Image via AP.

In 2013, Ma’lik Richmond was one of two Steubenville High School football players convicted of raping a 16-year-old girl in a case that drew national attention. The case became a flashpoint for consent and accountability. It was also, many argued, another example of an educational institution who had ceded its values to the protection of a successful football program. The rape had been recorded and photographed and what became trial evidence was exchanged between members of the football team instead of reported to the police. Many saw the callous exchange as indicative of a school culture that was invested solely in the preservation of a sports program above all else.

Richmond was tried as a juvenile and sentenced to serve at least one year. When the judge read the sentence, Richmond told his lawyer, “My life is over.” Richmond served 10 months of his sentence and after his release returned to Steubenville High School where he played football in his senior year. He eventually enrolled in Youngstown State in the fall of 2016.

Last week, students at the university learned that Richmond had earned a spot on the football team, leading to a debate about whether he should be allowed to play. One petition asked Youngstown President Jim Tressel and football coach Bo Pelini to remove Richmond from the team. “President Tressel and Coach Pelini, are you more concerned with your football team’s status than the disgusting rape of a young girl?” the petition’s author K Davis asks. It continues:

For many years, athletes have constantly been given additional chances because they are athletes. What does this say about rape culture? That athletes can do no wrong; that they can get away with anything because of how they perform on the field or in the gym?

Does he deserve a second chance? Yes, he does, and he is receiving that second chance by furthering his education on YSU’s campus. Does he deserve the privilege of playing on a football team and representing a university? Absolutely not. Education is a right, whereas playing on a sports team is not.

As the petition circulated online, the demands to remove Richmond from the team intensified. Pelini defended his decision to not only allow Richmond on the team but his decision to recruit him as well in an early August interview with The Vindicator. “The kid is humble and he wants to put [his past] behind him,” Pelini told the paper.

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After a week of silence, Youngstown State has finally responded to the calls for action, taking what Inside Higher Ed calls “the middle ground” in their decision to allow Richmond to remain on the team but sit out the 2017 season. In an email to its student body, the university said that it “takes the matter of sexual assault very seriously and continues to educate everyone within the campus community about the impact and prevention of sexual assault.”

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.

In January, Ma’lik again inquired about trying out for the team. At this time, he was permitted to participate on a tryout basis with the team, for winter workouts. At the conclusion of winter workouts, he was permitted to practice with the team as a walk-on from February to April. Ma’lik Richmond earned a spot on the 105-man roster on August 2 as a walk-on and is not receiving an athletic scholarship. He continues to be in good standing on the YSU campus.

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.

Youngstown noted that Richmond 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.” There are also a few obligatory lines about how football builds character which is the standard stuff of such letters.

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Youngtown’s decision is sure to reignite the debate over collegiate athletes and their right to return to the playing field after a sexual assault conviction. In 2015, Hocking College in Ohio allowed Trent Mays, who was convicted with Richmond, to join its fledgling football program. As Inside Higher Ed reported that same year, Hocking was one of many schools to bring either a charged or convicted rapist into a sports program; others included he University of Oregon, Alcorn State, Arizona State University, and, most recently, Baylor University.