Late in her book, “Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape” (Edge of Sports/Akashic Books), Jessica Luther tells the story of former University of Missouri football player Rolandis Woodland, who, in January 2014, talked to ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” about confronting three of his teammates over a gang rape they allegedly committed in 2010.
“We should celebrate Woodland for being willing to put the safety of others over football,” Luther writes.
That such a statement doesn’t seem self-evident is the reason “Unsportsmanlike Conduct” exists. College football has always sold itself as being about the high ideals of higher education, but sexual violence has become a mirror in which the sport, fueled by lucrative television contracts, insanely passionate fans and wealthy donors, puts itself before everything else: education, the well-being of women and, often, its own student-athletes.
Luther has been on the college football/sexual assault beat (“it’s not a fun place to hang out,” she writes in the book’s press kit) for such publications as Sports Illustrated, Texas Monthly and Vice Sports since 2013, which is also when Jameis Winston, the quarterback for her own beloved alma mater, Florida State, became the sport’s most prominent alleged assailant. But “Unsportsmanlike Conduct” is not about Winston; nor is it a history of the 100-plus incidents since 1974 that Luther uncovered in her research, nearly half which involved multiple players.
Instead, the book is structured as a “playbook,” with Luther outlining “The Playbook As It Is” (with chapter titles such as “Nothing to See Here,” “The Shrug” and “Moving On”) in the book’s first section, and “How It Could Be” in the second part.
“I was very interested in the narratives that we talk about all the time, instead of actually talking about the things we should be,” Luther said. She spoke to Street Roots via phone from Austin, Texas.
Jason Cohen: It has to be exhausting, obviously, covering this beat. Even just reading these stories, you feel sad and outraged, but nothing comes next. It seems like you wanted to focus on that with this book.
Jessica Luther: Yeah that’s definitely true. I was adamant that there be a section where I at least attempted to suggest solutions, because otherwise it does feel defeatist. Even if the things that are suggested in the book are just the beginnings to fixing an incredibly large problem.
J.C.: In your introduction, you actually provide definitions of sexual assault, consent, rape, and rape culture. What do you think people don’t understand about the latter term?
J.L.: Well, people get scared of the word “rape” to begin with. And then when you attach it to “culture,” they immediately feel implicated in it, which I don’t feel bad about. But I think that’s sort of where the struggle is. It’s not an individual thing. People internalize it because a lot of us participate in it. This kind of minimization of sexual violence, of okaying it. That it’s never really that big of a deal. That’s just all around us, all the time.
And it’s a spectrum, which I think is maybe one of the most difficult things about it. It’s certainly about actual violence, but it’s also any nonconsensual stuff: not respecting boundaries when a woman says no to you in any capacity in your life. “Oh, well, she didn’t really mean that, right?” That becomes a joke, and then you can’t see it for the problem that it actually is. That’s sort of how it gets embedded in our culture.
J.C.: And in sports, part of that culture is just casual everyday misogyny.
J.L.: Yeah, football in particular is such a good lens for this, because it’s so hyper-masculine. It’s also very violent. Masculine violence that we all are excited about. There’s this idea that you’re good at it because you’re not a girl. I was reading about an assistant coach of some sort, who, like, screamed at the guys about not being “pussies.” That’s how you get them to work harder, is to tell them they are acting like a girl, and that’s the last thing that they want to be.
J.C.: But football also tells us that it makes better men. That’s the romance of the coach.
J.L.: We LOVE them. We make movies about this. One of my favorite TV shows ever (“Friday Night Lights”) is about a coach who is a good influence on these guys, and he gets so much credit for that.
But then as soon as something bad happens, we all shift into, “Oh well, this is an individual guy doing an individual thing and a coach can’t keep up with a hundred and whatever players. This has nothing to do with the culture of the locker room. This has nothing to do with football.” And I hate that. It just doesn’t feel fair that one of those things is true and one isn’t.
I do have that idealistic idea of sports being able to teach people things. Discipline, teamwork, rooting for other people, selflessness, those kind of things. I feel like that can happen. But it’s also encouraging you, in football’s case, to be violent, and often to be sexist and homophobic. Those things are also there. We should just be talking about all of it. I feel like I’m always advocating for a better, bigger conversation, instead of the really skewed, happy sports conversation that we tend to have.
J.C.: College football is part of a corporate capitalist machine. So with most of these cases, you see a pattern of boosters, the media and even law enforcement giving players and coaches special treatment.
J.L.: Yes. It’s money. And one thing I’ve been stressing in talking about the book is, yes, it’s a lot about how (schools) don’t care about people who report this kind of violence. They don’t care about the violence, they don’t care about that harm. But they also don’t care about the players. You know, like maybe a coach on some sort of an individual level has a relationship with these guys. But there’s a system to protect them so that they can stay on the field so everyone can keep making money.
When I talk about my own struggles to watch football now, of course (the sexual violence problem) is a big reason for that. But also I have a hard time watching them hit each other, knowing what they’re doing to their bodies and their brains, knowing that the school’s not paying them to do that, knowing that, especially for black players, they’re not (all) going to get the promised degree: the very thing that we’re told is the reason that they should be sacrificing their minds and bodies. The whole system is very difficult for me to watch or participate in any more.
J.C.: As a Florida State fan, where were you emotionally when they won the national championship in January 2014?
J.L.: I was really conflicted. I remember feeling both really happy that they won and also really shitty that the person that had led them down this field was possibly a rapist. The best word is ambivalence. And that sucked. I was upset that I couldn’t just be happy for my football team.
J.C.: We learned a lot more about the accusations against Jameis Winston the following season, even though he was ultimately not charged with anything. When Florida State lost to Oregon in the 2015 College Football Playoff, some of the Ducks players chanted “No means no,” which a lot of people found trivializing.
J.L.: I do think it trivializes. Using the fact that one school is bad at handling responses to sexual assault as a way to mock another sports team is, on its face, something I don’t like. When fans suddenly care about this issue because a team they hate is dealing with it, that just makes me sick. But at the same time, I know survivors who appreciate those moments.
J.C.: You write about what you call “The Minimizer,” the fact that the media tends to gloss over how bad some of these incidents are compared to what’s in the police reports.
J.L.: I always suggest that people read those things before they start talking about (accusations). We so rarely accurately discuss the violence that’s been reported. And sometimes the violence is damn shocking. As soon as I say that, cases start popping up in my head. It’s incredible that people are doing this kind of harm to other people, and that anyone is minimizing it, or trying to talk it away.
J.C.: You say in the book we’re having a “cultural moment.” Obviously in some ways you wish that wasn’t the case, but does it feel like awareness is increasing every day?
J.L.: It definitely feels like that. One of the easy critiques of the book is, “Well, it’s not just in college football.” Yeah, it is definitely not just in college football! We are talking about it on campuses generally, we’re talking about it in high schools, we’re talking about it at the professional level of sports, and we’re talking about it in entertainment, the tech world, the business world. We’re just having quite the conversation right now as a society around harassment and sexual violence. It’s hard to say in the moment how different it is, but I’m hopeful.
I feel like (the case of the Stanford swimmer) Brock Turner had a big effect. People in my life who don’t normally care about these things were affected by (the victim impact statement). She did such a good job of talking about the things that I think we need to be better about. Talking about trauma, (post-traumatic stress disorder) and consent. One of the things I struggle with is the idea that, once the legal stuff is done for the athletes, then it’s time to move on. We’re done here! And for the victims, that is almost never true. Sometimes years later, they still have effects from the violence that they experienced and, often, from the betrayal of the institutions that they thought were going to help them.
And so it feels like we’re talking about this in a better way. And that makes me happy.
J.C.: The story you and Dan Solomon wrote for Texas Monthly in August 2015 was the first of several investigations that ultimately got Baylor University head coach Art Briles fired, with president Ken Starr and athletic director Ian McCaw also leaving. But all of Briles’ assistant coaches are still there. Do you still feel OK about that, as far as whether or not it’s a real culture change?
J.L.: I do. What Baylor did was a big deal. I don’t know how far those ripples will go up outside of Waco, but their holding the highest people at the university accountable for the systemic failure is important, and does matter. And it was such a high-profile football team and a high-profile coach, so that gives me hope too.
I don’t need coaches to have, like, massive internal feeling shifts about victims and survivors. If they’re just scared they’re going to lose their job, so they do a better job of not creating a culture that’s going to harm people, I’m cool with that. I don’t really care what’s in their heart.
J.C.: What do you think the average college football fan can do to try to make the world a better place, if you will?
J.L.: Well, they could care about this issue. People just don’t. They care about it so much in theory, and then when you really want to address it, and you want to criticize people for it, then they’re like, “Whoa whoa whoa – that’s too much.” I have a chapter about fandom, and when I originally wrote the draft, it was one sentence long. It just said, “Fans need to calm down.” And my editor was like, “Let’s do a little bit more.”
But fans really have to interrogate themselves about their own emotional reaction to these teams. And I can’t stress enough how much I understand how hard that is, because I still struggle with it. Even now.
I also think if you do actually care about this issue, you have to be vocal about it. People ask me if fans – and I’m always asked specifically about “women fans,” which is an annoying question – should boycott football. But I think change is much more useful from the inside. You can call your Board of Regents. You can voice your dissent. You can take that emotional energy that you’ve built up, that you use to yell at reporters, and redirect it back at the institution that you say you love so much. It’s OK to be critical of the thing you love. If you really do love your school, you should be asking more of it.
Author coming to Portland
Jessica Luther will appear in the Portland area at Annie Bloom’s Books (in conversation with Bitch Media’s Sarah Mirk) on Oct. 6 and at Pacific University in Forest Grove on Oct. 10.