Youngstown State’s Championship Football Tradition Now Ablaze in Controversy
College football is about to go into full swing and America had its first NCAA Division I scandal of the season a month before the season even kicked off. Ma’lik Richmond, 20, who was one of two boys convicted of sexually assaulting a drunken, unconscious, 16-year-old girl from West Virginia in 2012 while he was in high school and a backfield standout playing for Steubenville Big Red, has been allowed by Youngstown State University Head Football Coach Bo Pelini and YSU President Jim Tressel to not actually play football for the YSU Penguins this fall, but to practice with the team.
Richmond’s crime was nefarious and shocking. It created a firestorm of controversy, with ABC 20/20 airing a documentary titled “After the Party’s Over” which took this harrowing ordeal into the national spotlight, bringing shame onto this otherwise sleepy little city of just over 18,000 population situated on the shores of the Ohio River. What’s worse, a cell- phone camera was used to electronically capture the rape scene and this footage was placed on social media sites. Not long afterwards, the sordid and salacious scenes of this “rape party” made local and national news broadcasts.
“For the Fall 2017 football season, Ma’lik will not be permitted to compete in any games, but will continue to be a part of the football program as a practice player, forfeiting a year of eligibility,” a university statement reads.
Richmond began fall workouts with the Penguins in early August. He served 10 months in juvenile detention after being convicted of a heinous sexual crime and was released in January of 2014. He was permitted to return to his high school football team for his senior year. Richmond attended a few other colleges and enrolled at Youngstown State last August. During his short time as a YSU student, Richmond has been just another young face in the crowd on the urban campus during class changes. His decision to play football has cast him into a national sports scandal now.
An online petition on Change.org should have given Pelini and Tressel a good feel of the whirlwind of fevered controversy that was to come by their allowing Richmond to suit-up as a YSU player for practice this fall. By midnight today (9/2), this petition had 11,516 electronic signatures and should easily cap out at its target goal of 15,000 signatures in the coming days, or at least within the next few weeks. Also, YSU students protested allowing Richmond to dress up for practice and were vocal and adamant when they were interviewed by local TV news teams about not wanting Richmond becoming a Penguins gridiron presence.
Having a player just suiting up and practicing this year who was convicted of sexual assault was a dicey proposal for Pelini, but in a city that loves football and having a championship college football team, the choice seemed at the time to be a good one. “I believe in him, but I told him, ‘I’ll hold your feet to the fire,’” Pelini told the city’s daily newspaper, The Vindicator, on Aug. 3. The Vindicator article also explains that Richmond was not a “walk on” for the Penguins. Pelini recruited him, more or less, during last season’s football season by first calling Steubenville High School’s Head Football Coach Reno Saccoccia to confirm that Richmond was on YSU’s campus. Reports says Pelini then talked to Richmond about playing football at YSU.
Last year, the YSU football team lost 28-14 to James Madison in the 2017 NCAA Division I (formerly the NCAA Division I-AA) Football Championship game in early January. YSU football is a big part of this city’s identity and pride. Youngstown lost two-thirds of its population since the late 1980’s after the large integrated steel mills closed and left Youngstown a distressed Rust Belt locale with a population today of only 64,312. Last year’s post-season fight was YSU’s fifth try at winning their NCAA division. As YSU Head Football Coach, Tressel built a powerhouse Pengins’ team from 1986 to 2000 and brought home four national championship NCAA Division I-AA trophies. Since the NCAA Division I FCS was formed in 1978, YSU has played in 11 post-season playoffs.
If anything, Youngstown’s college football team should come secondary to attracting manufacturing facilities and other businesses to a city with major thoroughfares blighted with empty storefronts and crumbling streets. Unemployment, underemployment, and crime prevail, with the city’s public educational system also in a state of disarray. In a city that does not need ugly national media exposure, particularly one regarding its pride and joy, the YSU football team, city officials, business leaders, and many proud Mahoning Valley residents most likely cringed a few weeks ago after reading this headline over a 1,000-plus word story in the New York Daily News: “Youngstown State president Jim Tressel, football coach Bo Pelini jerks for allowing convicted rapist to join team,” with the sub-caption reading: “Youngstown State head coach Bo Pelini is one of the jerks of the week.”
Daily News sportswriter Evan Grossman’s opinion was even more scathing and acerbic than the headline. He opens the story by writing: “If you’re looking for a college football team to hate-watch this season, a team to root against every Saturday and hope for terrible things like last-second losses and missed field goals and fumbles to happen to, look no further than Youngstown State. That’s because in a college football landscape littered with them, these guys might be the biggest jerks of all.”
Not pulling any punches nor seeing things from a typical football coach’s ‘win at all costs’ mindset, Grossman continues, “Had Pelini left the kid alone, nobody would have known Richmond’s story on campus, he could have went about his business in peace. Now he is the face of Youngstown football, for better or worse, and he is smack in the middle of a controversy. Thanks, coach.”
“If you’ve followed Pelini’s career, you know he has a long track record of being a jerk. Like the time at Nebraska when the hot-tempered coach was caught on an expletive-filled audio recording cursing out Nebraska media and fans. “F—k all of you.’ F—k ‘em,” Pelini said. The same guy assembled his team off-campus and torched administrators in a meeting after he lost his job. Former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne, who hired Pelini, questioned his “character” after Pelini was fired by the school in 2014,” Grossman adds.
“His boss at Youngstown State, Tressel, isn’t much better. This, of course, is the same guy who left Ohio State in disgrace in 2011 when the NCAA accused him of cheating, lying, and keeping players eligible and active when he knew they were violating NCAA rules. That was all part of the school’s infamous tattoo parlor memorabilia scandal,” the New York Daily News sportswriter says.
“These guys know all about second chances, so it must make them feel good to give one to a kid who did something awful and disgusting when he was in high school. But Tressel and Pelini and the rest of the Youngstown administration have completely botched the whole thing by announcing this week that Richmond can practice and be a part of the football team this year, but he can’t play in 2017,” Grossman adds.
In this writer’s opinion, Grossman’s attack of Pelini and Tressel is well deserved. Both seem to like scandal. In fact, they could probably teach Donald Trump a few things about this subject. Yes, these two lunkheads should have known better than to have allowed Richmond even to be able to practice. Only common sense would leave any adult male of a sound mind to realize that such a move would prove controversial, if not disastrous.
But in other ways, this “big city paper” opinion reads like the effort of a pup reporter trying to sensationalize a salacious and unsavory issue while at the same time, attack a small community that has seen better days. Hammering down on the nation’s fastest shrinking city with high unemployment, a high crime rate fed primarily by an insidious narcotics plague, blight, destitution, poverty, and a depraved political culture is not fair and balanced journalism.
I know for a fact that Youngstown has a devoted citizenry who refuse to leave, but instead, stay, and do the best they know how to rebuild their once sizable city, now not much more now than a small town. Growth has been at tiny footstep trudges, not at leaps and bounds, but this tough, blue-collar town just refuses to give up. No, Youngstown does not need this type of banter from an arrogant hack reporter. Furthermore, there is no need to attack an entire grouping of young men who have nothing to do with this scandal and make them scapegoats and pariahs. Most of these YSU football players are stellar young adults, undoubtedly, just like the college athletes on any college or university campus. Wishing them ill-fated failure is draconian and evil. Besides, it sounds like the whining of a midget league brat forced to sit out a game on the bench. Last year’s rise to the top brought a lot of interest to YSU football and in spring and summer sessions, it was reported that 101 players were suiting up, the largest turnout ever for the beginnings of a Penguins football team.
Grossman, get a grip, man! And dropping those ‘F’ bombs into the story only further sensationalizes this horrid piece of drivel with the worst kind of vulgarity. Even though a coach might have screamed this during a heated gridiron match, why do you have to throw that vile and horrid language all over NYC and beyond? I could not believe the New York Daily News had the audacity to publish this rant as an opinion piece. It would look ridiculous on a comment thread!
Meanwhile, YSU’s students have been quoted in Northeastern Ohio newspapers and even a few major progressive magazines as saying that playing sports are a privilege, and for Richmond, his heinous crime while he was a high school teen negates this liberty. He should not be allowed to play football at YSU, they contend. Other students have been quoted as saying that allowing Richmond to play in practice sessions is a brazen rubber-stamping of a manifest rape culture growing throughout America. Others said they wish that Richmond will succeed in life, but not as a college football player at their university. YSU graduate Daniel Pompili, was quoted in The Herald Star, Steubenville’s daily newspaper, as saying, “He made a choice when he committed this rape,” Pompili said. “I don’t have to pay for that education. When I was a student, I recognized part of my tuition and fees helped to pay for different activities in the university.”
Richmond is now able to use equipment and accommodations paid for through tuition and fees, as well as state tax dollars, Pompili explained, adding that “The idea of him walking on the sidelines wearing the school’s colors and the YSU football team uniform makes him an ambassador,” and Richmond should not be able to fit into this role, Pompili said.
Is Tressel an adequate educator or is he some kind of control freak who now as president of a state university in a disadvantaged city, is continuing in a role like a wanna-be NCAA coach or athletic director? And is Pelini a mentor of young men who need guidance and leadership during their young adult years or is he more like a guy who owns pit-fighting dogs and has them chained in his backyard between dog fights? Both Tressel and Pelini
have built championship teams out of rosters that more mediocre coaches would see them leaving town over. Was the recruitment of Richmond even necessary?
The zero-sum game initiated by two top administrators at YSU is hardly Richmond’s fault. Now he’s become a negative public figure when before Tressel and Pelini took control of his life, he was merely an obscure private citizen, albeit a veritable nobody with a very dark past. But at least he had a nondescript present as just another student trudging through life trying to become a successful adult.