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Is The Next Steubenville Rape Case Unfolding Before Our Eyes?

By Tara Culp-Ressler  

"Is The Next Steubenville Rape Case Unfolding Before Our Eyes?"

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CREDIT: Vanderbilt Univeristy

At the end of last month, four former Vanderbilt University football players pleaded not guilty to allegations that they gang-raped an unconscious young woman on campus this summer. The case has certainly gotten some media coverage, but — perhaps because campus officials and local law enforcement don’t seem to be mishandling it — not very much widespread attention. According to a Buzzfeed report, however, there may be more disturbing details to the case than immediately meet the eye.

Buzzfeed reports additional information about the unfolding case that reveals potential similarities to last year’s incidents in Steubenville, OH — when two high school football players were charged with rape after videotaping a sexual assault that they perpetrated against an unconscious young girl. Steubenville sparked a national conversation about rape culture, victim-blaming, the lines of consent, and society’s potential double standards for star athletes.

The alleged assault that took place in Nashville, TN isn’t an identical situation by any means. But many of the same dynamics are also at play there:

The case involves several student athletes, some of whom were expected to be football stars. One of the Vanderbilt students charged with rape, Brandon Vandenburg, had just transferred to the private university from a junior college to play football. He was a “highly rated” tight end, considered by ESPN to be one of the best juniors in his position in the country. Three of Vandenburg’s fellow football players were also at the scene of the assault and have also been charged with rape. At least one other football player has been charged as an accessory to the crime.

The alleged assault took place after the unconscious victim was moved to another location, presumably without her consent. The high schoolers convicted in the Steubenville case were originally charged with kidnapping because they transported their unconscious victim to other parties without her consent. The same thing may have happened at Vanderbilt. Sources told Buzzfeed that Vandenburg took the victim, whom he had been casually dating, to a local college bar. By the time he drove her back to campus, she appeared to be passed out. “She was in the passenger seat and it was all the way down. She was totally gone,” one witness told Buzzfeed.

Multiple men may have raped the unconscious victim. The alleged assault took place within a dorm room at Vanderbilt. All four of the men who have been charged with rape were present in the room at the time, but it’s unclear at this point whether they all actively participated. Sources told Buzzfeed that “objects were used to penetrate the victim.” Similarly, the Steubenville assault involved several teammates in the same room, laughing and joking about the victim. In that case, not every person there participated in digitally penetrating the victim, but they were accused of allowing the assault to continue without doing anything to stop their teammates.

The assault may have been recorded, and the graphic material may have been passed around to other football players. Sources told Buzzfeed that Vandenburg took photos and videos of the alleged assault and sent them to other people. At this point, at least three other men — two of Vandenburg’s former teammates, and one current one — have been arrested for “tampering with electronic evidence” in the case, presumably for deleting that material instead of turning it into the police. The Steubenville assault was also video taped. Images and videos of the high schoolers dragging around the unconscious victim were posted to social media sites, which is initially how the victim discovered what happened that night, and which ultimately provided the bulk of the evidence for the case.

Vanderbilt’s football coach may have known about the alleged assault and worked to cover it up. Buzzfeed reports that Vanderbilt’s beloved football coach, James Franklin, told a football player to delete a video of the assault. “I’m 99.9 percent sure that Franklin saw the video, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the public finds this out soon,” a source close to one of the defendants told Buzzfeed. Earlier in the summer, sources also told Deadspin that Franklin may have been aware of the assault, but the outlet couldn’t corroborate their sources’ stories. Franklin has vehemently denied the accusation. Steubenville’s head football coach was also accused of trying to cover up the sexual assault, working to protect his players instead of the victim. Nonetheless, he got a contract extension in April.

Nashville is obviously a much bigger place than the tiny town of Steubenville, OH. But football holds a place of honor in both areas. Steubenville’s successful football team brought the town together, and many residents were more upset about the fact that the rape convictions ruined two football players’ potential careers than they were about the fact that a 16-year-old girl was raped and humiliated. Vanderbilt University is one of Tennessee’s most beloved institutions, and its football team has been thriving under Franklin’s leadership.

The details about the alleged assault on Vanderbilt’s campus haven’t all been made public yet — but, if the case ends up going to trial, they might be. And now that the country has been grappling with the implications of Steubenville, and a network of college activists across the country have been pushing for better sexual assault policies that deal harsher punishments to rapists on campus, we should be paying attention.

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