In the summer of 2013, the journalist Jessica Luther watched news unfold on two alleged gang rapes involving college football players, one at Vanderbilt University and the other at the United States Naval Academy. She started poking around, searching for similar cases, and she was surprised at just how prevalent the pattern was, she says.
Then, two months later, another sexual-assault case made national headlines — Jameis Winston, now a professional quarterback who at the time played at Florida State University, was to be investigated for an alleged rape in 2012. The local police had investigated the accusation but had never filed charges.
As that story gained traction, Ms. Luther says, she did not like how the news media focused on Mr. Winston’s athletic ability or how the allegation might affect his team, which was having a breakout year. "So I started writing about it to counter what I was seeing, and I just never stopped," Ms. Luther says.
Now Ms. Luther has written a book, Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape, coming out in September from Edge of Sports, that investigates the systematic ways she says rape culture is perpetuated in college football. She spoke with The Chronicle this week about her reporting, her bygone love of the sport, and the shroud of secrecy that college administrators often throw over high-profile cases. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. You’re an alumna of Florida State, and you describe yourself as a diehard fan. So how did it feel to see something like that happen at a place you really loved?
A. I think you feel sad about it. Since I’ve been writing about it for the last three and a half years, fans get angry at me for the work. You know, that’s difficult to manage. But I understand how they feel. It’s hard when it’s your team and you just don’t want to believe that this stuff happens at the place that you love. I just remember feeling that sort of sense of disbelief, like, "No, not here. I don’t want it to be here."
Q. How has your relationship to college football changed since the beginning of your reporting?
A. It’s gotten worse. This is the first year going into the season where I think I might not watch it. I’m not sure yet, because I thought that last year, too, and then I ended up watching … I find it much harder now to enjoy the games. … It used to be a joy for me. It used to be a place I could go for four hours and just watch it, enjoy it, and that was it. And now I know too much. I know too many names associated with not good stuff.
Q. In the book you write about the patterns you kept seeing in the coverage of and attention paid to sexual assault and rape by football players. What are some of those patterns?
A. The most basic one is that the focus is almost entirely on the athlete and the team, even though the reason we’re talking about them is because someone has reported them. That person often gets left out — or just even the idea that there are victims and the impact of all of this on survivors of this kind of violence. And when we do that, we write the violence out completely.
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And then there’s just stuff like, as soon as the legal stuff ends, we want to move on … The other thing that happens is, it often can turn into a story of redemption for this athlete, right? And even in those stories, they won’t necessarily tell you what they’re being redeemed from.
Q. Do you think college football, as a sport, is unique in its mishandling and cover-up of rape and sexual assault?
A. No, I don’t. I think there are specific things happening around college football. I mean it’s a huge thing. The amount of people who watch it, the amount of money that these teams generate — that kind of thing is sort of special … But we see this in all sorts of places … anywhere you look at any kind of hierarchy, any kind of space where there’s a power differential.
Q. Is apathy or indifference to these issues a typical response you’ve run up against?
A. Yes, where people are like, "Well, yeah, of course this happens, right? This is how it works. There’s so much money in this. All these people are super-invested. Of course they’re going to protect the players." You get that kind of thing.
You also get "Well, this happens everywhere" kind of apathy. So anytime that I will report on a specific school, [people ask,] "Well, why are you reporting on this specific school? It happens at all the places." Which is of course when I’m like, I have a book. So yes, of course it does. This is systemic.
Q. What can colleges do to help alleviate these problems?
A. There are things like we need to teach consent. You know, really basic stuff. We need a better understanding of what trauma looks like when someone is trying to tell their story, because it’s not what we think it is. Someone who has been through trauma, they often remember in pieces. So they might come back two months later with a new piece to their memory, and that’s totally normal. But we see that as a reason to be suspicious of them because we just don’t have an understanding of how trauma affects the brain.
I wonder aloud in the book about why Title IX coordinators are not federal employees paid by the federal government instead of the university … And fandom gets in the way. Fans are too invested in the team that they won’t interrogate the system around it, and sort of, why would you want to be a fan of a team that’s doing these things?
And hiring more women, that’s a big one for me. Sports media is one of the worst spaces for women as far as percentages, but I also mean for locker rooms. Sometimes I read about stuff that goes down, and you just think if there was a woman or three women in that room, would they say those things? Would they just for half a second stop and pause and maybe change what they’re doing if they just had to look at a woman as they said it?
Q. Who do you hope reads your book? Who do you think could benefit?
A. Of course sports media who have to write on this topic … Whenever a story breaks, I think about whoever has access to that coach, I hope that they ask the right questions. But then I want players and coaches and administrators and people that work at the NCAA. They probably won’t like my book, but I’m OK with that. I wish that we were having a conversation together. That would be ideal for me.