Back in Steubenville, rape culture is still winning as football coach’s contract is renewed

Reno SaccocciaEd. note: This is a guest post from Mychal Denzel Smith. He is a writer, social commentator, and mental health advocate whose work on politics, social justice, mental health, and black male identity has appeared in outlets such as The Nation, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Gawker, Salon, The Root, and more.

It seems simple enough: If you participate in the cover up of a rape, especially one that involves minors, you should lose your job. If your job requires you to be responsible for teenagers, then two of those teenagers rape an intoxicated 16-year-old and share photos of the act through social media, and your response is to joke about it with them, it’s not that hard to decide you should no longer have that job. There’s no controversy there. It’s just plain damn common sense.

But that seemed to escape the Steubenville school board when the decided to extend Steubenville High football coach Reno Saccoccia’s administrative contract by two years. To be clear, this is different from his coaching contract–it’s described as “supplemental” by the school superintendent, but it means Saccoccia will still be employed even after two boys he coached were found guilty of rape, with one of them under the impression that Saccoccia “took care of it.” This is how rape culture works.

In the town’s attempt to “move on,” they neglected to make a simple decision to signal that they take rape seriously and have a genuine interest in changing the culture that enabled these young men to believe they could get away with what they did. They’ve sent the message that they don’t find anything wrong with the way the coach handled this situation, and likely has been handling similar situations for the duration of his 30-year career. They’ve thrown their support behind “Coach Sac” and bought into the idea that “football is king” even if it means also throwing their support behind a culture that condemns rape in the abstract but is incredibly lax when it comes to actual prevention and punishment. This is how rape culture works. 

Saccoccia is charged with teaching teenage boys on the cusp of adulthood the fundamentals of the game of football, but he’s also instructing them in masculinity. What they’re learning from his inaction (aside from the suspension the players received eight games into a ten game season), and now his reward, muddies the potential lesson of the guilty verdict. Yes, it’s possible if they were to ever find themselves being accused of rape they could face legal consequences, but they can always run to Coach Sac, right? He’ll help them out. He’ll help see them through their ordeal. He may even help them laugh it off. That’s just what guys do. This is how rape culture works.

And if we’re going to do anything to change that, people have to start being held accountable. Perhaps Saccoccia didn’t actively attempt to cover up the rape, and the text message suggesting he had was the exaggeration of an overeager teenager, who was relieved at the time to believe that he wouldn’t be in any real trouble. It’s possible. But did Saccoccia alert anyone when he found out what happened? Did he call the police? Did he immediately suspend the boys who committed the rape, who took the pictures, who attended the party and watched this all take place without saying a word? Did he take practice time to explain to the team what consent is and how they should always have it before engaging in any sexual act? Did he at least tell the principal?

He didn’t do anything. That’s how rape culture works. A bunch of people turn a blind eye when their interests run up against those of justice, and then they pass those values down to the next generation. And it’s how rape culture is going to keep working if you can’t fire someone who perpetuates it.

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