Harding Stadium is the home of the Steubenville Big Red football team, one of the more successful programs in the country. (Reuters | Justin Cohn)

Steubenville rape case should lead to media soul searching


Full disclosure: I write about high school sports on a part-time basis.

Most of it is obviously beneficial to the athletes, schools and communities involved. Tough to find a downside to turning a spotlight on youngsters excelling, if only as a needed counterbalance to the preponderance of negative news about adolescent behavior.

However, upon considering the relationship between high school football and the recent juvenile rape convictions in Steubenville, Ohio, clearly there can be too much of a good thing. (More full disclosure: I was raised across the river in Weirton, W.Va., the victim’s hometown.)

Exploring the coverage of the story, the root cause of the crimes and attempted cover-ups is a sense of entitlement. Big Red football, powered by longtime coach Reno Saccoccia, had become such a treasured institution that accountability and humility were left behind.

But while Steubenville gets the headlines at the moment, we’d be fools if we thought the hubris that made this awful story possible is limited to football players on the eastern edge of Ohio. This disease runs deep, and it touches countless aspects of small town America.

Media attention is largely a reflection of the importance that communities place on high school athletics, particularly boys football and basketball. Whether it’s online, in print or on radio and television, media coverage follows the level of interest that is present.

At the same time, I know for a fact that high school sports are rarely a tremendous money-maker for media companies. For the most part, amplifying the exploits of teenage athletes is an effective way to show people that their local paper/station/website cares about them. It’s good public relations.

In that vein, media professionals have a responsibility to work for the greater good of the communities they cover. Shoveling publicity on young people not yet equipped to properly handle it doesn’t strike me as a particularly prudent game plan.

I’m not trying to pull the plug on every “Friday Night Blitz” and other fun forms of prep sports enthusiasm. As I wrote above, there are many positives to encouraging impressionable students to apply themselves and excel. We could afford to spread more love in the academic sphere, but I don’t have a problem with high school sports coverage, either in theory or in practice.

Nevertheless, in the aftermath of Steubenville, everyone involved with prep-level athletics should evaluate how to avoid contributing to similar incidents in the future. Finding the line between thorough coverage and counterproductive hype would be a nice place for the media to start, myself included.

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