In “Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape,” investigative journalist and football fan Jessica Luther explains the current climate of sexual violence in college football and offers practical and necessary solutions. She uses her findings of more than 115 cases of sexual assault allegations concerning college football players from 1974 to 2015, as well as race and gender politics surrounding college sports, sports media coverage, and the handling of sexual assault crimes in the U.S. legal system. This sharp book is a must-read for anyone interested in either college sports or sexual assault politics.
Catch Luther reading at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 10 at Women and Children First.
JB: You speak a lot about how we need better concepts of consent besides “no means no” and “yes means yes.” In a sport that requires an athlete to endure pain and, in the moment, obey coaches and captains without questioning, do you think this leads to a skewed concept of consent off the field?
JL: This is a great question. I think hierarchy in general skew ideas of consent. And that’s the point of hierarchy, right? You, theoretically, cede decisions and your actions over to someone else when you choose to be a part of the hierarchy (though, we should interrogate how much choice someone has when they enter a hierarchical situation and if they understand what it is exactly they are conceding to when they make that decision). I guess what matters off-field is if someone carries with them the idea that they are in a hierarchy and someone below them has ceded decisions and actions to them, when in fact they are not in a hierarchical situation. I don’t know if I can say if players are translating what they experience in terms of experiencing violence without questioning on the football field to how they act off the field.
In your conversation with Sociology professor Ben Carrington, he explains how football, “because it employs so many black men and is so popular, reflects a skewed racialized image of violence back into our society . . . and when black players are accused, charged, or convicted of criminal behavior, it slots nicely into our cultural imagination regarding black men.” How can football encourage healthy displays of violence?
I don’t know if there is a healthy display of violence, per se. But a non-racialized display, maybe. It is very hard in this society, given our history of attaching criminalization and violence to black people, to separate these things. And as Dr. Carrington says, football and our cultural interest in these players (the majority of whom are black) doing violence off the field is a distilled version of all of this, playing right back into that stereotype. I don’t know, exactly, how we get past that, honestly. I worry about my work reinforcing and participating in this, though I try to refocus how we talk about the issue of college football and sexual violence away from the individual players to the system that often minimizes, sometimes encourages, and nearly always ignores this problem, a system controlled by a whole lot of white men. But can football itself do anything about this? I don’t know. It’s an exploitative system and it specifically exploits these young black men to the advantage of a lot of older white men. Until everyone starts engaging that directly, talking about it openly, and start dismantling that exploitation, I don’t see it changing.
You spoke of hiring more women to cover sports news. Who are women we ought to be following now and supporting?
There are so many, really. espnW has a whole bevy of writers and editors that are doing amazing work, including Katie Barnes and Kavitha Davidson. I am a huge fan of Diana Moskovitz at Deadspin and Lindsay Gibbs at ThinkProgress. Julie DiCaro is consistently excellent, and Stacey May Fowles is one of the best and most thoughtful writers out there.Shireen Ahmed teaches me something new in every piece she writes. Latria Graham is a must read for me whenever she publishes. I’m excited about what Excelle Sports and the Victory Press are doing.
Of the football players that you know of who have stood up against sexual assault — have they seen a negative impact on their careers for speaking up?
The first person that comes to mind immediately is Drae Bowles, a former football player at Tennessee. I’m not sure he qualifies as having stood up against sexual assault per se, but after helping a woman in the hours following when she says she was assaulted by other football players on his team, not only did another player physically retaliate against him, Bowles says that his own coach, Butch Jones, told him he “betrayed the team.” Bowles transferred to another school in Tennessee soon after that. I can’t think of football players, though, who advocate for ending sexual violence that have seen a negative impact on their careers (that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened, but that I haven’t heard about it and/or they haven’t spoken of it. I do think it’s a real risk, though, because to speak out about this is to draw attention to the entire toxic system that they are all participating in.
You list several reasons for how football culture creates this problem, like toxic masculinity, the objectification of the player’s own bodies and abilities, selling schools to prospective players through the illusion of sex, and so on. What I want to know is — on a more basic level — what it felt like to accept that this reality exists? Past understanding it on an intellectual level, how does it sink it that enough men think like this to allow this specific part of rape culture to flourish?
It’s one of the hardest parts of this work and of living in this culture. I study and write on institutional indifference to sexual violence, and it doesn’t actually get easier to read about and hear about that indifference when someone reports to an institution (a university employee, a member of the clergy, someone in law enforcement) that they have been harmed. You can’t really surprise me anymore (and if you do, that’s an indication that whatever has happened is very bad), but I am constantly disappointed and saddened by it all. But yeah, when you widen that and you see it all around you all the time, when you get to the point where you accept that this is how the world works – that general indifference is your baseline in addressing sexual violence – it’s a kind of sad you feel in your bones, that physically weighs on your body, tugs at your heart, stirs your anger. It sucks, quite frankly. And it continues to suck. It’s sad and awful and, oftentimes, demoralizing. I really have to work to focus on the positives, to recognize the change, to find the hope and hold onto it.