Roll Red Roll, a new documentary about the infamous Steubenville rape case, directed by Nancy Schwartzman, opens as so many articles have. The beats of the story—an end of summer party in a sleepy football town, an underage girl waking up to the dawning knowledge that she is now a victim—are familiar to anyone who was on the internet or read the newspaper in 2012. They are also, as the documentary suggests, familiar for other reasons.
Long before Harvey Weinstein or Me Too, the Steubenville rape case resonated with survivors who had been assaulted, either in that town or in similar towns across America. Some of the details were different, but many were the same. If the story wasn’t identical, then the aftermath nearly always was—the victim is blamed, and, out of habit or necessity, the story is erased so that life can go on as normal. Roll Red Roll often focuses on this need for normalcy, and the stubbornness with which people cling to the status quo. To admit that high school town heroes were rapists, or to accept that an incapacitated 16-year-old cannot give consent—to cop to an adult or even an entire community’s complicity, would be to articulate a problem so big, so brutal, that no one town could ever contain it.
In August 2012, Jane Doe woke up after a night out with little to no recollection of what had transpired. But the trace of what had been done to her was already online, from tweets and Instagram posts to group chats and texted pictures. Doe and her family made a police report, and detective J.P. Rigaud, the lead investigator on the case, interviewed her that afternoon. While Doe did not remember much, the police quickly honed in on two suspects: Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond.
While Jane Doe’s story followed a terrifying script—you could predict, reading accounts pasted together after the fact, what was about to happen, no matter how badly you wanted to be wrong—the Steubenville case was, in many ways, a new kind of story. For Rigaud, the case was an unprecedented challenge, given both the number of locations involved (three) and the extended cast of players, a long list of high school students who had each witnessed some piece of the puzzle. As time went on, the case also proved itself to be inextricably tied up in the social media presences of the students. Tweets and Instagram posts, some deleted, offered timelines. They also provided windows into the shockingly callous psyches of witnesses and bystanders, people who laughed at the “sloppy” young woman, or joked about rape and a “dead girl.” As prosecutor Marianne Hemmeter sees it, “The cell phones told the story.”
A week later, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond were arrested. In reporting a sexual assault, Jane Doe had set into motion a series of events that would slowly but surely throw Steubenville into complete chaos. The fault, of course, was not with her, but with a broken system of response. Reacting to Jane’s story and the subsequent investigation and arrest, the community moved to protect not the survivor but her alleged abusers. The strong, beloved football players were recast, in the words of many community members, as victims being punished for something that many people did not even see as a crime.
In interviews, locals—some with personal connections to the football team—talk around their complicated feelings on the case, often landing on the notion that boys will be boys. An antiques dealer takes pains to insist that he was not condoning the players’ actions, before bemoaning that times had changed—these days, you could go to jail for a “party that got out of hand.” In an audio clip, a radio host opines, “These girls at these parties sometimes maybe drink a little bit too much, sometimes they get a little promiscuous…It’s real easy to all of a sudden say you were taken advantage of rather than own up to the fact that, hey look, I did what I did. It’s easier to tell your parents you were raped than hey, mom, dad, I got drunk and decided to let three guys have their way with me.”
Even a female student insists, “When you put yourself in that situation, you have to take some responsibility for your actions.” In footage from police interviews, Rigaud is seen explaining basic concepts to teenagers and adults alike, like that people who are physically incapacitated cannot give consent.
In order to dismantle this rape culture, or at least draw attention to its existence, someone had to shake Steubenville residents up and force them to confront the vileness of the behavior that they were condoning. Thanks to a blogger named Alexandria Goddard, the town of Steubenville came face to face with the alleged abusers they were so quick to make excuses for. Goddard took their own social media posts—the sickening jokes and comments made by high schoolers that night—and published them on her blog. One post, an Instagram of an incapacitated girl being carried by two boys, captioned “sloppy,” induced particular disgust.
Goddard recalls piecing together a loose timeline of the assault through social media sleuthing, saying, “It was almost like watching this in real time.” She continues, “you peel one layer back and there’s something equally as rotten underneath.”
As Goddard puts it, “It wasn’t just that she was raped, they humiliated her.” When she saw grown adults victim-blaming Jane Doe online, Goddard decided it was time to share her gathered evidence. After all, she notes, “These kids were openly calling it rape. If these kids are calling it rape, they knew it was rape.”
In one sense, Roll Red Roll attempts to reinject humanity into a story that quickly became bigger than its individual players. Goddard’s attempts to shine light on the Steubenville situation quickly snowballed into controversy and media attention. The hacker group Anonymous got involved, leaking information including a disturbing video of one student alluding to the assault and mocking the victim (audio from this video, such as a voice saying “she is so raped right now” and “this is the funniest thing ever” play through the opening of the documentary). Masked protestors took to the streets, and accusations and testimonies gave way to larger systemic critiques. The overarching narrative of a football town reflexively shielding its star players got picked up nationally, and cries for justice, for a larger movement or reckoning, quickly drowned out the specificities of the case. By focusing on Goddard, herself a survivor, Roll Red Roll dedicates itself to the details of this story, the various causes and effects, and the human beings who took it upon themselves to deliver some form of justice.
Still, at the heart of this case is an unconscionably, almost incomprehensible lack of humanity. Throughout the documentary, we see footage of police interviews with various high schoolers. As the film goes on, we learn more and more about what some of these students did—taking pictures of the unconscious victim, sending or receiving texts about her assault, cracking jokes. Average teenagers are revealed to be capable of extreme cruelty and stunning apathy. As Detective Rigaud points out, “There definitely were marked moments during that night where you had hoped for some kind of a hero or someone to step in.”
At various points in the film, players describe football as a lifelong fraternity. Their bonds weren’t just strong, but inescapable. Just as Steubenville residents had to reckon with their own preconceptions and stigmas around sexual assault, they were also being forced to reexamine a football program that was long seen as the pride of the town. As Rachel Dissell, an investigative reporter at the Cleveland Plain Dealer asks, “Is this football town putting its daughters at risk by protecting its sons in a situation like this?”
Football, for the high school players and for the community at large, was an identity. Coaches weren’t just tasked with training athletes; they were expected to create men. This notion of players being taught virtue, or having some higher code of conduct, even came up during the police interviews. One player is repeatedly urged to share what he saw that night, with tactics like, “You said you’re a football player, fucking man up,” and, “I know Reno [the football coach, Reno Saccoccia] taught you better.” This is the same Reno who, in his interview, insists that his players did not sexually assault or have sex with anyone. He does admit that some of the team members drank, noting that he was going to suspend them for underage drinking, but decided not to because he thought it might make them appear guilty. Even more tellingly, Saccoccia does not seem to grasp that the incapacitated victim could not give consent. He allows that the students might have “screwed” Jane Doe, but they certainly did not rape her.
In the end, both Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond are found guilty. Seven months later, though, the story that launched hashtags, hacks, protests, and national coverage explodes again, with charges filed against the superintendent of schools, a principal, and two coaches. Allegedly, there had been an earlier rape in April, this time of a 14-year-old girl. It was a “very similar situation,” also allegedly involving Trent Mays. The young woman was harassed in school, called a “slut” and a “whore.” She does not remember the incident. This new case reinforced the notion of a systemic failure to report misconduct; of adults who were failing to protect those who needed it most.
Rocked by controversy and faced with the unconscionable within their own community, Roll Red Roll’s Steubenville appears at a loss for how to move forward. But Goddard, who felt obligated to upend a status quo of silence, is optimistic. “People are still mad,” she says at end of the film. “They’re still talking about it. So I think that things can change.”