Remember when the mainstream media wrung their hands over Steubenville, Ohio, football players and convicted rapists Ma’lik Richmond’s and Trent Mays’ futures? Reporters at CNN and NBC, in particular, fretted over their guilty verdicts on air. The outcome of the case entailed not a triumph of justice for the 16-year-old Jane Doe who was raped, but a disaster for two promising high school football players, whose lives and futures had been ruined. I imagine news reporters at CNN and NBC must have been so relieved to learn on Monday that Richmond has rejoined the Steubenville Big Red football team, picking up much where he left off following a nine-month stay at an Ohio juvenile detention center.
Like so many across the country, I wasn’t at all surprised by Monday’s news. I’m even less surprised that his future has become the subject of renewed hand-wringing. Over the week, I’ve watched the media, as well as friends and family, debate and bitterly argue over the young man’s right to be back on the team. According to Slate’s Amanda Hess, he’s paid the price for his crime by serving the sentence assigned to him. Continuing to shame him for his offenses only lessens his chances for rehabilitation. For many others, it seems unconscionable that a convicted sex offender could reenter high school, let alone be welcomed back to play for the football team. But all I can think about is Jane Doe, the lives of teenage girls and the ways we talk about their futures.
When news of what had happened to Jane Doe first broke, her story no doubt hit close to home for many of us. I could see it in the conversations that were taking place widely across social media: parents fearful for their daughters safety and anxious for what their sons might be learning (or not learning) about respect for women; women of all ages forced to relive traumatic experiences of rape and abuse; and the bullied asked to stand up yet again against a culture of virtual intimidation.
Jane Doe’s story hit close to home for me as well. While I’ve never met her, I see my young self in her. I grew up in the 1970s and ‘80s just down the river from Steubenville, not in Big Red country, but in Big Reds country. But please don’t be fooled by the addition of the “s”: Steubenville and my own hometown were—and are—much the same, especially when it comes to football. In Big Reds country, the community’s pride rests largely in the hands of the high school male athletes, particularly the football players. To get a seat at a Saturday afternoon football game, people buy tickets in advance. During good seasons, committed fans have waited in line for hours for a ticket. No other sport draws this level of enthusiasm, no matter how successful its players. I still remember my mother’s voice as she encouraged me from the same stands during my track meets. It was impossible to miss her as she cheered from the vastly empty bleachers.
I can tell you that it’s a challenge as a teenage girl to find your place in such a community. To express this reality to some friends recently, I told the story of how I volunteered in high school to be a “senior sister.” In fact, I couldn’t wait to be a senior sister. As part of a voluntary, extracurricular activity, senior sisters were paired together and then given responsibility for supporting one of the senior football players. This support took several forms. Before game days, we decorated the walls of the cafeteria with our athlete’s jersey number, with paper footballs and pithy cheers designed to empower the team to victory, with ornate displays so grand they required ladders. The designs and work would consume whole evenings and early mornings throughout the entire fall football season. On really important occasions, we baked for them, too. We even bought the male athletes gifts.
When it was finally my time to volunteer to be a senior sister, there was no question that I would do so, though I did find myself questioning the justice of this particular activity, and not because it excluded female athletes (I think the idea probably crossed my mind, but it’s not something that preoccupied me back then). I questioned the justice of the activity because only football athletes were assigned senior sisters, leaving all the other male athletes overlooked and undervalued. Bothered by their neglect, when my best friend and I finally became seniors, we insisted on being senior sisters to one of the boys on the cross-country team. We were loyal like that.
Yes, that’s right, I took on all the responsibility of a senior sister for a male runner while running cross country myself. And it’s worth noting, I was a pretty good runner. While staying up late to arrange elaborate decorations for my “senior brother,” I also held the record at my high school in three long-distance track events. My best friend and partner in the senior sister program was such a good runner that she rose through the track finals to eventually compete at the state level. No senior brother ever decorated a wall for either of us.
In between manufacturing elaborate displays and running, I also drank a lot with friends. At parties. In cars. On roadsides. Frequently to the point of near-oblivion. Often collapsing in a heap of tears by the end of a night, usually over a boy or a general feeling of my own unworthiness. I doubt I was the only girl in my school to have so thoroughly internalized the message of my low self-worth or to have discounted my considerable academic and athletic accomplishments to the point where I could see few options for a future beyond early marriage and motherhood. Looking back on it now, I realize how easily I could have found myself in Jane Doe’s situation, and I consider myself extremely lucky to have come out of high school with no traumatic experiences other than the trauma of being a girl struggling to understand her value in this particular world.
I have no way of knowing if Jane Doe suffered a similar depletion of self-worth. Still, I can’t help but look at the aftermath of this case and see, overtly expressed, all of the messages that were so damaging to me as a teenage girl. Across social media, Jane Doe has been attacked not only for the choices she made that night, but for her motive in hanging out with this particular group of athletes in the first place. Why did she go to these parties if she wasn’t looking to hook up with the football players? Why did she allow herself to get so drunk if she cared about the outcome? Why did she brush off her concerned friends when they tried to prevent her from going off with Mays and Richmond?
I know why, at both an instinctual and an intellectual level. These are the so-called “choices” girls make when they are surrounded by male privilege and entitlement, when their own sense of empowerment comes not from their own accomplishments and talents but from their association with accomplished and talented boys. Meanwhile, society frets not about the choices Richmond made that night, but about his future. I’m reminded how, just after the verdict for Richmond and Mays made headlines, a Facebook friend observed how differently the media and its followers talked about Jane Doe’s future versus Richmond’s and Mays’. We talk about the boys’ futures as if they matter, while we hardly acknowledge the girl’s future, unless it’s to note the traumatizing effects of the rape that will plague her. I can’t help but think that when we debate what opportunities Richmond should or shouldn’t have, we’ve really missed the larger point. Whether Richmond’s conviction and his return to football impacts rape culture or not, we must understand the ways rape culture itself is not the disease; it’s the symptom of a society that fails to value girls’ futures as much as it values boys’.