NFEW: Jessica Luther on Why Sexual Violence by College Athletes Is Rarely Addressed

By Joe Macaré via Truthout

FSU vs. Maryland game on November 17, 2012.

(Florida State University players at a game against Maryland in November 2012. Photo: Dave Wilkinson / Flickr)

A toxic version of masculinity, and an acceptance of sexual violence as the norm, can and do manifest in all areas of our society — from the workplace to the home, from the schoolyard to the White House. In her book Unsportsmanlike Conduct, journalist Jessica Luther makes the case that these issues have a particular pernicious impact in the realm of American college sports.

Since college is where we tend to assume that many young people learn to be adults, and since male athletes are assumed to be one of the models for masculinity, the high rate of sexual assault committed by college athletes is particularly alarming. Equally alarming is the general persistent failure of the institutions involved — from individual college athletics departments to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) — to take responsibility or ensure accountability, at least historically.

Truthout spoke with Luther about her book, its broader implications, the factors that have prevented sexual assault by college athletes being taken seriously and the prospects for change.

(Note: This interview was conducted prior to the inauguration of Donald Trump as president.)

“It’s not that you have to care about sports … you should care about how sports media and sports culture handles this issue when it comes up.”

Joe Macaré, Truthout: In case those who haven’t read Unsportsmanlike Conduct may be skeptical: Why should people who don’t care about college football as a sport care about the issue of sexual assault by college football players in particular?

Jessica Luther: Not to be flippant about it but sports are very popular, football in particular. It would be weird to not care about how an issue like sexual violence is talked about in that arena, especially because the audience for college football or sports in general is, most likely, an audience that doesn’t engage much on this topic. It’s not that you have to care about sports, per se; it’s that you should care about how sports media and sports culture handles this issue when it comes up.

It struck me while reading this book how revealing it is that “locker room talk” has been used as essentially a justification for “joking” about or even bragging of committing sexual assault, most notably by Donald Trump. Can you talk a little about the connection between how we as a society understand sports and what we think is acceptable male behavior?

I have many thoughts about Trump’s use of the shrugging “it’s just locker room talk” to dismiss his crude, explicit language about committing sexual assault, but what I keep coming back to is that a big reason he used that phrase is, it’s easily digestible. He assumed (and rightly so, it seems) that most people would hear “locker room talk,” imagine how sexist all-male and/or sports spaces are, and agree that those kind of things just happen there.

“A big reason Trump used the phrase “it’s just locker room talk” is it’s easily digestible.”

Lots of professional male athletes responded to Trump’s excuse by saying that the locker rooms they work in and the ones they were in when they were younger did not contain that kind of misogynistic language — what Trump said was extreme. At the same time, that also seemed like a deflection instead of actually engaging in the myriad ways that sport excuses or even protects bad male behavior, recreates hierarchy that can be harmful to women and people whose gender expressions are out of line with standard ideas about how men should act (however that’s defined), and always sees female athletes as inferior to their male counterparts.

Unsportsmanlike Conduct notes that the police themselves can be part of the problem. In particular, how are police and athletic departments often connected and how does that shape events when someone is sexually assaulted by a college athlete?

It’s not uncommon for local police to work as security for the team when they are off-duty, which means they can develop professional relationships with the coaches and/or athletes and also have a financial investment in the smooth running of the team. You sometimes hear that officers are alumni of the university, or even boosters of the football program. This familiarity can lead to poor decision-making on the parts of cops when a player is reported for violence.

Author Jessica Luther. (Photo: Courtesy of Jessica Luther)

Author Jessica Luther. (Photo: Courtesy of Janelle Matous)

At Tennessee, we learned in a recent case that the cops called the head football coach before going over to a player’s house to collect evidence after a woman reported that the player had assaulted her. In October 2014, The New York Times reported, in a piece about my alma mater, Florida State: “the way the police on numerous occasions have soft-pedaled allegations of wrongdoing by Seminoles football players. From criminal mischief and motor-vehicle theft to domestic violence, arrests have been avoided, investigations have stalled and players have escaped serious consequences.” That same year, ESPN’s Paula Lavigne published a piece about 10 schools and included the sometimes troubling relationships between police departments and athletic departments. This doesn’t mean all programs do this or all athletes (or even all football players) receive preferential treatment, but when looking into these cases, that possible overlap and its consequences has to be explored.

How does the fact that college athletes are not paid for their labor contribute to making the problem worse?

One major way I talk about this is with the way programs use women and, more specifically, access to women for sex, in order to recruit players.

Because schools cannot pay players (per NCAA regulations), they use a lot of different things to get players to come to their schools: hire the best coaches (who get paid extraordinary amounts), build amazing facilities, promise a good education, etc. They also offer up women.

Sometimes it’s pretty benign — photoshop a player’s picture on the cover of Rolling Stone walking hand-in-hand with Beyoncé, the idea that fame and a pretty woman will be your reward if you attend their program. Sometimes, though, it is providing women and sex. Louisville, Army and Oklahoma State all got in trouble for this over the last two years. The worst manifestation of this is when a woman reports that she was assaulted by a recruit during their recruiting visit, which is common enough that I can point to the reported gang rape at Minnesota from September as an example of this. When we don’t pay players, schools offer alternative attractions to them, sometimes those being female students.

“Familiarity can lead to poor decision-making on the parts of cops when a player is reported for violence.”

What are some of the other ways in which the NCAA bears responsibility — and shirks responsibility — for not protecting those who are assaulted and not holding those who commit sexual assault to account?

The NCAA does not do anything about this issue. Or, rather, there are no NCAA rules that exist to punish schools [that] have cultural failure in their athletic departments around this issue or to mandate schools to do preventative education. And it’s important to note that it is not uncommon for the woman who reports being assaulted herself to be an NCAA athlete.

The media are another group who you find wanting in Unsportsmanlike Conduct in major ways. Why do the media in general, and sports media in particular, fail so badly when it comes to covering sexual assault?

I will preface this answer by saying that I think sports media is getting better. And it is weird, on some level, that we ask sports reporters to handle the reporting of these complicated cases that often involve an understanding of Title IX, university procedures, reading police reports and court documents, knowing about prosecutorial discretion, understanding trauma and its effects on survivors’ ability to recall what has happened to them, patterns that emerge in many cases of interpersonal and/or intimate violence, etc.

The natural move for someone who is normally covering how a team practices, and what the coaches think will be their biggest struggle in the upcoming game, is to tell the story of a reported assault through the lens of: What is going to happen to the team? How does this particular player getting in trouble affect team cohesion? What do we know about this player and how does this report square with that? So, you get the centering of an athlete and their athletic ability in a story that has very little to do with that, except that we all care about this one because the person accused plays a sport.

“When we don’t pay players, schools offer alternative attractions to them, sometimes those being female students.”

The result is often that the violence itself is rarely addressed, the person who reported is sometimes left out completely (media in general write about sexual violence in the passive voice), and the coach and university administrators can get away with vague, euphemistic non-responses to how they will address this case and the issue more generally.

Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape

In the second half of the book you outline a number of alternative “plays,” steps that could be taken to make sexual assault by college athletes less common. It’s clear there is no magic bullet, but are there one or two that could be done quickly and easily that would have the most immediate significant impact?

Well, one of them is to hold people at the top accountable and in the last year, we have seen two head coaches at winning programs (Baylor and Minnesota) fired for their responses to reports of sexual violence by their players (though the circumstances at the programs were very different).

To mitigate this problem, we need two things: 1) prevention and 2) good response when it happens. For the former, that’s going to come from good, comprehensive consistent education, messaging, and modeling of consent, as well as discussions about how to effectively practice bystander intervention. It’d be lovely if we could start that education at the youngest age, but certainly universities need to do their part for their students.

For the latter, we need better understandings of how trauma manifests and its effects on the behavior and brains of people who experience violence. So much of the beliefs people have about people who report sexual violence are wrong, because their ideas about how one should behave after experiencing that violence is wrong. How will we ever effectively respond when violence is reported if we don’t even have a basic idea of the consequences of the violence itself?

How does having an incoming president who has not only been accused of sexual assault but essentially boasted about it affect the prospects for making college campuses safer and freer from sexual assault? In what ways is this likely to affect enforcement of Title IX?

“We need better understandings of how trauma manifests and its effects on the behavior and brains of people who experience violence.”

It’s hard to say at this point. Reason had a post last year wherein a defense attorney — who helps people (mainly men), who are accused of sexual violence and subsequently punished by their universities, dispute those consequences — literally said, “if the public is going to forgo allegations of sexual misconduct in the president, it certainly would seem to me that the OCR has been overreaching,” the OCR being the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights that takes and investigates Title IX complaints (because Title IX is, after all, a civil rights law). And the follow-up to this is that a Congressman wants to do away with guidelines the Obama administration put in place to help universities follow Title IX because those guidelines, he says, are “one-size-fits-all procedures which provide less protection to the accused, and deny the often-innocent accused basic due process rights.” This is, to say the least, troubling.


 Joe Macaré is Truthout’s publisher and a coeditor of the anthology Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect? Police Violence and Resistance in the United States. His interest in police repression, people’s movements and activism began among the protesters, observers and bystanders “kettled” for seven hours by the London Metropolitan Police on May Day, 2001. Follow him on Twitter: @joemacare.

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