We need better heroes: Steubenville and the Cult of the American Athlete

I was born and raised in a backwater in rural Maryland, in a small town much like Steubenville, Ohio. Steubenville’s latest claim to fame is the extremely disturbing rape committed, recorded, and broadcast to the world by 16-year old high-school football players.

Both athletes were both convicted of rape.

CNN responded by fawning about how “incredibly difficult” it was to watch, “as these two young men – who had such promising futures, star football players, very good students – literally watched as they believed their life fell apart.”

What? They knew exactly what they were doing. Perhaps if they cared about their football future they would have avoided raping an innocent girl.

CNN’s response is predictable, if perverted. Sadly, it’s deeply seated in America’s weird culture of sports-worship.

There are hundreds of other Steubenvilles (or Paternos) waiting to happen. It’s likely that thousands more have already happened and we don’t know about them.

Many girls probably never speak up about rape by star athletes, because they know how their communities work.

In small towns like Steubenville, athletes are exalted as heroes. They are routinely above the law – and certainly above the implicit, unwritten rules that govern good behavior and community life.

Athletes in my hometown would avoid fines and tickets, because the police ‘knew who they were’. In school they regularly skipped or were excused from academic standards that were applied to everyone else.

Most of all, they formed an unruly, aggressive, and often cruel gang of physically intimidating young men that prowled the community. They got drunk, angry, and vandalized things. And they were the worst to girls.

On the night of the crime, the two rapists sent around a photo of their naked, unconscious victim with the caption, “Bitches is bitches. F**k ‘em”.

How did they get away with this? Because everyone let them.

They were hometown heroes, our ‘local sons’. And they could stomp around the farm because they ruled the roost.

What kind of communities raise high-school athletes above common standards of decency? A community with a collective self-esteem problem – and no sense of what it means to be a real hero.

Yes, professional athletes can model discipline, excellence, and devotion to a craft. That’s superficially heroic.

But the world is not going to change for the better because oh-my-god-my-favorite-team X just won ridiculously-expensive-tournament Y. It’s also not going to end with oh-my-god-evil-rival-team Z wins instead.

And team sports don’t always bring out the better angels of our nature – as anyone can attest who’s watched drunken ‘adult’ sports fans brawling in a stadium. It’s raw, blind tribalism.

Hollywood football dramas would make you think athlete-worship is all about camaraderie and the underdog. Where’s the feel-good-coming-of-age story when people are torching cars and raping women after the World Cup? Or when athletes are beating their girlfriends?

Let’s get real: Steubenville, Ohio football is not exactly the Super Bowl. Most of these guys were not going to become star football players anyway. But America at large, and especially small towns are so starved for heroism and excitement that 16-year old jocks fill the void.

So many people deferred to the authority of these teenage boys that they thought they could get away with public gang rape. Adults, children, other teenagers at the party – everyone submitted to the sick behavior of these junior criminals. It led to this rape.

Why the bizarre worship of these particular adolescents? Because they’re good at playing a game where you throw balls around.

Put this way, it sounds really pathetic. And it is.

That’s a tragedy in American hero culture. We worship people who play games with balls, rather than people who have them.

Across America, most community or business leaders conform to the sleepy, deadened pace and dull future that haunts anyone with aspirations who’s born in a small town. Most small-town politicians are a laughingstock, or an unimportant fixture of the federal or party bureaucracy.

With all other ground for heroism surrendered to conformity, we get ball-throwing idols, rather than idols with balls. Don’t let the phrase fool you — this includes both women and men.

Take Jack Andraka of Crownsville, Maryland, another forgettable small town. He’s sixteen, just like the Steubenville jocks – though he lacks their history of sexual abuse.

Andraka single-handedly invented an incredible new cancer screening technology in his free time. He was rejected by labs hundreds of times and told that his ideas were impossible. But Andraka has the tenacity of a true nerd. He won. (His mother says, “We don’t go to much football or baseball… we sit around the table and talk about how people came up with their ideas and what we would do differently.”)

Jack Andraka wins an award from Intel

Andraka is a community hero. He has major balls to believe in himself, in his own judgment and creativity when scientists three times his age are telling him he’s crazy.

But he doesn’t stand a chance in the American small town. He’s an enthusiastic, compassionate geek with his heart on his sleeve.

He’s made the world a better place. But many people won’t notice, because they’re too busy painting their faces for the hometeam and high-fiving in the parking lot of Nowhereville High School. Touchdowns matter more than cancer.

We ought to consider heroes that show the mastery of a craft (yes, football is included), but also show wisdom, humility, compassion, creativity, courage and Andraka’s shining virtue: intellect.

Raping an unconscious girl and bragging about it to your buddies is cowardly and cruel. Real men -– real heroes don’t do it. Not one person at that party had the balls the stand up for what was right.

The Steubenville rapists are the bitter fruit of a culture that worships malicious cowards so long as they can kick a field goal. Until that changes, we can expect more of the same.

We don’t need more exalting of men who play games with balls. Good athletes are a dime a dozen.

But to find a person with the inner strength to say no, to be courageous and open, to invent and create, to persist, to fight, to tell the truth, to stand alone when everyone has gone mad at a party or anywhere else – that’s truly rare, and all our progress depends on the ranks of this tiny band of heroes.