Steubenville is as Steubenville does

Steubenville High School extends football coach Reno Saccoccia despite race case controversy

It seems that winning can eventually mask even the lurid scandals in professional sports. And it appears the magical healing power of victory also lends itself to the competitive world of big-time, small-town, Friday Night Lights-style high school football, where even repugnant off-the-field behavior is overlooked when you’ve got championship pedigree on your side.

On Friday, the school board in the city of Steubenville, Ohio, approved a two-year contract extension for Steubenville High School football coach Reno Saccoccia, a development first brought to light by the Herald Star, which reported on the minutes of a 25-minute school board meeting; there was no pomp or circumstance. It was later confirmed by the Atlantic Wire. And on the surface, the move seems logical, if not obvious, given Saccoccia's on-field resume in his three decades at the 700-student public school, located along the Ohio River, about 40 miles from Pittsburgh.

The 63-year-old has been the head coach of the team since 1983, and in that time, his teams have won more than 300 games and three state championships while churning out some of Ohio’s top prep talent. He’s a local legend with deep ties to the industrial, Ohio Valley town of 19,000, where the football field is named in his honor and his football prowess seemingly puts him above the law.

Unfortunately, Saccoccia reportedly abused that status — and perhaps even broke the law himself — in the aftermath of an August 2012 rape involving two of his players. And for that reason alone, one can’t help but wonder why he’s not only being tolerated on the Big Red sideline, but also being rewarded for it and asked to stay a while longer.

The story starts Aug. 11, at an end-of-summer party, where two Steubenville players sexually assaulted a drunk and incapacitated 16-year-old girl from West Virginia with several other Steubenville students in attendance.

Eleven days later, after rumors started circulating and photos and video from the night started making the rounds, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond were arrested on rape charges. On March 17 of this year, Mays, 17, and Richmond, 16, were found guilty of the rape, a crime that could keep the pair locked up in a juvenile detention facility until they're 21.

What happened in between is damning for Saccoccia to say the least, and one would like to imagine that it should have been hard for the school board to overlook.

First, Saccoccia didn’t suspend the players for their alleged actions until eight games into the season, more than two months after the charges were filed. And Saccoccia claimed that he hadn't seen the videos, photos and comments from the night posted online, telling one reporter that he didn't "do the internet," before making a veiled threat at the reporter in question.

However, text messages published during the March trial told a different story.

"I got Reno," one text from Mays read. "He took care of it and s--t ain't gonna happen, even if they did take it to court. Like he was joking about it so I’m not worried."

Another indicated that Saccoccia was familiar with the video, which included — among other questionable comments — an off-camera voice directly implicating Mays and Richmond. "Delete that off You-tube," the text read. "Coach Sac knows about it. Seriously delete it."

Another player, Anthony Craig, had a nude photo of the victim from the night of the assault on his phone, but showed little concern that he could be in trouble, texting a friend, "I got Reno. Nothing’s gonna happen if it goes to court." The trial also revealed that Mays sent a text message to the victim, which read, "Reno just called my house and said I raped you."

It’s still not clear, of course, what Saccoccia knew or didn’t know — and we may never know for sure what role he played in the cover-up at all, though Ohio state Attorney General Mike DeWine is currently investigating parents, coaches and school officials who may have attempted to hide the rape. But, nevertheless, it’s hard to believe that common sense didn’t prevail in the handling of Saccoccia’s case.

After the rape trial had ended, Steubenville City Schools released a statement that read, in part, “To the best of our knowledge, everyone associated with Steubenville City Schools — students and employees — have cooperated, as we have encouraged them to do." The statement also added that, "it was impossible not to ask what we might have done differently to prevent this horrible event from occurring."

But words mean little in the wake of something like this. It’s too late to wonder what might have kept this instance from happening in the first place. But unfortunately, the Steubenville board doesn’t seem interested in taking steps to restore the balance of power in its town and at its schools and assure that such a situation doesn’t arise again.

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