In an open letter to Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross after the 2011-2012 NFL season, Beached Miami Damn Dolphins columnist Nathaniel Sandler made a bold claim: “Football is the most important thing in America.” As a sports fan who is not particularly fanatic about American football, I first considered the claim a ridiculous exaggeration. Then Sandler’s brief explanation made me realize what he meant by it, and why it was not only not a ridiculous claim but possibly true.
Football is the most important thing in America. I have made that declaration to football fans and football haters alike and it has never met with disagreement because it’s undeniable. More than 100 million people watched the last Super Bowl while countless others invest significant portions of their day-to-day lives in the minutiae of pro football. There is no cultural phenomenon with a stronger draw on the American public, week in, week out, than football. I imagine you [Stephen Ross] know this. I imagine that’s why you bought the Miami Dolphins, to benefit financially from something people pour their hearts, and cash, into like frenzied celebrants. People like me.
I bring Sandler’s claim up here because we may soon find out whether football is in fact the most important thing in America. I am not referring to the ongoing NFL playoffs, currently being watched by tens of millions of Americans, or to the upcoming Superbowl, which will surely draw a gabillion pairs of eyeballs on February 3.
I am referring rather to the now notorious Steubenville rape case. The horrific story has gone viral but for those who have somehow missed it, here’s the New Yorker’s synopsis:
We worry that everyone surrenders too much of their privacy on social media but, without the oversharing, things in Steubenville, Ohio, might have gone very differently. The underlying story is familiar enough: last August, a young woman, who had been out partying with members of the Big Reds, a high-school football team, woke up alone and, reportedly, with little memory of the night before. It took a couple of days to piece it all together; gossip had to fill in the gaps. What emerged was terrifying: rumor had it that she’d been repeatedly sexually assaulted at several parties, publicly dragged from house to house, unconscious, as a “joke.” Her parents went to the police.
For a much longer accounting, read the New York Times’ Dec. 16 story, “Rape Case Unfolds on Web and Splits City”.
It’s a deeply disturbing case, even more so when you learn that the alleged perpetrators and some witnesses gleefully shared digital content — tweets, photos, even a video — that bragged about the ongoing assault while chronicling its sickening progress. This photo, for example, is perhaps the main reason this story has gotten so much more attention than most rape cases.
What you’re seeing there is two muscly dudes dragging an incapacitated girl (the victim, if it needed to be clarified) around by her limbs like a … forget metaphor. Let’s just say like someone about to be raped.
With so much troubling circumstantial evidence online, you would think that the perpetrators in this story would be certainly SCREWED. Right? Maybe not. See, football may well be the most important thing in America, but it is definitely the most important thing in Steubenville, and at least some of the “boys will be boys” who allegedly raped this girl were on Big Red, Steubenville’s beloved high school football team. These include Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, both 16 years old, who are the only two people who have been arrested in connection with the incident (they are awaiting a Feb. 13 trial).
As chronicled in the Times’ story linked above, the rape has divided Steubenville between those who have rushed to defend Big Red’s reputation and those who think its football players believe they can get away with anything (except, perhaps, losing too many football games). But the “Roll Big Red” side of the divide suggests a fealty to football that no amount of heinousness could break. Here are some quotes from the Times’ story:
“The rape was just an excuse, I think,” said the 27-year-old Hubbard, who is No. 2 on the Big Red’s career rushing list. “What else are you going to tell your parents when you come home drunk like that and after a night like that?” said Hubbard, who is one of the team’s 19 coaches. “She had to make up something. Now people are trying to blow up our football program because of it.”
… more than a dozen people interviewed last month who were critical of the football team and its protected status, real or perceived, did not want their names used in connection with comments about the team, for fear of retribution from Big Red football fans.
Which brings me back to my faint suspicion that we are about to find out whether football is the most important thing in America. For if this case does not get a fair and thorough run through the American judicial system — and that’s already looking unlikely — then we will have to concede that football is indeed the most important thing in America, more important even than securing justice for a teenage girl who may never again be whole.