“I didn’t mean to end up on the college football/sexual assault beat; it’s not a fun place to hang out,” sports journalist Jessica Luther says. “But once you’re there, it’d hard to look away, to stop caring about its existence.” Luther’s refusal to look away has inspired much of her reporting as well as her new book, Unsportsmanlike Conduct, a painful account of how colleges and sports institutions systematically handle—and mishandle—rape accusations.
Luther grew up watching Florida State University football—“born with garnet and gold blood,” she says—and was devoted to the sport. "I went to every home game, sweating in the blistering heat of an early-season 11 a.m. start or freezing cold during mid-November rivalry games against Florida,” she writes. Bad weather and losses never made her doubt her fandom, but the 2013 season did. That’s when news broke that FSU’s number one quarterback recruit, Jameis Winston, had been accused of rape.
Unsportsmanlike Conduct, out this week, is an intensely detailed look into what happens (and what doesn’t) when college athletes face charges of sexual violence and how administrators, schools, coaches and fans are reluctant to hold them accountable as long as they win games and make their colleges money. Praised by Garbage Time’s Katie Nolan and ESPN’s Jemele Hill, Unsportsmanlike Conduct is a significant and riveting look at how one of the greatest cultural tragedies of the millennial generation—the silencing of sexual violence against women on campus—is nurtured by a system of cover-ups and corporatized crises management. Playboy talked to Luther about how the institutionalized world of college football specifically can be an incubator of sexual violence, often from the first day of player recruitment.
As a football fan, did you continue to love the game as you did all your reporting?
My relationship to it has evolved drastically. I don’t know that I love it any more. I love sports in general. I like the competition, I like the athleticism and I like seeing people do things with their bodies that you wouldn’t expect of them. I grew up with football, so the sport carries a nostalgic and sentimental factor for me. It’s also a common language; I can talk to a lot of people about football, from all corners in my life. But my relationship to it has changed. There’s a systemic issue with people not caring about sexual assault [on campuses] on top of issues with homophobia and the exploitation of the players, such as with players’ concussions. It’s exhausting to watch a football game and spend the entire time thinking about these stories.
In your book, you write about the NCAA and colleges having a “playbook” for addressing sexual violence. What is the goal of such playbooks?
It’s to reinforce the system that’s already in place, one that is very masculine and makes a lot of money. I definitely think the goal is to minimize, ignore and in some instances cover up the fact that sexual violence is happening. They do this for players in all sorts of ways. They have an apparatus in place to help players with any kind of criminal behavior that might get them in trouble off the field. There’s something egregious about this kind of violence, especially because locker room culture seems to encourage it.
How does locker room culture encourage sexual violence?
Toxic masculinity would be the catchphrase, right? It’s about making women seem inferior; that is, if you’re anything like a woman, you’re bad at what you’re doing. “You’re a pussy,” “You’re a bitch,” “You play like a girl"—all these phrases [often get said in locker rooms] and also feed into homophobia.
There’s also an issue with recruitment. Colleges can’t pay players and so they offer other incentives to encourage players to come to their school in lieu of a salary: bigger facilities, better coaches, the prospect of getting a national championship and the chance of getting into the NFL. With that, the promise is that you’ll be a big man on campus—and that you’ll have access to women.
There are obvious ways they promote that. They’ll actively use women in recruitment. They get them to flirt with recruits as a kind of implicit promise of what they’ll get if they come to the school. So you have this weird dynamic of having access to women, as part of your payment for coming here, and also the mentality that women are the lesser gender.
Would paying players salaries change some of these dynamics?
I can’t say that would stop it because I think the culture is pretty ingrained at this point. But I definitely think they’re using women in place of cash. I also think that, on a larger level, there are problems of exploitation within college football. Players come into these programs already understanding what it means to exploit a human body for gain, because that’s what’s happening to their bodies. Many people would say that because they get a scholarship, they’re being paid. But these players don’t often graduate under these scholarships. There’s not even a system in place to make sure that they graduate. The education is often sub-par because universities just want to keep their best players on the field. And of course, the sports that most people watch—basketball and football—often include African-American athletes. There’s an added racial dynamic to this discussion.
Would more female coaches or administrators help reduce sexual violence on campuses?
You can’t just hire a lady and be like, "We’re done here!” When you’re the only women…that doesn’t actually change anything because you don’t have anyone to back you up. But if you do have to look a woman in the eye when you’re saying horrible stuff about women, it changes a bit of your behavior. Whether or not it changes who you are at your core is less important to me. But it can’t just be one woman. It can’t be one person of color. It can’t be one gay man in the locker room for a shift to occur. It has to be more than lip service.