Steubenville High School’s football team burst into national headlines last fall after video surfaced of former students joking about, in grotesque fashion, an apparent rape that had occurred at a house party attended by several of the team’s football players. The trial of two football players accused of raping a teenage girl from a nearby town begins this week, but the case has already divided Steubenville between those who rallied around the football team and those who believed the town’s reverence for that team played a role in the entire situation.
Two activists are now attempting to use the horrifying Steubenville case to raise awareness about the incidence of sexual assault in high school sports and to help prevent further assaults before they occur. Connor Clancy, a college football player, and Carmen Rios, a former campus sexual violence educator, launched a petition drive asking the National Federation of High School Associations to offer a course in sexual violence prevention for all high school coaches. The petition, hosted on Change.org, already has 25,000 signatures, according to a release:
“As a football player, I believe we have immense responsibility to be role models for younger boys,” said Connor Clancy, who co-launched the campaign on Change.org. “I want to help make sure what happened in Steubenville never happens again, and that starts with educating the people who young athletes look up to most, their coaches.”
“The issue of sexual violence has a monumental and overwhelming impact on the lives of girls and women across the world. We know that education, discussion, and action on the issue results in real, positive, and tangible changes in those lives — so why wait to create a new world?” said Rios. “We have the power to foster a culture without violence, but first we must all come together to build it.”
From Notre Dame to Steubenville to the higher rates of assault that occur among professional players, sexual violence is pervasive in American sports and in football in particular. That has happened, in part, because of how the sports world looks at and talks about both its athletes and its women, and educating young athletes about sex and sexual assault seems to be one clear way to positively address the problem.
That, as Clancy and Rios realized, begins with the men who coach those athletes, who at the high school level often spend more time with their coaches than with any other adults. And coaches aren’t just coaches — at the high school level, they are educators too, entrusted with the responsibility not just to teach classes but to mold young men in a positive manner. Despite that, many of the sexual assaults that occur at the high school level (and they aren’t hard to find in the news) often involve coaches looking the other way until it is too late not to. In Steubenville, assistant football coaches were reportedly at the party where the rape occurred and the head coach has been accused of helping to cover up the entire episode.
No one class will by itself fix the rape culture that pervades American sports (and America in general). Even in Steubenville, the players’ defense is arguing that what happened doesn’t qualify as rape because the victim “didn’t affirmatively say no.” But if eliminating that culture involves changing the way players’ view women and sex, educating the coaches who influence them is a good place to start. And it shouldn’t be hard to do. As the petition notes, the NFHSA covers 18,500 schools and 11 million high school athletes and already offers online training classes in a number of sports and education-related subjects. Adding a course on sexual violence wouldn’t be hard, and empowering more men in positions of authority to take a stand against sexual violence and teach their athletes to do the same is a step the world of sports needs to take.