From Steubenville to Vanderbilt, stories of rape culture and football repeatedly made local and national headlines in the last couple of years. Though problems with sexual violence have coincided with football since the sport's inception, today a handful of survivors and journalists are bringing the issue to a national spotlight.
Jessica Luther, an investigative journalist, is one of them. For the past three years, Luther has added to the dialogue surrounding rape in football. Since 2013, she has kept track of over 110 cases of sexual assault in college football and contributed to Broadly's own NFL Report.
This week, Luther will release her new book, Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape. We spoke with Luther about what needs to be done to prevent future assaults and how we can ensure that perpetrators are prosecuted instead of praised.
BROADLY: Why did you decide to focus on football?
Jessica Luther: I personally love college football. I went to Florida State and one of the biggest cases of college football and sexual assault from 2013 involved the quarterback for the team I loved. That was my entry into the topic. Initially, I was asked to do a general sports and violence against women book and it just seemed too big.
Do you think that sexual assault is more prevalent in football?
No. I feel weird talking about statistics around assault because it's so underreported. I don't assume it's happening more there than anywhere else in our society; I think we just talk about it more, and there's also a system set up to protect players so there's sort of that power.
I had to reconcile my own fandom with my own feelings about how we cover and talk about sexual assault.
Can you talk about how the rape allegations against Jameis Winston were a catalyst for you in your research?
Sure, it was timing for me. I had just become aware that in the summer of 2013 there was a case at Vanderbilt involving four football players gang raping a fellow student. There was also a trial going on with three college players who were accused of raping a fellow student. Simultaneously, there was speculation around whether or not Johnny Manziel, who is much more famous now for terrible things, was paid for his autograph. That was easily the most popular story while there were two cases of gang-rape going on involving seven football players. That was a really strange moment for me to recognize how little people cared about the topic, so it was on my radar. When the case broke about [Jameis] Winston, there was this confluence for me about being aware that sports media wasn't really interested in this topic and being a fan of Florida State football. I had to reconcile my own fandom with my own feelings about how we cover and talk about sexual assault.
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You talk about a "different kind of playbook" in your book—can you explain what you mean by that?****
One of the things that I'm interested in is the narrative that we buy into as soon as a case breaks. There are things that coaches and university administrators say to deflect attention away from what the player has been accused of. There are narratives the media will latch onto in order to not talk about the violence that's been reported. The other big one is the non-response of the NCAA. These are some of the big patterns which are used by very powerful people to minimize and often ignore the violence that has been reported.
Can you discuss some of the cultural power structures which you say "surround football players and protect them from having to answer from the violence they commit?"
Sure. College football is an incredibly huge financial powerhouse on campus. Head coaches are often the most highly-paid state employees. Their paychecks are much higher than the president of the university. These coaches have very little job security—so it's all about winning and it's all tied into this financial machine. They are exploiting the players who are the ones physically going out and doing the labor in order to make that money. So there are a lot of things in place that happen when a player is reported for anything—academic cheating scandals are a big thing in sports. Those [cultural power structures] kick in when players are having trouble. It's not about teaching these athletes; it's about keeping them on the field.
How does racism play into sexual assault in football?
The majority of players are black. This is just a fact. One of the things we have to be aware of, and I'm hyper aware of this when I'm writing, is when we talk about sexual assault around football, the perpetrators often have black faces in a society where we are so comfortable with black men being the perpetrators of crime. Really, it goes back to this cultural power structure that's controlled by white men: coaches, administrators, the head of the NCAA, sports media—which is an incredibly white male space. These are the people perpetuating this culture and exploiting these black men as players on the college level. That's never talked about, and that's part of the racism, too. We leave it with black men's faces in the news as perpetrators of violence, and we just never talk about the fact that there's a whole cultural system set up around them controlled by white men. There is a systemic cultural problem in this sport—you can't avoid that fact.
It's easy to question the women who you don't know versus the players who you feel like you do.
Why are women who say they were raped by a sports player so often thought to be lying or looking for money?
We are set up as a culture to not believe women—to find them dramatic, to find them hysterical, that they're out for attention. Part of it is the type of crime and what evidence ends up existing, which is often one person's version of what happened versus another's. We very much discount the experiences of women across the board. All these things are hyper when we're talking about anyone in the public eye. College football is a little different because they don't really have money. But, like in the Jameis Winston case, he went on to make a lot of money in the NFL. It's an easy narrative to latch onto: She's greedy, she's a gold digger. People are quick to believe that.
Is that the same reason why it's so hard for sports fans to side with victims in these cases?
Yeah, I think so. Often in these cases you're dealing with a high profile athlete and a woman you've never met whose name you often don't know. You know nothing about her, other than that she's a woman who reported this person for assault. You can pin all sorts of things onto her when you know nothing about her. But these players—we know them. You can look up a profile of them that tells you how much they love their mom and what kind of sandwich they like to eat for lunch. It's easy to question the women who you don't know versus the players who you feel like you do.
How does the media play into this issue?
I think, and I want to believe, that we're in a transitional moment with the media, but I do have very specific examples of what I don't like about sports media. Sports media is trained to focus on athletes, to write about what happens on the field. They're not trained to write about sexual assault. They're not trained in any way to imagine that victims or survivors are going to read their stuff. So, all of a sudden, someone on their beat is accused and they want to shift so quickly back to the field. They're like 'Okay, let's go back to what we're comfortable with which is talking about this player as an athlete and what he does within the field.' They don't really know how to [report on sexual assault] very well, but over the last two years, since I first wrote that chapter, I feel like sports media is getting better.
Read more: The NFL and Violence: A Dangerous Love Story
Would you say the issue of sexual assault in college football is getting better or garnering attention?
Yeah, it's surprising to me that my book is relevant. When I was asked to write about this, part of me thought by the time we get there no one will care about this, and yet here we are. So yeah, I think people are paying more attention. Social media plays a huge role. Survivors can take to an unmediated space to tell their stories. That was certainly huge in the Baylor case. My partner and I did the initial reporting on Baylor and that had an impact, but then everything sort of re-ramped up earlier this year because a survivor came forward to tell their story on a blog post which went viral on social media. I think we're both seeing sports media become better with how they report on this and [also seeing that] when they're not good at it, they're met with a wave of criticism that they can't ignore. All that together makes me feel like we're moving in the right direction.
This is a loaded question, but here it goes: What needs to be done to make this better, and whose responsibility is it?
That is a huge question. A third of my book looks at that—it's a sad work otherwise. As a society, we're very bad about talking about consent. Universities need to be doing consent education, preventative education around this issue. Do I think it should start with universities? No. If I was in charge of the world, kindergarteners would be getting consent education.
There are concrete things: More women need to be involved across the board in everything. Are their women in locker rooms? Are there women helping make decisions? And not just a woman. The NCAA needs to take a look at how little they seem to care. This isn't just about whether or not an athlete has done a bad thing, it's also about who is the victim and it's often other athletes. Fans are responsible too … they make it much harder for people to come forward. You hear about this all the time from women who tell police, 'I didn't want to report because he's a football player and I know how that works.'