By Mike Bruu, TSB Sports Editor
Friday Night Lights. It has become more than just a saying in this country. It’s more like a lifestyle. From August until December, thousands of American towns close shop around 5 p.m., head to the local high school football stadium and prepare to watch a group of teenagers play a game for three and a half hours.
Some towns, like McKinney, have multiple high schools residing within it, and that allows for people from all sides of town to enjoy their local school. While the city doesn’t shut down for the game scheduled at Ron Poe Stadium, and the overall mood of the city for the following week doesn’t depend on the outcome, fans in McKinney still have a strong pride for the overall success of their teams.
However, there are towns in this country that live and die by the final score on the rusty ol’ scoreboard posted behind the end zone. A loss to their district rivals isn’t just another ‘L’ on the record, but a badge of shame that the players and coaches must wear for the entire week and a sign that things need to change. And change rather quickly.
In towns like McKinney, football players are viewed as kids that put on a helmet every week and try to represent the city with class. During school hours, players are held to similar standards as the rest of the student body. And while coaches may keep a closer eye on kids who may slack off from time to time on homework and their overall grades, nobody is walking into the teachers office after hours and making a deal to bump little Billy’s grade up a letter so he can take the field against Allen.
However, there are towns in this country whose players are not just teenagers in football uniforms, but almost revered as gods in the community. Players attend school when they choose to do so, understanding that their grades will be just fine whether they take the tests or not. After a big victory, the post-game celebration at the quarterback’s house may be keeping everyone else in the neighborhood awake with the resounding sounds of alcohol-induced festivities, but cops and the neighbors may turn their eyes away and just make sure no one gets hurt in the fun.
In Texas, the most famous case of football ruling supreme over a city came in 1988 at Dallas Carter High School, famously highlighted in H.G. Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights. The book documents the ’88 football season at Odessa Permian and the eventual state semifinal game between Permian and Carter. Bissinger discusses the situation at Carter as being a lazy culture involving its football program, as the players often skipped classes to go out for lunch, and would work out deals with teachers in order to stay eligible to play on Friday nights.
It was less than a year later that several players on the Carter football team were arrested for armed robbery, and when it was discovered that the boys had committed as many as 10 robberies prior to the title game. The most famous name of the bunch, Gary Edwards, was sentenced to 16 years in prison. Eventually, Carter’s state title was stripped from the record books after the discovery of grade changing came to the surface.
Fast forward to the present day. The biggest high school story in the country for the past few weeks has been the Steubenville rape trial in Ohio. For those who may be out of the loop, the short explanation of the events: Two Steubenville high school football players took a passed-out 16-year-old girl from party to party last August and committed egregious acts on the female, that included “digitally raping” the girl in public. Not only did the two players commit the acts, but the entire night was documented on several forms of social media. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube videos were all in play in order to document the unthinkable acts against the girl, many of which were shared from student to student in the hours following the events.
Steubenville is a town of almost 19,000 people in the far eastern part on Ohio. It sits on the border of Ohio and Pennsylvania, and over the past few years has fallen on rough times economically. What this little town is known for is not its job opportunities or economic benefits, but the product on the football field every Friday night. The Steubenville High School team is called “The Big Red” and has recorded the 20th-most wins in American high school football.
In this town, Friday nights belong to football. Players take the field with the understanding that they can be a part of history. No longer are they just 16- and 17-year old students, but they have the responsibility placed upon them by the community to go out there and win a state championship in order to make the city proud.
It isn’t just a game anymore. It’s a way of life.
According to several sources and a story reported by Deadspin.com, Steubenville head coach Reno Saccoccia may have had knowledge of the situation prior to the trial and operated in the following days to cover up the wrong-doings of his star quarterback and wide receiver. Saccorccia has a plaque in the Ohio Coaches Hall of Fame and has won three state championships for the school. According to the site Live Leaks, which was created with the assistance of hacking collective group Anonymous in order to round up leaked information about the rape case, Saccoccia would apparently eat breakfast with the sheriff regularly and had a family member employed at the county’s juvenile court.
In the followings days, text messages that were sent between students and the two players involved, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, indicated that Saccoccia knew about the rape and that the videos needed to be deleted. In his testimony, the coach came out and said that one of the defendants “developed great character, not through sports, but through overcoming struggles at home,” and that “he remains proud of the defendant.”
According to a New York Times report, the county’s prosecutor and the judge who was handling the case had to recuse themselves of the case because of ties with the team. Despite police chief William McCafferty’s efforts to encourage citiziens to provide information about the events that occurred the night of August 11, he said there was very little reaction from the townspeople.
Text messages were discovered from other Steubenville football players that gave the impression things would work out because Saccoccia “had their backs.” Players who took pictures of the rape and even those who sat around and witnessed it did so with the impression that they were untouchable. Why? Because they could play football, that’s why.
While no one besides Mays and Richmond were charged in the case, the lasting impression from this trail is that there was a strong attempt of the Steubenville football program and some city members to hide the events. Instead of feeling sympathy and bringing a sense of justice to the situation, people believed the program cared more about keeping their teenage football players out a trouble rather than helping the 16-year-old rape victim.
So how does this apply to our neck of the woods? It should give this city great pride in knowing nothing like this would ever happen in McKinney. I’m not naïve to the notion that there could be an unfortunate rape involving students at one of the high schools in town, but there would be no notion of any cover-up. MISD Athletic Director Shawn Pratt would not learn of such doings without immediately bringing them to the attention of the police. Players on the three MISD teams wouldn’t text one another thinking their coach would take care of the situation if the star quarterback took advantage of a drunken girl at a party.
Football may be the most popular sport in this city at the high school level. The names of the players may be the most popular kids at the schools. The student body may pack the stands unlike it will with any other sport. But at the end of the night, the city of McKinney and the athletic department understands it is just football. Whether it is a win or a loss, it is just football. The sun will still shine on Saturday morning. The town will still operate just fine in the following days. The only thing that changes is a number in the win-loss column.
In the end, no high school football game is more important than the moral obligations to do the right thing. No high school football player is more important than the psyche of a 16-year-old girl whose life may never be the same. No high school football team is more important than the black eye that will forever be placed upon the city for the impression that it tried to cover up a rape.
Nothing about football is that important. I don’t know about you, but I am proud to live in a city that understands that.