Roll Red Roll: Rape, Power, and Football in the American Heartland (Hachette Books 2022) by Nancy Schwartzman was a title that was immediately intriguing to me because I had seen the feature documentary Roll Red Roll (2018), directed and produced by Schwartzman. The documentary, like the book, depicts a rape committed, filmed, photographed, and posted on the internet by members of the Steubenville High School’s “Big Red” football team in Steubenville, Ohio. The victim, Jane Doe, was only sixteen at the time of her rape, possibly drugged, and intoxicated to the point of unconsciousness. Despite Jane Doe’s inability to consent, three members of the Big Red football team literally carried her from a party to a waiting car where they took her to a separate location, raped her, and documented the whole experience on their cell phones. Videos and photos of the rape eventually ended up on the internet, evidence investigators would later use against the accused.
Although I was familiar with this case and its result after watching Schwartzman’s excellent documentary, the book offered a few different perspectives the documentary did not. The book gives a good sense of Schwartzman’s filming process. In a few notable passages, Schwartzman vividly describes her landing in Steubenville for the first time as though she had landed on an unknown and hostile planet. Schwartzman depicts a town that has been totally divided by the case and its complex aftermath; many sided with the perpetrators and worried that their lives would be destroyed were they convicted of the offences they were charged with. A smaller faction of Steubenville citizens was concerned not only with the welfare of Jane Doe but of the rampant rape culture in Steubenville that allowed this brutal crime to occur. Schwartzman does an excellent job of detailing how and why both sides came to their conclusions and offers a detailed history of the town and its long-grown rape culture.
Schwartzman’s thesis is clear, and one I wholeheartedly subscribe to: football programs, at all levels, aid and abet rape and sexual assault, just as the town of Steubenville had long since created the perfect conditions for sexual assaults and rapes to go unbelieved and swept under the rug. In some of the most cutting passages in the book, Schwartzman details just how the Big Red football program attempted to protect its players—and its program—at all costs. Schwartzman is not afraid to be critical of the program and other football programs that have taken similar measures to protect rapists at the great expense of victim/survivors; her book is worth reading for this criticism alone.
Something else I really respected about this book was the way centred the perpetrators—and not the victim—as the problem. This might seem obvious, but so often in these stories it is what the victim did before, during, and after the assault that is focused on. Schwartzman’s text recognizes that the perpetrators, as well as those that stood by and watched or documented the rape, were exhibiting that they had serious issues and were raised in an environment with serious issues. The way Schwartzman does a deep dive into how these issues may have been caused within these young men goes above and beyond authorial due diligence. Schwartzman also follows up with the perpetrators years after the rape, giving readers insight into what type of change or rehabilitation is possible for a person who commits this kind of violent action. As a reader, this really made me examine the limits of rehabilitation.
Roll Red Roll tells a story that is all too common. The uncommon way that it tells the story; however, is what allows the book to ask some extremely important questions and offer some even more important answers.
A copy of Roll Red Roll was graciously supplied to True Crime Index by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
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About the Writer:
Jesyka Traynor is an academic living in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. When she’s not writing or researching her dissertation, she’s consuming all the true crime and non-fiction she can find time for. Jesyka holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a doctorate in contemporary Californian literature. Her work on women in twenty-first century true crime has been published in Crime Fiction Studies.