The football field at Baylor University in Waco.

All the Wrong Moves

In her first book, Jessica Luther challenges the college sports establishment to hold athletes accountable when they commit rape, sexual assault and domestic violence.

Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape By Jessica Luther Edge of Sports 224 PAGES; $15.95
Edge of Sports
By Jessica Luther
224 PAGES; $15.95

I live and love among the kinds of sports fans who obsess over trades, plays and stats. I come from a family teeming with generations of University of Texas fans. The Grimeses don’t just bleed burnt orange; if you cut us, everything from Longhorn oven mitts to branded cheese plates would spill out.

But for those of us who can’t ignore the headlines, it’s getting hard to remain sports fans: Athletes are arrested, indicted and, all too rarely, face consequences for committing acts of domestic violence, sexual assault and rape.

As I was writing this review, I took a break to peruse Twitter, hoping to distract myself briefly from this provocative subject, addressed by Austin journalist Jessica Luther in her timely and infuriating new book, Unsportsmanlike Conduct.

I didn’t even have to scroll down my feed before I spotted a tweet from SB Nation’s Matt Ufford, who contrasted the NFL’s newish (2014) Personal Conduct Policy about mandated six-game suspensions for first offenses involving battery and domestic violence with the news reports of Giants kicker Josh Brown’s one-game suspension for a misdemeanor domestic violence arrest and subsequent violation of a protective order.

It was a reminder that sports — football especially — are an inescapable part of American identity. And rules mean everything in sports; without rules, we’d be a pack of disorganized monkeys (apologies to monkeys for the comparison) hauling inflatable ball toys around a field. But off the field, as Luther ruthlessly illustrates in Unsportsmanlike Conduct, rules are squishier, with some mattering less than others, including, apparently, that one about six-game suspensions following domestic violence incidents.

In her book, Luther focuses on what happens before players make it to the NFL, calling out college football and the NCAA, university systems and media establishments that have failed, over the last 25 years or so, to hold the administrators, coaches and athletes that shore up a billion-dollar industry accountable for “bad decisions,” “poor behavior” and “missteps.”

Such euphemisms appear in Unsportsmanlike Conduct only to be called out as such. Where Luther knows the details of an attack or alleged attack by an athlete, she spells them out with often terrifying specificity. Not for the sake of sensationalism, but because the traditional sports media so often hides behind the aftermath of “allegations,” the chatter about whether the player(s) in question will ride the bench (a rarity) and what it all means for the next big game.

No one knows the world of college sports and rape better than Luther, who has amassed a growing list of news clips on the subject over the last several years. Other journalists — too few, but some — have ably delved into specific cases at specific schools. But Luther has made an attempt at something approaching comprehensiveness, a difficult task when, as her own work on Baylor University for Texas Monthly has shown, allegations, arrests and indictments so often stay, or are perhaps kept, out of the news pages.

Luther and I are friends, and she’s contributed to the Texas Observer in the past on the subject of sexual assault in higher education. She thanks me, and a long list of other reproductive justice and anti-rape advocates, in the introduction to her book. She and I have commiserated, more than once and usually over a beer or two, about the professional and emotional difficulties of writing about sexual violence in a world that seems unwilling to confront the more complicated facets of the subject.

But if the world at large handles rape badly — by disbelieving survivors, misunderstanding consent and claiming that “boys will be boys” — the sports world handles it abominably. No one need take my admittedly biased word for it if they peruse the first half of Unsportsmanlike Conduct, wherein Luther breaks down, using play-by-play as a rhetorical device, the ways in which the NCAA, universities and coaches obfuscate allegations and minimize crimes in the service of the almighty money-generating gridiron.

Luther names a host of “plays” used by governing entities and administrations to keep players suited up and their accusers quiet. There’s the “Nothing to See Here,” wherein colleges direct victims and the accused into mediation instead of a courtroom, or quietly move a player off campus in exchange for dropped charges. There’s “The Shrug,” in which the NCAA pretends to be helpless to manage the very university athletic departments it is tasked with overseeing, unable to provide or enforce consequences for coaches and programs that sweep terrible crimes — gang rapes, repeat offenses — under the AstroTurf.

Then there’s what Luther calls the most overused play in the book: “Moving On.” That’s when the sports media establishment is explicitly complicit, as reporters who value their access to coaches and teams comply with officials’ and coaches’ refusals to discuss cases of rape. Everyone agrees to focus on what really matters, the game, and not dwell on this all-too-frequent interstitial violence.

Thanks to the sheer size of the task that Luther has attempted — covering more than 100 documented instances of rape and rape allegations in college football since 1974 — the first half of Unsportsmanlike Conduct proves a challenging and occasionally confusing read. Luther tracks cases across the country, noting that players who’ve been accused of (and sometimes convicted for) rape are often allowed to transfer from school to school and that coaches and colleges have too-close ties to local police departments. There’s simply so much to cover that the act of reading her book can be exhausting, except when she gives herself a chance to stretch her analytical muscles.

Luther’s ability to challenge herself and her reader to grasp multiple, difficult truths about race, masculinity and exploitation take the book to another level. Three things can be true at once, writes Luther: That college football players — mostly black men — are exploited by the NCAA and athletic programs that make millions off their free labor; that these players can fall victim to a racist criminal justice system and, often, a racist fandom; and that sexual assault in college sports is a terrible, and terribly handled, problem. One that Luther puts in the hands of the overwhelmingly white and male college football leadership apparatus to fix.

Luther challenges the premise that these athletes — again, mostly black men — receive an education in exchange for their work, writing that “schools often let down student-athletes, especially black ones,” noting lower-than-average graduation rates for black male student-athletes. It is in the establishment of this deft and nuanced framework that Luther does what few other sportswriters have done: Challenge the system, not the player or the case.

In doing so, Luther treats victims and survivors of sexual assault with the respect and honesty sports journalists usually reserve for teams and agents. With an extensive survey of data, research and statistics that challenge widespread narratives surrounding sexual assault — including the deeply ingrained cultural lie that women are prone to lying about it — Luther refuses to fall prey to the trap of did he or didn’t he. Sometimes, the data unequivocally shows, he did. So, she asks, what is the NCAA going to do about it?

Luther isn’t waiting for the NCAA to come up with its own ideas. The second half of Unsportsmanlike Conduct is a new and alternative playbook that suggests a wealth of options the NCAA, colleges, coaches and journalists could use to better address the problem of rape in college football. For suggestions, Luther taps anti-rape activists, including former and current athletes tackling the problem of hypermasculinity and its attendant entitled aggressiveness.

Some of those ideas: Be specific. Student-athletes are rarely, if ever, educated on the nitty-gritty of sexual consent; often coaches, anxious to get back to the business of the ball, offer only platitudes about treating women with respect. Another: Fire people. “Either figure out how to support players better and actively work to change the culture on your team, or you’re done,” Luther writes. She also calls on her fellow journalists to treat each story with care: “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.”

But the suggestion that had me cheering from the sidelines was her wryly subversive advice to fellow sports fans: Calm down. I can’t help but see this as a rejoinder to the accusation that so many of us who write about, and who work against, sexual assault hear time and again — that we are emotional, that we are biased, and that our judgment is clouded by our undue willingness to believe people who say they’ve been raped.

Maybe, suggests Luther, blindly passionate fandom does something similar.

“When we talk about sexual violence in conjunction with one’s favorite team, the love of team is bolstered by endless cultural narratives that paint victims as liars, gold diggers, and opportunists,” she writes, and these narratives dissuade victims from reporting violence. If fans can calm down — if they can do what they too often perceive others not doing — we’ll go a long way toward looking with clearer eyes at a deep and complicated stain on a beloved American pastime.

As my favorite sports mantra goes: Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.

Andrea Grimes, a native Texan and avid twitterer, is the digital editor at the Observer.

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Published at 11:00 am CST