Two Ohio high school students are due to begin trial accused of raping a 16-year-old girl, in a case which has gained unwanted attention over allegations of a cover-up to protect the town's American football team.

Ma'lik Richmond, 16, and Trenton Mays, 17, are two of the most celebrated members of the "Big Red" Steubenville High School American football team and also accused of raping a 16-year-old girl first in the back seat of a moving car, then at a house party last August.

Prosecutors say the two teenagers sexually assaulted the girl, who witnesses say was so drunk she was vomiting at the party and struggling to walk and speak.

The incident became national news following allegations that more students and players should have been arrested, but were being protected by their school and the local police force to preserve the reputation of the town's beloved football team.

More than half of Steubenville's 18,000 inhabitants turn up to every home game to support their Big Red heroes.

The outcry surrounding the case began on the internet and on social media after hacker group Knight Sec, a strand of the hacktivist group Anonymous, released a 12-minute video of a member of the Big Red team making a series of crass and explicit jokes about the girl at the centre of the alleged rape, believed to have been filmed on the night of the incident.

Harding Stadium, home of the Steubenville High Big Red football team sits in the middle of Steubenville, Ohio (Reuters)
Harding Stadium, home of the Steubenville High Big Red football team sits in the middle of Steubenville, Ohio (Reuters)

Knight Sec previously released a video containing screen grabs of tweets and Instagram photos from other Big Red players at the party, who they believe should also be prosecuted.

One of the pictures widely circulated is of an unresponsive girl being carried by her hands and ankles, believed to have been taken on the night of the alleged rape.

Much has been said as to why the town would want to protect its school football team. The New York Times wrote: "The team's web site declares that Big Red is 'Keeping Steubenville on the map.' That is probably true."

According to CNN, the football team is the main source of pride in a town where the median income of a household in Steubenville is around $33,000 (£22,000) - well below the US national average.

On the eve of the trial, Knight Sec released a press statement which pointed to a new website they had set up. The hackers claim to have gained new information regarding allegations of corruption, sexual assault and links to the Mafia Gambino family regarding officers at Steubenville Police Department.

There has been so much talk of a cover-up in this case that officials created the Steubenville Facts website to debunk misinformation about the case. One of the allegations the site has refuted is that the force is full of former Steubenville high school footballers.

Mike DeWine, the Ohio attorney general, whose office is prosecuting Mays and Richmond, said that the state had a strong case and that months of investigation had found no indication of a conspiracy to protect the football team by Steubenville officials.

De Wine said: "We've seen no validity to that. There's no evidence that the prosecutor is involved in a cover-up, and there's no evidence that the police are involved in a cover-up."

Mays and Richmond remain the only two people to be charged in connection with the incident.

Susan Hershey, the president of the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, said the negative publicity surrounding this trial and the town itself has left a mark on the community.

She said: "There are always multiple sides to every story. There is the other side of our community, a side that has been overshadowed by this incident. Unfortunately, our community has been painted with one very unflattering, broad brush."

Bob Fitzsimmons, a lawyer for the girl's family, said, "The family wants this matter over so they can move on with their lives and their daughter's healing."