Column: The Kids Who Suffer Because Adults Love Football Too Much
While we’re still in the season, let’s give thanks to Mike DeWine, a former U.S. senator who has made good in his second life as the attorney general of Ohio.
Unlike most law enforcement officials, DeWine didn’t rest on his laurels after the conviction in March of two high school football players from Steubenville, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, for raping an unconscious 16-year-old girl at a party. He embarked on a second phase, empaneling a grand jury to look into the conduct of the not-so-innocent bystanders and adults who didn’t do anything about it, even as nude photos of the victim spread on the Internet.
DeWine asked, “How do you hold kids accountable if you don’t hold the adults accountable?” DeWine’s grand jury returned the last of its indictments on Nov. 25. Among those charged with protecting athletes over cooperating with the police are the school’s director of technology, a volunteer coach who allowed the underage drinking and the school superintendent, Michael McVey, who was charged with obstructing justice and tampering with evidence.
Only the power of high school athletics can explain why, despite what looked like incriminating evidence, head coach Reno Saccoccia was spared. At the players’ trial, an email from Mays was read in which he recounted the coach’s response. “I got Reno. He took care of it ... even if they did take it to court.” In another, he said the coach treated the whole thing like a joke. After Mays’ conviction, Saccoccia’s contract for administrative services was renewed.
In explaining why the investigation would probably end without the indictments of all those who behaved horribly, DeWine explained the need for probable cause. “It is simply not sufficient that a person’s behavior was reprehensible, disgusting, mean-spirited or just plain stupid,” he said.
The Steubenville teenagers didn’t even feel the need to keep their reprehensible acts secret. Rather, they recorded them. No one helped the stricken girl. The party-goers cheered on the players, helped carry her like a rag doll in and out of a car by her ankles and wrists, took pictures and later bragged on social media about urinating on the victim.
The case is reminiscent of what happened at Penn State University, where the forces of football and the fiction of sex not really being a crime combined to shield coach Jerry Sandusky. Those in charge ignored the assaults on children going on under their noses. Punishment finally came, but not until after the lives of many more boys were ruined.
Yet there’s a paradox at the core of our cult of football. On the one hand, the players are coddled and adulated to the point where their violent sexual behavior is covered up by adults. On the other, these same players are put at risk of their very lives, limbs and brains by these very same adults.
The most gung-ho coach can no longer ignore evidence incriminating them in putting their charges at grave risk. Football is a documented danger to the kids who play it, and helmets don’t help. In early November, a high school player in Arizona died from a traumatic brain injury suffered during a playoff game. In October, a 15-year-old in Virginia died during practice after suffering a concussion in a game. Hurt players continue playing so they can go on to college ball, like the running back at New Jersey’s Marist High School who sustained a concussion, returned to playing, lost consciousness again and intends to go back as soon as his blood clot stabilizes.
The danger doesn’t stop with kids. Former NFL quarterback Brett Favre disclosed that he had suffered multiple concussions and that he couldn’t remember whether his daughter played soccer (she did) or what team he was playing for.
In August, the National Football League settled for a reported $765 million a lawsuit by more than 4,500 ailing former players who charged the league with concealing the dangers of concussions and rushing injured players back onto the field while profiting from the bone-jarring hits that make for spectacular highlight reels.
At least those who play professional ball are well-compensated adults who can assess the risks. It’s worse for school kids whose parents don’t know how coaches are treating their charges.
One of the more heartbreaking injuries happened to 22-year-old fullback Derek Sheely, whose parents dropped him off at Frostburg State University in Maryland one week, found him in a coma the next and dead shortly after that. During a practice in which players were told to run full force into others who weren’t allowed to defend themselves, Sheely said he didn’t feel right. His coach, according to the lawsuit, screamed at him to stop his moaning and get back out there. Sheely collapsed and never regained consciousness.
His parents didn’t know what had happened until a teammate wrote to tell them. When they contacted National Collegiate Athletic Association President Mark Emmert, he responded that risk can’t be removed from contact sports and directed them to safety information on the NCAA’s website.
Adults are failing the young in two ways: By exposing them to grievous harm for entertainment and profit, and for the moral injury that played out in Steubenville. Thank goodness Republican DeWine lost his Senate seat in 2006 for being insufficiently conservative and supporting gun control. It’s a far better thing he’s done in Ohio than he could have ever done in Washington.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.