Jessica Luther Offers NCAA a New Playbook for ‘Unsportsmanlike Conduct’ in Debut Book

With students returning to campus and football season kicking off this week, investigative journalist Jessica Luther’s book Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape, is arriving at a pivotal moment.

In Unsportsmanlike Conduct, Luther isn’t solely telling sports fans how bad things are. She’s also done the incredible emotional labor of building solutions that might give us back some of the joy we once had on game days. Shutterstock

Reporting on the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses and in the sports world has exploded over the past few years, leading to heightened awareness and accountability. With 246 current investigations into Title IX violations at 195 institutions of higher education, incidents of gender-based violence are so visible it would be easy for the average bystander to experience topic fatigue and assume we’re well on our way to solving this problem, if they don’t still believe many of these cases are isolated incidents and not symptomatic of a larger issue.

A study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported on at Inside Higher Ed earlier this year indicates we have miles to go. On average, one-quarter of female seniors and 7 percent of male undergraduates say they have been sexually assaulted on campus with only 12.5 percent of the women who said they were raped reporting the assault to colleges or law enforcement. And in the college sports world, the incidents of sexual assault are even higher, with reporting more challenging and consequences nearly nonexistent.

With students returning to campus and football season kicking off this week, investigative journalist Jessica Luther’s book Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape, due out September 6 from Akashic Book’s Edge of Sports imprint, is arriving at a pivotal moment.

For Unsportsmanlike Conduct, Luther has tracked incidents of sexual assault in sports across decades and in all corners of the country, creating a thorough account of how these cases are currently handled by college or university administrations, media, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). She confirms trends and details toxic patterns, making it impossible for readers to brush off incidents as isolated and unrelated. Then, just when the systems that perpetuate the violence seem inevitable and unchallengeable, she brilliantly uses the imagery of the sport she has loved all her life to create a “new playbook” that could change not just collegiate football, but our entire culture.

Dave Zirin, editor of Edge of Sports Books and sports editor at The Nation, explains in the foreword for Unsportsmanlike Conduct why Luther’s reporting and playbook to solve the epidemic of sexual assault in college sports matters beyond those of us who are fans.

“We know … that on many campuses, sports are at the heart of campus life and athletes are deified, entitled campus leaders who have a tremendous amount of influence on their communities,” writes Zirin. “These heroes are more likely to commit and be charged with sexual assault. One study shows that college athletes make up 3.3 percent of male students, but 19 percent of those accused of sexual assault.”

We demand that male athletes exemplify a macho, hypersexualized, aggressive ideal of masculinity. It’s no surprise, then, that fostering that image often leads to their internalizing an entitlement to acting out sexual and often violent impulses.

As a lifelong college football fan and a survivor of multiple sexual assaults—including as an Elmhurst College student—I thought I was pretty in touch with this epidemic. I’ve written about rape culture in sports for Rewire and elsewhere, taking on the role of the frustrated fan who struggles with believing other survivors while wanting incidents involving my players and teams to not be true. But statistics like the one Zirin cited about the percentage of college athletes involved in sexual assault cases hit me hard every time; the problem is so much worse than I had imagined.

One aspect of the epidemic that stands out from Luther’s reporting in the book includes a report issued by the U.S. Senate in July 2014, titled “Sexual Violence on Campus: How Too Many Institutions Are Failing to Protect Students.” While, as Luther concedes, 36 percent of us assume athletes are given more slack, the percentage of universities that have explicitly separate procedures for athletes accused of sexual assault is staggering. According to the report, “many institutions also use different adjudication procedures for student athletes. More than 20% of institutions in the national sample give the athletic department oversight of sexual violence cases involving student athletes. Approximately 20% of the nation’s largest public institutions and 15% of the largest private institutions allow their athletic departments to oversee cases involving student athletes.”

Allowing entities with millions of dollars and in some cases national titles on the line to determine the guilt or innocence of the athletes on whom those dollars and titles hinge is indefensible.

But in Unsportsmanlike Conduct, Luther isn’t solely telling sports fans how bad things are. She’s also done the incredible emotional labor of building solutions that might give us back some of the joy we once had on game days.

“This is in fact more than a book; it is a tool to help crack the code of why these assaults keep happening,” wrote Zirin. “This will help athletic departmentsif 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 couldn’t agree more.

Luther’s research is exhaustive. Importantly, she takes time to incorporate the intersectional factors that affect college sports culture such as race and unpaid labor, along with the unstated truisms that white supremacy brings to collegiate sports when mixed with entrenched misogyny.

“In our society, there is a reason cases involving African American players garner more attention than those of white ones. We are trained to see black men as perpetrators who need to be punished and controlled by the state,” she writes. “We also believe women to be dramatic and/or liars when they share their experiences, especially their interactions with men.”

In just three sentences, Luther has laid the foundation for why college sports perpetuates existing tropes and is an arena almost designed to foster sexual assault.

“Who else would commit such a crime, if not young black men? Who else would lie about having sex after the fact, if not young women?” Luther writes.

She goes on to rhetorically shake her head at the way these uncomfortable truths go unexamined in our media and in attempts by the NCAA and other powerful entities to address sexual assault:

[I]t shouldn’t go without saying because, while 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.

No one is safe from Luther’s warranted criticism in a system failing so flagrantly and publicly to prevent violence and support assault survivors. While taking care not to excuse individuals’ behavior, Luther spreads the blame beyond the assailants.

“Exploitation is inherent in the system of college athletics; the humanity of players themselves is often stripped away by this kind of sports culture,” she explains. “The stripping away of the humanity of a woman by a potential rapist is similar in many ways—though not directly parallel—to the dehumanization that takes place when university administrators, team owners, and league commissioners commodify the bodies of these players.”

How do we fix any of this? Luther starts her 13-play “How It Could Be” section with a change that would have made all the difference to me when I was assaulted on my campus almost 20 years ago: “Consent Is Cool; Get Some.”

She explains that she made this the first play because “we just don’t talk about it enough. Honestly, it’s hard to imagine that we could talk about it too much.” If we had talked about consent at all in an explicit way when I was in high school or college, I would have understood what happened to me wasn’t my fault and that it was something I could have reported.

As an inexperienced 20-year-old, the cultural expectation that boys push and girls say no for a while until they give in had a firm hold on me. It wasn’t just in Disney movies and romantic comedies, it was an undeniable current in the abstinence teaching at my church and in the “well, if you feel you can’t wait, we can talk about birth control” talk my mom gave me in junior high. There would be pressure I would need to resist, I was told; I was the gatekeeper and it would be my willpower alone that determined how far things went.

So, when a friend I had been involved with off and on walked me down the hall to my room after a party my junior year and didn’t take my initial “no” for an answer, I thought the whole thing was both my fault and no big deal. Had anyone at any point so much as insinuated that I had a right to expect my assailant to inquire about my interest and comfort rather than pushing until I tried unsuccessfully to squirm out from under his restraining hold on my wrists and legs, I would have had him—at the very least—removed from my dorm for my safety. And when he started showing up at my on-campus housing the following summer, I would have considered calling both security and the police to pursue a restraining order. Instead, I didn’t get that what happened was a violation that I shouldn’t have had to deal with.

It is in this chapter on consent that Luther outlines perhaps the most shocking trend she includes in the book: Roughly 40 percent of sexual assaults she’s encountered in her reporting on college football were perpetrated or witnessed by groups of players. When I read Luther’s reporting and analysis, I felt both sick to my stomach and incredibly lucky that my college assault had only one assailant.

Luther describes a sort of permission by participation—that it is ultimately easier to violate someone when others are also violating them, watching, recording, and/or encouraging the behavior. How, she asks, could a group of men collectively ignore cries of “No!” and signs that the victim is intoxicated or otherwise incapacitated?

“One answer can be that it was a gang rape and it is easier to continue a given behavior if people you are with are doing it too,” she writes. “One other answer is that we, as a society, have allowed the idea of consent to be murky for so long now that for people who want to violate it, they can excuse away in their minds any evidence that what is happening is nonconsensual. Both of these ideas are terrifying.”

Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape

I wholeheartedly endorse Luther’s analysis that the “burden for establishing consent cannot be on one person alone.” Our institutions, law enforcement, and individual members of society need to alter how we think about consent from a presumed yes until someone says no, to the philosophy of enthusiastic consent and uncoerced participation.

We are making some headway on consent in our broader culture, with campaigns like “It’s On Us” from the Obama administration and state-level laws on comprehensive sexual education requiring discussion of affirmative consent. Luther boils down what all of these efforts together should be working toward: “We should all do our absolute best to practice consent this way [i.e. enthusiastically and mutually], in order to be respectful to both ourselves and our partners.”

Hear, hear.

Some of Luther’s other plays are similar in their simplicity. For example, she calls for better enforcement of Title IX law by federalizing coordinators who investigate violations. What if those tasked with assessing compliance were appointed by the Department of Education, rather than the universities they’re investigating? Also, teams and universities should also be specific about the preventive education happening on their campuses; lip service isn’t even close to enough.

The new play of Luther’s that makes me the most hopeful is “Follow the Players.” There really are some players—Ohio State linebacker Jerome Baker, for example—who are actively working to change locker room culture. He was a prized recruit who leveraged his visibility by asking his high school teammates to sign a pledge to speak out against gendered violence and then setting up a seminar with another player for athletes near his hometown of Cleveland. Those players should be empowered by coaches and athletic departments to organize and implement programs nationwide that tackle toxic masculinity.

Luther goes on to call for people to actually get fired. It’s remarkable how rarely anyone in power is held accountable for anything when it comes to sexual assault on campuses. It’s unconscionable how much money—millions and millions and millions of dollars—athletic directors and coaches continue to make despite multiple players being reported for bad behavior.

She critiques bystander intervention by making the salient and often ignored point that “it doesn’t actually address the matter of getting perpetrators to, well, stop assaulting people.” According to the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act of 2013 as reported at Rewire in 2014, “Bystander intervention should teach people how to recognize threatening situations and safely intervene, but also to understand ‘institutional structures and cultural conditions that facilitate violence.’”

With three out of four victims knowing their assailant, expecting bystanders to know when intervention is even necessary seems challenging at best.

She also asks the NCAA to “just do something, anything, at this point, beyond empty words” and demands that sports media do better too. Commentators and columnists need to be educated on how trauma affects behavior and that just because a case gets dropped or isn’t prosecuted doesn’t mean there was a false report, Luther writes.

She further explains why it is critical that sports media specifically improve: “How the media address sexual assault has an impact on society at large because it is within sports media that we often talk about this particular issue.”

How our larger media is failing at covering sexual assault in our society, leaving the bulk of the work to sports media, is a topic for another book.

The conclusion to Unsportsmanlike Conduct left me feeling slightly less dread about this year’s seasona pretty remarkable feat in itself, given the past few years.

In “Courage Is Contagious,” Luther talks about her lifelong love of her alma mater, Florida State University, and how the allegations against Jameis Winston (now a highly paid, lauded professional quarterback) regarding a 2012 assault, rocked her.

“[P]art of me wishes I could watch the game detached from all of this. The FSU fan in me is desperate to feel the high of cheering on my team without the weight of knowing the cost of the system that creates football champions,” she writes. “I bleed garnet and gold, but that blood now flows into a brain that is no longer ignorant, nor blissful. And all of it together makes my heart hurt. It’s time to do something about that.”

As a fan of FSU rival Notre Dame, I have had a hard time watching my team as well. Luther details some of Notre Dame’s egregious actions and inactions over the past several years in the book; it would be hard to decide which school ranks lower in response to sexual assault.

I miss football. I miss being excited for Saturdays and being thankful that no matter where I’ve moved, my team has a major network television deal and enough of a national following to guarantee I get to see them play if I want to. I simply haven’t wanted to and the loss I have felt is real.

I am rooting for Luther’s new playbook. Hard. Like her, I can no longer “operate in some neutral space” where I separate on and off the field actions. I am with her when she says:

On a personal level, as a fan of the sport and an advocate for reducing and ending sexual violence, I need those new plays and I need them now. I need to know that the sport I love sees sexual assault and rape as unsportsmanlike conduct, as fundamentally opposite to the spirit of the game.

Now that I hold that playbook in my hands, I plan to demand that colleges, athletic departments, the NCAA, and my fellow fans utilize them. We can no longer say the problem is too big to solve.