Writer Jessica Luther on sexual violence in college sports

Janelle Matous

Jessica Luther is the author of "Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape."

Jessica Luther doesn't really watch football anymore. She might stumble upon a game, but not very often, and she no longer considers herself a fan. As an independent journalist who reports at the intersection of college football and sexual violence, her attentions often drift elsewhere. To put it in the simplest of terms: She knows too much, and that complicates Luther's ability and desire to watch.

Her book, "Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape," which was released on Sept. 6, 2016, is a culmination of her dedication to finding truth in often murky waters. 

"When I watch college football and a team pops up, I often think of a survivor," Luther said in a phone interview. "This happens a lot because of how many survivors I know, and how many stories I know."

It wasn't always this way for Luther. The self-described former band geek from Melbourne, Florida -- she played flute, piccolo, and was the drum major -- grew up as a Seminoles football fan and played basketball for a few years. She often watched the games on TV with her father, then in Doak S. Campbell Stadium as an undergraduate at Florida State.

"Sports have always been an important part of my life, as a spectator, and for a while as an athlete," Luther said.

Luther's connection to sports effectively launched her journalism career. A historian by trade, Luther left her doctoral program at the University of Texas and published one of her first pieces in The Guardian a little over three years ago.

"I just remember it worked," Luther said. "I pitched it. They took it. I wrote it -- and I liked the piece. I realized that I could do this, and I could do it about sports."

Courtesy of Akashic Books

'Unsportsmanlike Conduct' is out now.

Then the summer of 2013 happened, and sexual violence cases at the U.S. Naval Academy and Vanderbilt University popped up on her radar. She knew it was time for her to become the voice of the often voiceless. Luther started taking her writings seriously and quickly assented to become an authority on the topic. 

"No one in sports media seemed to care," she said. "And no one was talking about it as a larger contextual [problem] in sports, but everyone was really obsessed with whether or not Johnny Manziel was paid for his autograph."

This ambivalence served as inspiration for "Unsportsmanlike Conduct". She had witnessed many institutions of higher education and the media sweep many of these cases out of the public eye as quickly as possible. And the problem was cyclical.

"There were 115 cases that I knew of when I wrote the book, and all of them were reported by the media," Luther said. "A case will break, and it feels like everyone has a script. We all follow it. The case will go away. Nothing happens. And most of us move on with our lives -- forgetting about those who can't move on."

When it was announced in November 2013 that Florida State standout player Jameis Winston -- now the quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- had been under investigation for sexual violence, Luther suddenly had to reckon with her own fandom.

"It was my school," she said. "Two things that were important to me ... came together in the worst way. I was reading everything, and I didn't really like how [the media] wrote about it. I was mad that we were talking about whether or not this would affect our ability to play in a football game. It just seemed so wrong to me that [the national championship game] was the focus."

Sexual violence on college campuses has become a prominent national discussion. The work of activists like Annie Clark, Andrea Pino, Alexandra Brodsky, and Dana Bolger helped catapult the awareness of this topic forward, with politicians such as Vice President Joe Biden taking up the mantle through his It's On Us campaign. However, there has also been plenty of pushback -- and controversy.

Journalists like Luther, whose work forces the public to examine sexual violence in college sports, inevitably step into the thick of that heated conversation, which is not without consequence.

"I woke up this morning to a private message from a Baylor fan who told me to burn in hell because I'm a stupid, lying b---h," she said. Luther was quick to point out that this response "is not typical," but the fact remains that there is plenty of vitriol in her Twitter and other social media mentions.

"I think it's weird that there are some people who hate me, and I don't know if I'll ever really come to terms with that," Luther said.

In that sense, writing "Unsportsmanlike Conduct" has provided a bit of a reprieve for the author. The book is a systemic look at the problem of sexual violence in college football, not an in-depth exploration of the problems of a specific institution (she's already done that). Luther noted that the book removes the emotion of fandom of a specific team or school, and therefore much of the response has been positive.

The subject matter itself, however, is complicated. Moving beyond the complexity of reporting on sexual violence, tackling a system such as college football is multilayered, and includes the often touchy topic of race. 

"I find the whole system very exploitative," Luther said. "There's a specific thing that I happen to know a lot about, but there is this other part of it. I know they aren't paying these guys, and most of them aren't going to the NFL. We know that black football players and basketball players do not get their degrees at a higher rate."

The racialized nature of her reporting is not lost on Luther, so she decided to dedicate a chapter to the subject. She is a white woman reporting on a subject that includes mostly black men in an often exploitative system -- so race becomes impossible to divorce from any part of this discussion.

"Our cultural ideas of criminalization, especially along racial lines, are so messed up that it makes this conversation very difficult to have," Luther said. "But I don't think that's a reason to not have the conversation, so I try to be transparent about [this tension] while I do the work. I understand how for some people that is not enough, and that's OK."

"Social media has been very good for me as a human being, as far as expanding my compassion, my critical thinking, and how I look at all of these issues," Luther continued. "I don't enjoy getting called out, of course, but so many of those moments have been productive for me, even if it's taken me time to sit with [those critiques]. I'm very thankful. I acknowledge Twitter in my book for that very reason."

Portions of Luther's days are always devoted to consuming information about sexual violence to the point where if an article is not pertinent to the work for which she is immediately responsible, Luther probably won't read it, or will take her time doing so. Self-care, Luther recognizes, is essential to her work, but is something that she readily admits that she struggles with, though she is getting better at finding ways to better address her own wellness.

"I often will read romance novels in the middle of the day," Luther said. "I have some that are my favorites that I will read over and over again."

The work Luther does is challenging, not just for her personally, but also culturally. It is hard to admit that sexual violence is a problem. It is a truth, but it is a sad one. Within "Unsportsmanlike Conduct," however, Luther dedicated a substantial amount of space to outlining a new "playbook" that would be a better response to sexual violence than the one currently in operation. And she was adamant about this inclusion. 

At the center of this new playbook is consent education.

"I couldn't write this book and it just be about the sad stuff," Luther said. "I needed there to be something at the end that suggests that this doesn't have to be this way forever."

As an immediate response, however, Luther also wrote an entire chapter about firing people at the top. (She penned the words a year and a half before Art Briles was fired as Baylor's head coach.)

"If there are culture failures at a school or a program, those people at the top should pay a price for it," she said.

Luther is already looking ahead, and her next book will tackle many of the challenges she faced with her own fandom. She and espnW writer Kavitha Davidson are co-authoring a book, titled "How to Love Sports When They Don't Love You Back".

She also wants to shift her focus to high school. She has Google alerts set up to track different stories of sexual violence and athletics, but she doesn't address the ones pertaining to high school coaches.

"High school coaches come up all the time being arrested for sexual violence, and I don't know what to do with that yet."

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