter Tim Baffoe in Chicago writes in his recent satirical piece about the almighty football coach’s continued employment, the issue of unaddressed sexual assault in sports persists because “we love sports more than we love rape. Or hate rape. Whichever.”

However, legions more people are turning to online petitions to demand that Saccoccia be sacked.

More than 136,000 people have signed a petition on that directs the simple plea “Remove Reno Saccoccia from his position at Steubenville High School” to Superintendent McVey and Daniel Ross of the Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA). The petition was amended after its creation to include OHSAA, arguing that Saccoccia has violated OHSAA bylaws by not reporting what his players appear to have divulged to him.

Another, this one on the pro-women’s movement petition site UltraViolet, cropped up in late April in response to the school board’s extension of Saccoccia’s administrative contract.

The entreaty, titled “Seriously, Steubenville?!? Fire Coach Saccoccia,” reads:

It’s unacceptable to extend the contract of a coach who took two months to punish team members who raped a 16-year-old girl, and who may have even helped them cover up the crime. The world is still watching Steubenville, we’re still angry, and we want Coach Saccoccia fired.

According to UltraViolet co-founder Shaunna Thomas, the petition has gathered more than 78,000 signatures since it was started on Wednesday, April 24. A joint effort with Credo Action, UltraViolet’s petition is the latest in their effort to mobilize people via technology in order to “create a cost for sexism,” says Thomas.

Among their many victories since launching in February 2012, UltraViolet’s recent petition against Reebok-sponsored rapper Rick Ross, who had lyrics about raping a woman, garnered almost 100,000 supporters and helped lead to Reebok’s dismissal of Ross.

UltraViolet turned the spotlight on Steubenville in January with a petition to the attorney general asking that the rapists be prosecuted and by creating a moving billboard that read, “The World Is Watching.” Says Thomas,

Steubenville seemed like an important moment and a really important opportunity for us to demonstrate that what happened in Steubenville is not unique. It is representative of a rape culture that you can find anywhere in our country. If something like that can happen there, it can happen where you live.

We were trying to expose what was going on there to make it difficult for them to let these boys fly. They were setting an example that you can rape an unconscious girl and get away with it.

Thomas hopes that after the grand jury investigation there won’t be the need for Steubenville-related actions, but says UltraViolet is prepared to keep the spotlight on the case as long as is necessary.

Photo from Flickr user Erik Daniel Drost under license from Creative Commons 2.0