Rewriting The Playbook: Jessica Luther Tackles Rape Culture In College Sports

Lead image: flickr/Caitlin Regan

We as a society owe a great debt to Jessica Luther.

She has spent the last several years of her professional life dedicated primarily to reporting on the epidemic of sexual assault in college sports — football in particular. Her debut book Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape, published on Dave Zirin’s “Edge of Sports” imprint at Akashic Books, isn’t simply a tell-all; she has rewritten the playbook for collegiate sports culture, giving survivors and supporters a reason to be hopeful about rooting for our teams without further sacrificing who we are.

Zirin explains in the foreword why all of us — not just sports fans — need this book and Luther’s analysis of the patterns perpetuated by those in power in college football:

“The sports world is not a hermetically sealed arena, cut off from the real world; it is here in this real world where we need to begin the discussion about understanding humanity’s entrenched culture of gender violence.”

Luther goes beyond gender, using an intersectional lens that includes race, money, power, and labor. In her note before the introduction begins (which includes a warning for those who may be triggered), she promises that the book will not be an easy read. It’s not meant to be, though Luther’s succinct, unapologetic tone and appropriate shade are incredibly satisfying. She writes: “Dealing so directly with this kind of everyday violence that we are constantly forced to make sense of is hard emotional work. Reading this will be that too.”

As usual, this incredible journalist I’m lucky enough to call my friend is right: Reading Unsportsmanlike Conduct was challenging. It was also rewarding and necessary. Luther writes in the introduction that “My fan playbook failed me . . . I needed a new playbook. So I decided to write one.” As a survivor and a lifelong college football fan (growing up in the shadow of Notre Dame’s golden dome, I breathed it in the air and was taught the sanctity of Saturday Game Day), I desperately needed this new playbook.

And I agree with Zirin’s analysis in the foreword: “This is in fact more than a book; it is a tool to help crack the code of why these assaults keep happening. This will help athletic departments — if they are willing to listen — to cease being examples of what is wrong with university life and help make them the leaders they need to be in the push to stop the violence.”

I’m delighted to bring you more from the author ahead of her book’s September 6 publishing date.

Katie Klabusich: Before the introduction, you write: “There’s nothing easy about what lies ahead in the following pages . . . It’s worth it though. Because we need to have this conversation and we need to be honest when we do it.” You’ve spent the majority of your professional time the past few years wading through these cases — making some of them national news. That kind of work is heavy; has it been worth it?

Jessica Luther: Yes. It has been. I have to look at it holistically because there are days when it feels like it is too much. Holding onto so many stories of violence and, beyond that, people’s and systems’ apathy to that violence can be difficult (though certainly not the same thing as holding onto one’s own experience with that violence). And then, in some cases, I translate those stories into consumable public stories — work I take very seriously that can come with a lot of pressure.

But certainly, I have seen my work have an impact and that, to me, will always make it worth it. And by impact, it can be a survivor contacting me to say that work I have done makes them feel heard or has shown them their own strength to tell their story. In terms of systemic change, a piece I wrote led a university to scrap its old Title IX policy and replace it with a new, hopefully better one. I am aware that my work has caused at least some other sports reporters to reevaluate how they write about or discuss sports and interpersonal, domestic, or sexual violence.

And there’s Baylor, where work that I did with Dan Solomon for Texas Monthly led to the university hiring an outside law firm to evaluate their response to sexual assault. The results of that firm’s investigation alongside work by other reporters led to the demotion of the university’s president, the termination of the head football coach, and the resignation of the athletic director. We know how the work mattered at Baylor, but we have yet to find out what ripple effects this particular case will have on college football more generally.

KK: Our college football teams are rivals: Florida State University and Notre Dame University. Your alma mater and my hometown team are two of the worst (if we had to rank them) offenders when it comes to excusing and covering up behavior for their players. I’ve had trouble watching the past couple of years; are you looking forward to Saturday game days (again? still?) after finishing the book?

JL: No, not anymore.

I have been all over the place with my consumption of college football for the last few years. I swing from “these few individuals will not take away my joy at watching a sport I have enjoyed since I was young,” to “the entire system is broken and I cannot support it.” But I am mainly leaning toward the latter these days.

It’s also that there are other things at play: the exploitation of the labor of the players, the damage done to these athlete’s bodies and minds knowing the school will not care for them once they leave, or the ungodly amounts of money being thrown around this supposedly amateur sport. All of that together, along with my deep knowledge of the intersection of college football and sexual assault, has made it hard for me to watch.

KK: How do you explain to self-professed non-sports fans why the topic of sexual assault in sports in general and in college football in particular matters to our culture beyond the confines of fandom?

JL: Well, it’s hard to divorce its importance from fandom. Fandom makes it one of the most watched events on television every year. Fandom is what drives profits. Fandom is what has created a 24-hour sports media that puts a microscope on every aspect of the game, even during off-season.

(Used by permission of Akashic Books.)

All of that, plus our easy consumption of narratives around crime when it involves black men and the fact that black men are the majority of college football players, means that we (as members of this society) very often talk about sexual violence through this lens.

College football specifically and sports more broadly are not the only places where hierarchy and power differentials lead to the minimization of this violence. Sexual violence is everywhere; it is a societal problem. It is a problem for women janitors who work the night shift, for plenty of children who are assaulted by their family or neighbors, for all of the women who have come forward to report Bill Cosby, for singers who are harmed by their producers, etc.

But there is something specific about college football that makes it a necessary spot for interrogation. There’s the popularity, the money, the level of media coverage, but also the hyper-masculinity that is part of the sport and the fact that men are talking about sexual violence because of its impact on their favorite team. Those of us who care about this issue have to care about this particular lens, or we are potentially removing ourselves from a robust conversation that will happen whether or not we are there.

KK: The statistics on group assaults are particularly alarming. When you consciously started researching sexual assault in sports, did you anticipate how often rape allegations and assault cases would include multiple people, either as direct participants or witnesses/accomplices?

JL: This was one of the most surprising things for me in writing the book. I feel it’s important when addressing this to be clear that there could be holes in my research; I could be (and imagine I am) missing plenty of cases. But from what I was able to find, there have been at least 115 cases since 1974 where at least one college football player was accused, arrested, charged, or convicted of sexual assault. Of those, roughly 40% involved more than one player as a perpetrator of violence.

Beyond that, there are so many cases where there are other players who are witnesses to it. This violence committed by these people in this particular space is, apparently, a collective experience. I hope people who read that part of the book come away as unsettled as I have been since I wrote it more than a year ago.

KK: You take care to appropriately spread the blame for the sexual assault epidemic in college sports. In “What the Playbook Doesn’t Show,” you write:

“[W]hile we focus on the black-man-as-criminal and the woman-as-liar, what is lost is that most of the people who create and maintain the culture of college football are white men, from coaches to athletic directors, from university presidents to the media who cover the sport. And all those white men make a lot of money off the backs of the players and they have no problem hushing up the voices of mainly women when they feel those women could threaten their players, their game, and their money.”

Why is this point so very rarely — if ever — made? Are white supremacy and patriarchy so deeply entrenched that the rich, white men who have created our collegiate sports culture have succeeded in making themselves invisible?

JL: The short answer is, yes.

The longer answer is that we rarely make this point for multiple reasons:

1) It’s harder to talk about systemic issues than it is to point at a (possible) perpetrator.

2) The system is set up to make it so you don’t pay attention to the people who control the system. Most successful systems operate that way and that is why they are successful. I try to drive this point home in the book.

3) We have narratives in place about coaches as good guys who shape the character of their players, unless their players do something bad and then those players are individuals who make all of their decisions independent of coaches.

4) Perhaps more than anything, any time we draw back the curtain on racism and sexism and talk openly about how that curtain maintains an exploitative system that many people enjoy, plenty of people get upset. They get defensive because when we talk about systems, so many people get implicated — including, in this case, sports media and fans. It’s infinitely easier to ignore this than to address it.

Any time we draw back the curtain on racism and sexism and talk openly about how that curtain maintains an exploitative system that many people enjoy, plenty of people get upset.

KK: As you outline so thoroughly, no entity has perfected “The Shrug” play quite like the NCAA. Beyond ignoring cases of sexual violence directly, you point out a glaring omission from the NCAA’s 59 pages on recruitment in its 400-something page Division I manual/rule book: “Nowhere explicitly in the Division I manual does it say that teams cannot use women and/or sex for recruitment.”

I had assumed the “hostess” programs were grandfathered in or ignored because “tradition.” Are they actually not against the rules?

JL: They are against the rules in a very particular way: What the NCAA has done is not write a rule saying you can’t have all-female recruiting groups for athletes. Instead, the rule states that whatever the gender makeup of the hosts who show around the general population of visiting potential students, that must be reflected in the gender makeup of the hosts who show around visiting potential athletes. Oklahoma State was punished by the NCAA recently for their all-female hostess program but, again, not specifically because they were all-female, but rather that the gender makeup of this group didn’t match the one for the general population.

The NCAA rules are created by people from the conferences and universities. Athletic directors and conference commissioners are the people deciding what exactly will go into the rule book and for what a school can be punished. They have rules that get down into the nitty gritty of recruitment, including exactly how many minutes a coach can have with a recruit depending on the scenario. That the NCAA has failed to create any regulation around sex in recruitment or the use of women as lures for potential players in recruitment is unsurprising.

KK: You include our friend Katie Hnida’s story to set up a question that — like a lot of those in your book — other people should be asking: “Here’s one last matter to question about the NCAA’s role in all of this: shouldn’t they at least care about other athletes?”

As you correctly point out, athletes spend time with other athletes; this means that it is often other athletes reporting college football players for rape. Is the answer to why the NCAA doesn’t seem to care about the primarily female athletes reporting assaults as simple as “well, money”?

JL: Yes and no. Money is the answer for why a lot of the things I talk about in the book happen over and over again, and will continue to happen.

Jessica Luther Headshot-4
Jessica Luther (Credit: Janelle Renee Matous)

But there’s something about this, the fact that there are a handful of high-profile cases where the woman who has reported the football player(s) is herself an athlete. It bothers me. When female athletes come forward and still athletic departments turn away or actively dismiss what they are being told, it shows that this is not about protecting athletes generally, but rather a protection of a certain athlete for very particular reasons. It really shows that football and winning trump everything else — including the individual players who play in it. The players are protected not because there is some care for the individual (though that could be at play), but rather because their not being on the field hurts the bottom line or angers boosters or means a team won’t make the playoffs and a coach will lose out on his bonus.

Hnida’s case stands out because she herself was a football player and when she came forward, the man who had been her coach said terrible things about her as a person and a player in order to discredit her. That was in part about money, sure, and reputation — but there’s more to it. I find these cases particularly painful because if these athletic departments can’t even show the proper care and concern for athletes, what does that mean for people who report about athletes who have no connection to the athletic department?

KK: In almost every section of the book I had a “Damn, Jessica’s taking no prisoners!” moment. My favorite is from the chapter “Moving On” where you call out your peers in the media for their failures handling the topic of sexual violence (when they even bother). You quote a piece on Colorado University head coach Gary Barnett having to resign where the writer says: “Sadly, the reputation of the longtime coach became tarnished by the controversy during his time at CU.” Your response: “One wonders for whom it was sad.”

Can these commentators not hear themselves and do they not have editors? How are things like this even getting said/printed in this century?

JL: I don’t know. I think plenty of people fail to center survivors no matter how they write or talk about sexual violence. For sports writers and editors, many (most, even) have not been taught to consider this issue from any angle other than the one that centers athletes and coaches and teams. Sports media is incredibly white and incredibly male, more so than almost all other media. I remind myself of that each time a new piece comes out that fails at even accounting for the fact that a real live human being reported the player.

That Barnett piece [analyzed in Unsportsmanlike Conduct] gets me. Barnett was the coach mentioned in Hnida’s case. When I read that piece, it struck me that the author had probably not spent any time considering what it would mean if any of the women (and there were many) who reported players who played for Barnett read [what he was writing]. If I could make one single change in media, it would be to force all writers who cover this topic or any interpersonal violence to always re-read their piece, imagining the victim from the case they are writing about is reading it. Seems the least we can do.

KK: Your first new play in your effort to rewrite the playbook is “Consent Is Cool; Get Some.” You write: “The burden for establishing consent cannot be on one person alone.” I’ve felt something like this for a while because of the way I describe my abusive relationship; I don’t think my ex has any idea that what happened “qualifies as” rape. How do we expand the burden while still holding individuals accountable?

JL: I was specifically referencing the idea of “no means no,” which puts the burden of consent on the person whose consent is being violated. They have to say “no,” they have to say it forcefully enough, they have to say it loud enough, they have to say it enough times, they have to say it at the right time, they have to make sure the other person knows they don’t want to have sex. The person violating that consent doesn’t have to do any work in this scenario other than stop if the other person says “no” in all the correct ways to show they definitely, without any doubt, did not want to have sex. That’s ridiculous.

As I say in the book, “both people need to have an understanding that the other person is giving consent and they need to be sure of it.” Seems simple on its face.

The “how” is hard. We have terrible ideas about consent everywhere, all the time. We don’t teach it well and we don’t talk about it correctly. Young children are chastised if they refuse to give an adult a hug. We have a holiday where if you don’t wear green, people are encouraged to pinch the non-green wearers. Women who refuse advances from strangers are called frigid bitches — and some are assaulted and even killed for trying to say no. Media refers to statutory rape as “sex” on the regular.

Where do you even begin to fix these problems that are so ingrained in our culture? People recoil at the idea of changing how consent is defined legally, from “no means no” to “yes means yes,” but some states are going in that direction — forcing people to take responsibility for making sure consent is present, rather than assuming it is until the other person adequately proves to you that it is not.

I wish I had a better answer to the “how.” I want to say “education,” but how do we get that kind of consent education into grade schools? We have a long way to go on this front.