Commentary is worth very little without context. More often than not, merely asking the how and the why of a given event is insufficient to understanding anything beyond a two dimensional facsimile of what took place. In order to mine the depths of tragedy and unearth knowledge that effects the future as well as the present, you need to ask about the where. During the near hysterical media coverage of the Steubenville rape trial these past couple of months, the where has been largely absent. We heard detailed accounts of how a 16 year old girl was brutally and ritualistically abused by two members of the city’s prized high school football team while blurred out pictures of the then unconscious girl’s half-naked, limp body were making the rounds on cable news and social media. Pundits and field reporters were quick to offer their opinions on the matter with little forethought or prudence, leaving audiences to digest wave after wave of stale platitudes and hypothetical questions. How could this have happened? Are the parents to blame for this? How could these children sit back and watch as a young girl was sexually violated, much less laugh and tweet about it? These are the questions we ask every time a particularly high profile and gruesome act like this comes to light and they’re all impractically vague and very nearly unanswerable. When it comes to a societally sanctioned and virally disseminated rape like the one in Steubenville or a senseless destruction of innocent human life like those that took place in Aurora or Newtown, the whys are largely philosophical. It’s the wheres that cut to the quick and give us the foundation upon which all other questions can be answered.
Despite being a native son of Ohio, I had no clue where Steubenville was before the rape trial became a national story. The way I’ve always viewed it, you can divide The Buckeye State into four economically and culturally distinct chunks, with residence in one chunk not guaranteeing much intimate knowledge of the other three. I grew up Cincinnati, which serves as the epicenter of Southwest Ohio, a fact that muddles things a bit geographically, as my hometown is nestled snugly in the most Southwesterly corner of the state. Thus, while Southwest Ohio encompasses the metro Dayton area to the north, it also absorbs parts of Northern Kentucky and Southeast Indiana to the south and west. Sitting on the banks of the Ohio River, Cincinnati is a sort of gateway to the south where Midwestern niceties and Southern hospitality struggle to coexist with Catholic orthodoxy. Industry has more or less thrived in this region of the state, escaping the trap of the rust belt through a concentration of Fortune 500 companies—9 to be exact—in Cincinnati alone, along with the gargantuan presence of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base outside of Dayton. Race is, arguably, more of an issue here than anywhere else in the state, evidenced by the area’s heavily segregated neighborhoods and the fact that Cincinnati was the last major US city to have a race riot back in the summer of 2001.
The northern portion of Ohio is that traditionally rustiest of rust belt areas where the automotive and steel industries spurred on tremendous growth for much of the 20th century, only to slip out in the dead of night leaving labor holding the bill. In the north, Cleveland and Toledo have been able to diversify their workforces and create a number of jobs outside the manufacturing sector, most notably in healthcare and education with 37,000 workers finding employment at the internationally renowned Cleveland Clinic and the University of Toledo recently usurping Jeep as that region’s largest employer. However, in small and medium sized rust belt cities like Youngstown and Canton, the shift from manufacturing to service jobs hasn’t been enough to slow their disintegration. Central Ohio, the third chunk on our list is an anomaly due to the unchecked growth of Columbus, Ohio, a city which doubles as the state’s capital and as the home to The Ohio State University, which sports the largest campus in the nation. With the abundance of government and education jobs in the Greater Columbus area, this portion of the state would seem to be tailor-made for a 21st century American economy that has yet to find a way to ship these sorts of jobs overseas.
Finally, we have Southeastern Ohio, an area that defined by its geography so much as its physiography. Southeastern Ohio is what would could be classified as “the boonies” of the state. Also known as Appalachian Ohio due to its location at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, Southeastern Ohio bears more in common with its neighbors in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky than it does its in-state brethren. Historically poor and controlled by government and private interests from outside the area or within a small local elite, Southeastern Ohio has been the poster child for the necessity of an all out assault on poverty that has been severely lacking since the Reagan 80s. Of course, residents of towns like Portsmouth and Steubenville and Marietta have been hurting to various degrees for centuries now, serving as a catchment area for extreme rural poverty since the state’s founding in 1803.
Looking at a map of glacial movement and aquifer concentration, it’s not difficult to see how the lines of prosperity were drawn long before white settlers first crossed over the Appalachians. The boundaries marking glacial drift during the last ice age clearly show that where the glaciers stopped, the impoverished southeast section of Ohio begins. At the height of the Last Glacial Period, a continental ice sheet laid across much of the Upper Midwest, extending as far south the Ohio River in the area around Cincinnati. When it reached it’s maximum size, the glacier cut a seam across much of Ohio, beginning in Adams County to the south and extending to Columbia County in the east. All in all, about 1/3 of Ohio remained unglaciated, leaving the Southeast portion of the state with no glacial aquifers and, as a result, very little in the way of groundwater for irrigation and well creation. The fertile land that can be found plains near Lake Erie and throughout the western part of the state is all but absent from Appalachian Ohio.
When the agricultural deficiencies of the land are considered with the centuries long history of worker exploitation by a small, often non-resident elite, and a lack of opportunities for class mobility and occupational advancement, poverty has become endemic to this region in ways that beggar belief. A glance at the maps above and below clearly show how closely the glacial movement more than 20,000 years ago mirrors the levels of poverty in Ohio today. Not a single county in Appalachian Ohio has even one school district with fewer than 10 percent of its children living below the poverty line and the vast majority of them fall somewhere between the 20 and 40 percent mark. Outside of the hyper-concentrated poverty of places like inner cities of Cincinnati & Cleveland, no portion of the state even begins to approach the level of want in Appalachian Ohio.
Now, what does this all have to do with the Steubenville Rape Trial? Well, from my perspective, quite a lot. According to data collected by the US Census Bureau, it is estimated that 27.5% of the population of the city of Steubenville earns an annual income that places them below the Federal Poverty Line.1 Allow me to repeat myself: more than ¼ of the city of Steubenville lives in poverty. By way of comparison, this same study showed that 22.4% of Baltimore city residents and 26.1% of Newark residents lived below the poverty line. When you’re outgunning two of the poster children for East Coast post-industrial blight in the race to the bottom of the economic hill, you know you’re in dire straits.2 The economic erosion in in Steubenville has led to a steady exodus of the city’s residents, with its 2011 population of 18,659 clocking in at less than half of what it was at the city’s peak in 1940. And, if you were hoping for any sort of civic leadership to help buoy the spirits of this downtrodden town, you would be predictably disappointed. Steubenville has a reputation for corruption in both local government and law enforcement, as the city’s police department lost so many lawsuits for civil rights violations that they had to sign a consent decree with the Federal government saying that they would take measures to ensure this pattern of civil rights violation was ceased. When it comes down to it, the only thing Steubenville really had to be proud about was their high school football team. Big Red was all they had left.
To someone who is from maybe New Hampshire or Washington state (no disrespect intended), it might be difficult to imagine how a high school football team could be so important to people, especially those folks who didn’t have a son going to two-a-days over the summer or a daughter on the cheerleading squad. But, to say that Steubenville High’s football team was anything less than the lifeblood of that community would be to do a disservice to just how much those people love that team. With the possible exception of Texas, there is no state in all of god’s green goodness that eats, sleeps, breathes and shits football more than Ohio. While the film and TV versions of Friday Night Lights were set in the Lone Star State, the original book by Buzz Bissinger was the story of a season in the town of Massillon, Ohio, a mere 70 miles away from Steubenville. That the Professional Football Hall of Fame is in Canton, Ohio is no accident. In The Buckeye State, football is a religion and most everyone goes to worship on Friday nights or Saturday afternoons. In small towns and in big cities, old men sit around coffee shops, water coolers and kitchen tables, evaluating incoming classes of their alma mater like they were paid scouts for the Cleveland Browns. This is where places like Steubenville forge their identity because, well, where else would they?
If you think I’m being glib or exaggerating, I encourage you to go to Steubenville High’s Big Red Football website. Once you get past the fact that it looks like the website was designed back in 1997, you’ll notice that there’s a countdown clock prominently displayed in the page’s center, letting you know in weeks, days, hours, minutes, seconds and milliseconds, just how far away kickoff of the 2013 season is. Above the clock is a banner that scrolls across the screen, letting you know that the team was established back in 1897 and describing it as Ohio’s first dynasty. We are told that Big Red football is, “keeping Steubenville on the map,” which they indeed have, but not in the manner the team’s fans anticipated. Before the rape trial, Steubenville High was known as a traditional powerhouse in Ohio high school football. Steubenville High have been state champions 9 times, including back-to-back championships in 2005 and 2006. From 2001 to 2009, the team didn’t lose a single home game and this past season marked the 12 consecutive season they’ve made the state playoffs.
The two teenagers who were convicted of rape this week, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, played quarterback and wide receiver for Big Red, a detail which may not seem to matter to those who don’t follow football, but which actually makes a psychological difference. There is no position in all of sports that provides quite as much prestige as quarterback, while wide receivers are widely venerated as flashy skill position players. In a town where high school football is everything, these two men, both 16 at the time of the rape, occupied a place in Steubenville’s hierarchy of prestige higher than most everyone in town save the team’s coach, Reno Saccoccia. These boys had their insular world in the palms of their hands and they likely believed that they could do anything short of murder and get away with it. During the trial, it was revealed that many of the players on the team had sent text messages back and forth to each other, saying that Coach Reno would take care of the situation and make sure things got swept under the rug. Had the case not become national news and had it not become a pet project of the online group Anonymous, I’d imagine that the young men would have gotten off with little more than a slap on the wrist. Ultimately, what made this particular rape categorically different than the 87,000 other rapes that happen in America every year, was how public it was and how callous everyone involved seemed to be. As time passes, I would imagine that this will become a case study in how the bystander effect translates to social media. Here you have a young woman, unconscious for more than 6 hours and being sexually violated in front of her peers and no one even raises their voice in protest.
Shortly after Mays and Richmond were sentenced, as juveniles and with minimum sentences of 2 years and 1 year respectively, Ohio Attorney General Mike Dewine announced that the state would be opening up a grand jury investigation concerning the roles other members of the community played in facilitating or covering up the rape. I have very little doubt that Coach Reno will be found to have at least attempted to tamper with evidence and that the efforts to dismiss or ignore the case were systemic and widespread. I would imagine that the first impulse of many folks in Steubenville and especially those associated with the team was to circle the wagons and work on damage control. If the Penn State scandal has taught us anything, it is that there are no lengths to which school administrators and coaches won’t go to protect sexual predators if it means the survival of their livelihoods and their football program.
Much fuss was made recently when the lawyer for the two young men went on TV after the trial to say that he would be appealing the case based on the fact that the brains of his clients weren’t fully developed. Predictably, there was outrage and, also predictably, most of those who were outraged missed the point. Besides the fact that, as a defense lawyer, it is your job to appeal a decision if your client has been convicted of a crime, the argument concerning brain development is 100% scientifically proven. We know that the prefrontal cortex, which is the section of the brain responsible for our self control and decision making, doesn’t fully develop until the age of 25. That the two young men who committed this horrible crime have brains that still have a fair bit of growing to do isn’t debatable. More than anything, it helps explain how such a pervasive culture of rape and degradation could be allowed to take root and how these young men could make such rash, unfeeling decisions. None of this excuses anything they did. They took something from that young girl that she will never be able to get back and which will likely psychologically traumatize her for life. Their age does not excuse them from responsibility for destructive actions, but it helps to explain how they happened. It is a point that should not be dismissed, but examined, because these are not evil children. Outside of sociopathy, I don’t believe that there is any such thing as intrinsic evil. These are two young men who grew up in a society that allowed them to live their lives in a million little increments that got them to the point where they feel entitled to rape an unconscious girl and send pictures of it out to their friends. This is bigger than two teenagers, just as it is bigger than the town of Steubenville. Sexual violence is linked to physical violence and physical violence is linked to economic violence. This is context. This is what we should talk about when we talk about rape. Sexual abuse doesn’t occur in a vacuum; it is but a symptom of a larger sickness and you don’t treat symptoms. You treat the disease.
1All information regarding individual city poverty levels can be found at the US Census Bureau’s American Fact Finder: http://factfinder2.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/searchresults.xhtml?refresh=t
2Just for the sake of argument, here are some of the unemployment numbers for some of the biggest casualties of the disappearance of American industry: a) Detroit, MI – 36.2%, b) Camden, NJ – 38.4%, c) Flint, MI – 38.2%, d) Gary, IN – 35.9%, e) Youngstown, OH – 33.8%