Look at story through the lens of recovery, not outrage
August 24, 2014

By JOHN ZIEGLER , Herald-Star

In the never-ending saga that the news media has erroneously called the "Steubenville Rape Case," yet another chapter is in the process of unfolding. Ma'lik Richmond, one of the two Steubenville High School students convicted of crimes in the episode, has served his time and returned to school. He has also now returned to the football team for his senior year.
In a remotely normal situation this would not even be local news. However, in this case, where almost all the typical rules of engagement have been dramatically altered, this development has garnered major attention from national news organizations. Most of that coverage has had the underlying premise that there is something wrong with Richmond playing football for Big Red. Some of it has even used this occurrence to try and justify the media's original (and completely bogus) "football cover-up" narrative surrounding the case.

For those in the national media who would have zero chance of correctly pronouncing Big Red coach Reno Saccoccia's last name or explaining why Harding Stadium is nicknamed "Death Valley," Richmond being on the team is further evidence that football runs Steubenville. To them, it is obvious that Richmond is being allowed to play football only because Saccoccia will do anything to win and that the school and town will go along with anything he wants as long as he does.

Of course, they only believe that mythology because it fits a false narrative about this case which they created to begin with. There was no football cover-up (or, in my view, any type of cover-up) in this case and that is why Saccoccia, despite the best efforts of a prosecution team desperate to save face, was not indicted.

As for Richmond, while it is highly politically incorrect to even suggest this, he is now extremely close to becoming one of the many victims in this whole sad affair. Yes, he was convicted of a serious crime (one which was very different from public perception), but he profusely apologized to the female victim in open court and he served his sentence exactly as the court demanded.

In the overwhelming majority of similar cases with a juvenile conviction, we would not even know Ma'lik Richmond's name and he would now be able to go with his life as normally as possible. However, thanks to an inexplicable decision by the judge in the case and the news media having no apprehension about publicizing his name, this has obviously not been allowed to happen. Consequently, a routine judgment which would ordinarily get zero scrutiny is now suddenly a national issue.

It is very important to point out that the key decisions in the process of Richmond returning to the Big Red football team had nothing at all to do with coach Saccoccia.

According to my non-football-related sources, the school board voted to keep Richmond from participating in extracurricular activities during his junior year (when he theoretically could have joined the basketball team), but to allow him to play sports as a senior. The board and the courts also required Richmond to meet several very serious goals for him to be eligible and, thanks to (at least so far) mature decisions on his part, Ma'lik upheld his part of that deal. Therefore, the only real choice Saccoccia made here was to not proactively ban an eligible student from the team, which would have been both unfair and nearly unprecedented.

The reality is that the (mostly liberal) critics of Richmond playing are being extremely hypocritical. Richmond served his sentenced, is a student in good standing and has so far achieved all of the goals laid out for him. Even the victim's attorney has been quoted as supporting the decision and saying, "it's good that he's in a disciplined program." Left to its natural progression, there is even an outstanding chance that some good can come out of what has been so far been a tremendous travesty on numerous levels.
By all accounts, Richmond is going to have an incredible senior season and may even get to complete what should be an inspiring story of redemption with some sort of a college scholarship. Unfortunately, Richmond will also face far more challenges than anyone else in his position ever has before and, ironically, the better he plays, the more overwhelming they will get.

Because everyone (including opposing teams and fans) knows his name, he will certainly face taunting on a daunting scale. Because of the nature of his crime and the publicity which surrounded it, he will be tempted off the field in ways to which the average person could never relate. And, if he is the star on the field many expect him to be, he will certainly bring even more national news media and critical analysis.

In short, if Richmond is somehow able to navigate this minefield he will have more than deserved his second chance.

As this angle of the story develops, I hope that the news media will act remotely consistent with their normal rules and see all of this through the lens of real recovery rather than phony outrage. Given how poorly they have performed over most of the past two years here, I won't be remotely surprised if they fail yet again in this test.

(Ziegler, a former Steubenville TV sportscaster, can be reached through www.JohnZiegler.com)

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