Katie Hnida proud of alleged Steubenville victim

AP Photo/Steubenville Herald-Star/Michael D. McElwain

More than 1,000 activists protested against the way the rape case in Steubenville has been handled.

Katie Hnida, the kicker who was the first woman to score points in a Division I-A football game, has been closely following the rape case in Steubenville, Ohio. She has been thinking about the 16-year-old girl who was reportedly unconscious at times as she was carried from house to house and allegedly violated by two local high school football players in August.

"I am immensely proud that the victim has not given up this case," Hnida said. "It's not an easy thing to do. Taking on a football team is like taking on Goliath."

Two members of the Steubenville High School football team, Trent Mays and Ma'lik Richmond, also 16, are scheduled for trial on sexual assault charges Feb. 13 in juvenile court. They are charged with rape and kidnapping, as the two allegedly took the girl to several parties while she was too drunk to resist. The alleged incident was investigated by The New York Times, during which football coach Reno Saccoccia verbally threatened to harm a reporter, and the football team closed ranks.

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After coming forward about abuse she had received at Colorado, Katie Hnida went on to kick for New Mexico.

"What else are you going to tell your parents when you come home drunk like that and after a night like that?" Steubenville volunteer assistant coach Nate Hubbard told The Times. "She had to make up something. Now people are trying to blow up our football program because of it."

The alleged victim, who has not been publicly named, is from a neighboring town and has been described as distraught. Her mother told The Times that she often hears her crying at night. It isn't hard for Hnida to sympathize with the despondent girl. It's a familiar story: a football program on a pedestal, allegations of sexual abuse and round after round of public shame heaped on the alleged victim. It's a story Hnida lived through.

In 2004, Hnida faced condemnation she hadn't expected when she told Sports Illustrated she had been raped by a teammate when she was a kicker for the University of Colorado four years earlier. No charges were filed. It took Hnida years to overcome the alleged assault, let alone being a focal point of all the hate CU's fan base could muster. Hnida transferred to New Mexico in 2002 and went on to become the first woman to score points in a Division I-A football game the next season. It was a healing experience.

Despite breaking a barrier for women in sports, Hnida said she is probably more associated with the alleged rape.

"I feel like I'll forever be labeled by it," said Hnida, who is an NCAA-approved speaker and shares her experience, putting a face on an issue many people would rather ignore.

At every single speaking engagement, Hnida says, she has been approached afterward by at least one woman who reveals -- sometimes for the first time -- that she was raped. Often, the alleged attacker was an athlete. Hnida is conscious of the backlash that can be unleashed on women who make an accusation of rape against a member of a team. She tells them to seek a family member or friend they can safely confide in and to avoid reading social media at all costs.

Social media, meanwhile, has been at the center of the Steubenville controversy. Some people tweeted and posted comments on other social media sites the night of the alleged assault. Some of the most graphic and taunting posts were captured by a local blogger and posted before they could be taken down, according to the Times report.

Former Steubenville baseball player Michael Nodianos starred in a homemade video the night of the alleged assault that was unearthed by Anonymous, an online activist group, and posted last week. Hnida couldn't get through the 12-minute video all at once, as Nodianos laughs about the "dead girl" who is "so raped."

Like many who have watched the video, Hnida is appalled by the lack of empathy shown by those who witnessed the events around the alleged assault. How can someone appear to delight in the girl's humiliation as it is taking place or in the immediate aftermath?

"What happened in Steubenville is so indicative of what is happening in our society," Hnida said.

She is referring to a culture that often puts athletic programs and institutions above people. The pack mentality allows -- and condones -- attacks on anyone who doesn't have similar priorities. And, in some cases, allegations of sexual violence are covered up or denied.

It happened at Penn State, where the state of Pennsylvania is now suing the NCAA to fight sanctions the school agreed to in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual assault scandal. And at Notre Dame, where Lizzy Seeberg, then 19, committed suicide two years ago after she accused a current player of sexual assault.

Melinda Henneberger, a Notre Dame alumna and a Washington Post reporter, wrote a column about why she couldn't cheer for the Irish in the BCS National Championship because of sexual assault allegations surrounding the football team. She also took part in a Deadspin Q&A, and was asked whether there is a connection between what happened there and in Steubenville.

Henneberger responded: "I'm afraid we do have a deeper problem, not just in the prevalence of these attacks but in the response of otherwise upright people, which to a disappointing degree is: That can't be right, I don't want to hear it, putting my fingers in my ears now, lalalalala, and of course, blame the victim."

Thankfully, in the wake of the New York Times story about Steubenville and more information emerging about the case, outrage is growing.

"Rape is not a sport," read one sign at a protest in Steubenville last weekend. More than 1,000 people -- many from out of town -- gathered to demonstrate, and former rape victims detailed their experiences.

For Hnida, this in some ways has been a hard year. Between politicians attempting to narrow the definition of rape and the story of a woman in India who died from injuries suffered during a gang rape, Hnida fears women aren't any less vulnerable than they were when she was a student.

It's why she believes it's just as important to address audiences of young men, so they can hear firsthand about the devastation sexual violence can create. Empathy needs to make a comeback.

"We all have the right to autonomy over our own bodies," Hnida said.

So back to Goliath.

People don't necessarily grow up wanting to be activists against rape. To be defined by what might be your worst experience is difficult, but Hnida also sees, from the young women who approach her, the need to have men and women who are public voices for victims who cannot speak out.

Even the 16-year-old in Steubenville is having her relatively short past scoured for evidence that she was somehow asking for it, The Times reported. She is not alone. Women such as Hnida have lived through similar experiences, and perhaps even made peace with it.

"I'm happy to be able to say I survived sexual violence," Hnida said.

And ultimately, that's what she would say to the distraught young woman in Steubenville: You can survive this, and you are not alone.

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