Criminals, Justice, and Football

The name Ma’lik Richmond might not mean anything to you, but he was at the center of a scandal five years ago that many will never forget. Some won’t even forgive.

Richmond was one of two football players from Steubenville High School in Ohio convicted in juvenile court for the rape of a minor. The details are gruesome. From the trial transcripts:

…at about midnight, the intoxicated victim left a party with four football players. They went to a second party where the victim vomited and appeared “out of it.” The same group left after about 20 minutes, and headed to the home of one of the witnesses. In the backseat of the car during the 15-minute trip, her shirt was removed and Trent Mays digitally penetrated the victim’s vagina and exposed her breasts while his friends filmed and photographed her. In the basement of the house, Mays attempted to orally rape the victim by forcing his penis into her mouth. Now unconscious, she was stripped naked and the second accused, Ma’lik Richmond, also digitally penetrated the victim’s vagina. She was again photographed. Three witnesses took the photos back to the second party and shared them with friends.

Despicable.

The story goes much deeper than this, including potential cover-ups by coaches and school officials, but for the sake of today’s story, this involves Richmond and his standing on the Youngstown State football team, which he joined in January as a walk-on after taking classes in the fall of 2016.

Since joining the team several months ago, more than 10,000 people signed a petition to prevent Richmond from every playing a down for the Penguins.

“The University is fully aware of the gravity of the situation and of petitions that are circulating on social media in protest and support of one of our students, Ma’lik Richmond. We value the input of the entire YSU community and are committed to providing a safe learning environment and growth opportunities for all students, faculty and staff.”

After serving 10 months of a one-year sentence several years ago, Youngstown State now offered Richmond a chance to rebuild his life. Yet because of public pressure, the school buckled to their demands and will force Richmond to sit out this entire season. He’ll be able to practice, just not play in any games. This is absurd.

If you believe Richmond should still be in prison; that his sentence was too light…fine. You may be right. I may even agree with you. But how is that a Youngstown State problem? I have never understood why people continually expect football teams, in college or the pros, to serve as the ultimate governors of justice for its players.

If a player, like in Richmond’s case, has been convicted of a crime and served his sentence as determined by the court system, shouldn’t he be free to pursue whatever his talents and dreams allow? Not every crime carries a life sentence, yet time and again we have seen athletes run afoul of the law only to return to radical protests after they’ve served their sentence.

“But football is a PRIVILEGE!” they’ll tell you. Um…okay. So is going to the movies. So is staying in a nicer hotel. Football is a privilege to those who are talented enough to play it. Just like working at SpaceX is a privilege for those smart enough to build spaceships. All of us are privileged to do certain things based on our talents, our work ethic, and our desires.

The reason people are so furious when someone like Ma’lik Richmond, or Michael Vick, or Ezekiel Elliott, want to play football again is very simple: jealousy. Football players are part of a lucrative entertainment business. To varying extents, they are public figures. It’s easier to point to a pro athlete who has served literal jail time for committing a crime than it is to someone who works at, say, Disney World. We see football players on TV, or on billboards, or wherever, and we deify them. To the average fan, they are larger than life.

Because football is so visible, players become an easy target for social justice warriors to align in their crosshairs. If Richmond wanted to join the marching band, would there be a petition? No chance. Playing the tuba at halftime is no more of a privilege than playing middle linebacker. Just because more people want to be middle linebackers than tuba players doesn’t change that.

Football is one of – not the only, but one of – many great ways for a student with a troubled past to help right their own path. It just happens to be one of the most visible.

If an individual team, or school, does not want to accept a student/athlete like Richmond into its organization based on his or her past, that is completely acceptable. The SEC, for instance, has a rule in place preventing anyone with a history of domestic violence from transferring to one of its 14 schools. That’s well within the league’s right to do so. If you want to applaud them for taking a stand against one of the most dangerous issues in our society today, go right ahead.

But why can’t we also applaud Youngstown State for, by all accounts, doing its best to help rehabilitate a young man’s life after going through every possible step of the legal process after committing a crime?

The school’s official statement in response to the protests included these three paragraphs:

Ma’lik Richmond transferred to Youngstown State University in good standing from his prior institution for Fall 2016. After matriculating at YSU, he expressed a desire to try out for the football program. Ma’lik was advised by the coaching staff that if he integrated himself within the campus community academically and socially and completed the fall semester in good standing, further discussions could occur…

YSU does not restrict any student’s ability to take part in extracurricular activities as long as they are in good standing with the institution. YSU believes that extracurricular activities assist in a student’s ability to succeed.

The school did not simply welcome Richmond back with open arms. It understood the gravity of the situation, and placed very explicit guidelines for Richmond to follow if he wanted to play football for the Penguins. By all accounts, Richmond had followed them until now. But because of one simple thing – jealousy – Richmond will have to continue to pay the price for the worst decision of his life, even after a court of law deemed his penance had been paid. Hopefully the Youngstown State football program doesn’t abandon him like some corners of society have.

I’m sure many will read this and accuse me of being sympathetic to rapists. That couldn’t be further from the truth. The point I’m making today is that if you have a moral opposition to anyone convicted of sexual violence ever living a normal life again…take it up with our government. Not our football teams.

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