Steubenville rape convict back on football team: Has culture changed?

One of the high school football players convicted of rape in the Steubenville, Ohio, case is back on the team, and Thursday is the team's first game. Weighing the balance between punishment and rehabilitation is difficult.

By , Staff writer

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    Ma'lik Richmond (c.) stands with his father, Nathaniel Richmond (l.) and attorney Walter Madison after he and co-defendant Trent Mays were convicted of rape and other charges in juvenile court in Steubenville, Ohio, last year.
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When Steubenville High School’s Big Red football team kicks off its season Thursday night in Ohio, wide receiver Ma’lik Richmond is expected to take to the field.

One of two football players convicted of raping a teenage girl in a case that made headlines around the globe, Mr. Richmond served a year in a juvenile detention facility and must register as a sex offender.

As he and his teammates suit up, questions loom: What’s the right balance between punishment and having the chance to get back on track in life? Given the images showing crass indifference toward the victim, and the failure by some adults to respond appropriately, has the culture changed in the years since the rape?

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For some, Richmond’s reinstatement to the team earlier this month was a disturbing signal that the celebration of football victories still prevails.

“The message that it sends is that Steubenville High School doesn't care about rape,” Alexandria Goddard, a social media consultant who helped generate attention to the original case, writes in an e-mail to the Monitor. The district has failed to say specifically what steps it has taken toward “addressing the issue of rape culture,” she says.  

A Change.org petition demanding Richmond be removed from the team has garnered more than 76,000 signatures.

Whether there’s much outrage locally, however, is more difficult to determine.

At a recent meeting of the Steubenville City Council, a local citizen reportedly objected to Richmond being given the privilege of participating in football.

Council member Kenneth Davis defended the school’s decision.

“Who are we to condemn this young man, when he stood up publicly with tears in his eyes and apologized?” Mr. Davis said in a phone interview with the Monitor. “I’m not taking what he did lightly, but he was 16…. Football gives you structure in your life…. If I didn’t have football in my life as a kid, I could be a street hoodlum myself.”

The school district did not return the Monitor's call seeking comment.

Integrating juvenile offenders back into the community “and providing structured support” that fosters their continued development is important, says Maia Christopher, executive director of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. But it’s also important for the needs of the victim and the community to be weighed, she says.

Whether the football team will provide Richmond with a positive structure, or whether a culture prevails that still doesn’t take rape seriously enough, is difficult to judge from the outside, Ms. Christopher says.

The Steubenville Schools have had staff training and curriculum for students addressing sexual assault prevention, provided by the Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence, based in Cleveland.

“People within the community and the school care about these issues and are genuinely committed to this,” says the alliance’s executive director, Katie Hanna.

But it’s important for people to remember that sexual violence happens in every community, and the concern should be much broader than whether someone is playing football, Ms. Hanna says.

With national attention also focused on sexual assaults on college campuses, “this is a critical time for parents to be engaged in talking with school administrators and asking, ‘What prevention programs do we have in place?’ ” she adds.

Football and other sports can generate headlines because of violence by athletes, but sports can also become great opportunities for teaching students about healthy relationships and preventing sexual assault, as the Coaching Boys into Men program has shown. In addition, on Thursday the National Football League announced a new policy that includes educational mandates related to domestic violence and sexual assault, and a ban from the league for a second offense.​

The victim of the rapes by Richmond and Trent Mays (still serving a two-year sentence) is heading to college and doing well, her lawyer Robert Fitzsimmons told the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

“We can never lose sight of what happened to this victim, that comes first,” he told the paper, but he added that it wouldn’t help Richmond or the community for him to be ostracized.

That’s an important issue for communities to consider in deciding what amount of punishment is enough, says David Altschuler, a juvenile-offender researcher at Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health in Baltimore.

Being on a sex offender registry well into adulthood is a significant punishment, so balancing that with a chance to develop a talent and “giving him a chance to straighten out” might make sense in terms of preventing future antisocial behavior or crimes, Professor Altschuler says.

Richmond’s attorney, Walter Madison, told the Monitor he has no comment.

Michael McVey, the Steubenville superintendent who is on leave, is set to be tried Oct. 14 on charges of obstructing justice and tampering with evidence related to the rapes.

Volunteer coach Matthew Belardine was sentenced to 10 days in jail for serving alcohol to a minor and making false statements. Seth Fluharty, a teacher and coach, was charged with failing to report child abuse, a charge dismissed on condition that he do community service at a domestic violence shelter.

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