Someone who shouldn’t take the field

If a student-athlete gets bad grades, they’re likely to become academically ineligible and not be allowed to play sports.

If a student-athlete gets caught drinking underage, they’re likely to sit a few games.

If a student-athlete gets convicted of rape, he’s welcomed back to his team with open arms. At least, that’s how Steubenville High School views things.

Ma’lik Richmond was one of two Steubenville Big Red football players convicted of the August 2012 rape of a 16-year-old girl. Richmond, a minor at the time, served nine months in a juvenile detention facility. He was released in January and is once again suiting up for the school’s football team.

Trent Mays, the other young man convicted, still is serving a two-year sentence.

Usually, I am all for second chances; I wrote a column in this same spot a year ago saying how everyone deserves them. And, I think Richmond has every right to a second chance at getting an education and leading a productive life if he takes proper steps to show he’s turning his life around. But the privilege of playing high school football is something that should have been lost the second he was found guilty of a disgusting crime.

I use the word privilege because that’s what playing high school sports should be. Not everyone deserves the chance. It’s not a right to participate in extracurricular activities, it’s a privilege and one that could be lost if situations warrant it. While I firmly believe minor offenses can be forgiven, major offenses – such as ones that require you to register as a Tier II sex offender for the next 20 years – should end a high school athletic career.

For years before this rape case drew national attention, Steubenville was accused of being a community that put winning football games above all else. In the past two years, nothing has changed to alter that perception and, in fact, that notion has all but been cemented.

Morals? Common decency? A basic sense of right and wrong? All take a backseat to winning on Friday nights. Steubenville is sending a loud and clear message that anything, even rape, will be overlooked if someone can run fast and catch a football.

The message is sent that even committing the most heinous of offenses will be forgiven. You serve a relatively small amount of time in relation to the nature of your crime, then get right back on the field, all is forgiven.

The message really sent is that nothing has changed in the Ohio River community. The culture around the town is the same as it was two years ago that allowed a girl to get raped, and it’s only a matter of time before it happens again.

It seems the only lesson learned was how to cover it up better.

Some would argue the nine months Richmond served was nowhere near justice for his role in this crime. Truth is, it was lucky anything was done at all.

A grand jury indicted several adults and members of the Steubenville school system for their roles in a cover-up. The highest profile adult is Steubenville City Schools Superintendent Michael McVey, whose trial begins today on charges of obstructing justice, tampering with evidence and falsification related to this rape and another involving Steubenville baseball players in April 2012.

I think it’s disgusting and an absolute shame Richmond is allowed to play football again. But truth is, he might be the least disgusting individual in this ordeal.

Steubenville football coach Reno Saccoccia, who was implicated but never indicted in the cover-up, is the one welcoming him back, saying he’s “earned his second chance.” The Steubenville media has praised Richmond’s return to the field, treating him as a conquering hero come home. The Steubenville fans, mostly adults who live or die based on a game played by kids, are on message boards already cheering him on.

Who care’s about the victim or the crimes he committed. Richmond can help them win football games.

Change needs to happen. An online petition at calling for Richmond’s removal from the team already has collected over 30,000 signatures. While it’s unlikely to have an effect on a morally bankrupt system, voices still can be heard. Protests can be conducted at games, speaking out against the culture and the treatment of women. Schools can step up and refuse to play a team that celebrates a convicted rapist.

While it might be too late to affect Richmond, steps need to be taken to stop any similar incident from happening. The Ohio High School Athletic Association’s hands are tied, as it has nothing in its bylaws regulating off-the-field offenses. That needs to change as soon as possible. The Ohio Department of Education can be called upon to pass rules preventing sex offenders from playing sports. The Steubenville Board of Education, above all others, can finally usher in change. It can hand down the discipline no one else is town wants to give to its football hero.

The really twisted part is that Saccoccia and the team don’t even seem to care about Richmond. Think about the abuse he’s likely to endure. The chants from the stands, the comments from opponents. Why would you want to subject any kid to that kind of abuse? If you were really looking out for a kid’s well-being, why would you put him in a position where he’s likely to get cheap-shotted, yelled at or worse?

But, hey, none of that matters. There are football games to win.