Unsportsmanlike Conduct: A Conversation With Author Jessica Luther

Jessica Luther grew up as a lifelong fan of the Florida State Seminoles. As a college student, she proudly wore her garnet and gold colors while blending into the sea of thousands at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, rooting passionately for football victory. 

Later, as a writer and investigative journalist whose work has appeared in Sports Illustrated,Vice Sports and Bleacher Report, among others, her name began percolating in national circles when she broke open the story about a Baylor University football player on trial for sexual assault in the summer of 2015.

It was a case that very few knew about, seemingly buried intentionally by a number of colluding entities. Her piece for Texas Monthly shined a light on something despicable that had not seen the light of day in terms of substantial media coverage for nearly two years.

She’d been aware of and interested in cases where college athletes were accused of sexual violence for some time, and was often perplexed at the lack of information available when she inquired further. Her interest intensified in November of 2013 when Jameis Winston, the star quarterback for her beloved FSU Seminoles, was under investigation for a rape that had taken place a year earlier.

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(Photo Credit: USA Today)

What she observed sickened her. Most of the talk around the star player was about how he had a chance to be the best Florida State quarterback ever, how the investigation would effect the team, how the victim had to be out for a percentage of his future NFL paychecks.

Luther saw little compassion in the media storm, with no attempts at an earnest, significant discussion about such a serious and difficult situation that seemed to have so many unexamined tentacles.

She felt that she needed to add her own voice and look deeper. The result was a proverbial opening of Pandora’s Box.

She quickly came to realize that this was not some momentary professional detour, for her individually and for us as an overall sports-crazed society. She would continue to write about the topic of college football and sexual assault ever since.

Her recent book, Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape, is a culmination of her work over the past few years. Her main goal is to bring about much more than a conversation. She’s hopeful for some substantive change. 

The work is very powerful, breaking down a systemic disease of sexual violence and assault against women within the college football apparatus. She illuminates the various methods employed by coaches, athletic directors, university officials, players, fans, the NCAA, local and national media, and local police departments that not only allows such heinous behavior, but that actually encourages it.

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“This book is an important mirror to make us question how sports became more important to the world than the women who make life possible,” said ESPN’s Bomani Jones.

In the midst of her nationwide book tour, The Shadow League caught up with Luther, who is widely recognized among the country’s foremost experts on gender issues in sports, to talk about the game that she loves, a criminal culture that’s allowed to exist, and the bureaucratic indifference that shows no sympathy for victims of sexual crimes on campus, all in the name of keeping the cash registers humming.


The Shadow League: How did you begin to embark on this examination of the culture of sexual violence in college football?

Jessica Luther: In the summer of 2013, I remember when the Vanderbilt case broke where four football players were arrested for raping a fellow student. Two of them were convicted. Simultaneously, there was a trial at Navy, where three football players were found not guilty of raping a fellow Midshipman. 

That was also the time when Johnny Manziel sold his autograph for money. And the national sports media was absolutely consumed  with whether or not Manziel made some money and broke NCAA rules, while there were seven college football players from two major programs who were accused of rape, a very severe crime. I remember thinking that was very weird.

When Jameis Winston’s case broke in November of 2013, I was paying attention because I’m a Florida State alum and fan. I was super invested in that team. I was invested in Winston, who was bringing us back from some terrible years.

I was reading all the coverage because I care about the issue of rape and sexual violence, and I cared about my team.

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TSL: What did you observe that unnerved you?

JL: I really didn’t like the coverage, how we talked about it, how it was written about. His athletic ability was at the center of the discussion even more than he was. It was all about the effect that this might have on the team. You almost would not have known that a woman had reported that she’d been raped. I really didn’t like it.

TSL: What happened from there, in terms of you jumping in to try to alter the discussion?

JL: There’s an inertia to this topic once you start writing about it. It’s hard to get out of it. Survivors contact you, you get tips, things like that. I backed into it, really.

TSL: At The Shadow League, we were watching this thing unfold, with this disgusting culture around the Baylor University football program that had been allowed to exist. The sheer numbers of players who had been implicated in numerous incidents, the coaching staff’s awareness and their resulting actions to cover it up, all of it, when viewed in its totality, was sickening. 

JL: Baylor is such a weird thing for me personally because I got the tip on that story and we kind of broke it open as I was finishing up the book. The local media is interesting in the Baylor story because they didn’t report on it until it became a national story. 

The player in that case had been under indictment for 13-and-a-half months before the Tribune wrote anything about it in Waco. Part of that first story with Sam Ukwuachu, after he was indicted, was the coaches saying stuff like, “He has some issues, he’s not gonna play this year because some stuff has come up.” One of the things I try to push on in the book is the euphemisms that they like to use. I respect the part of that that’s trying to protect the player, but the cynical part of me thinks they’re trying to protect the program.

Now that we know a whole lot about what went on at Baylor, we know that the coaching staff knew about players and the trouble they were getting into, they didn’t react in terms of holding them accountable, they kept them on the field, kept them practicing and kept them on scholarship so they could help the program win.

TSL: Baylor ultimately fired Art Briles and demoted university president Ken Starr, who later resigned and cut his ties with the school. That was a good first step in the right direction, but I thought they were simply putting a band-aid on a gunshot wound.

JL: The finding of facts said the coaching staff would meet with these women and try to intervene, which is a very strange and inappropriate thing for an athletic staff to be doing. They weren’t reporting it up the chain, which is huge. They should have been telling someone who is supposed to be in charge of these things.

Art Briles took the blame as the head coach, but there was an entire culture there, where they were like, “We see what you’re doing. We’re not going to do anything about it. Everything will keep going. If you do get in trouble, we’ll tell the media you’ve got some issues, and no one’s gonna talk about it.”

TSL: And Art Briles will probably get another head coaching job with a major college football program.

JL: We understand that Briles is very good at coaching football, and that winning games and making money is the most important thing. People are like, “How can he get another job after this?” The book tries very hard to look at the system that’s in place to explain why that is. 

It’s good that the school held him accountable, but the entire system will not hold him accountable. Of course he’ll get hired again and he’ll probably be very good at wherever he coaches next. That’s the frustration, that there’s nothing in the system  that will say, “This is too much.”

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TSL: You assembled data going back to 1974. In looking at it, what were some of the commonalities that you saw? What stood out the most when you began to connect the dots?

JL: The biggest thing was the list of incidents themselves. I probably have around 120 now, which isn’t a ton for four decades, but the statistics around this crime are so strange and bad because it’s so severely underreported.

One of the things that stood out that I have such a hard time with is that something like 40% of the cases I’ve identified have multiple people involved in terms of being perpetrators of the violence.

That percentage of gang rape is extremely high, the highest I’ve ever seen in terms of other cultures like the military or fraternities. I keep thinking about this as collective experience of violence, and it matters to me because we’re talking about football and this locker room culture which is notorious for loyalty and being tight-knit.

The idea that they’re going off the field participating in collective violence, specifically to women, needs to be interrogated and investigated more.

TSL: Talk about “The Playbook” that you lay out in the book.

JL: There are certain things that happen when this kind of violence gets reported and it hits the media. Coaches in particular do a lot of distancing themselves from what happened. They say it’s not their fault. But when a player does something good, people talk about how influential the coach is.

No one talks about the violence itself. It’s always a euphemism: mistakes, problems, misbehavior, issues, violations of team policy, etc.

Later on you find out that four guys were involved in a gang rape. Another thing that comes out the more you look at it is the relationships between the police departments and the athletic departments. Tennessee had a lawsuit recently, I think eight women were involved that reported that they’d been assaulted by football players. The Tennessean, the local paper in Nashville, wrote about it. If you scan down the article, you find that the head coach, Butch Jones, was called by the local police before they went to an apartment to collect evidence. Then, he called his player. 

That was ridiculous how the Knoxville police operated. We know that Florida State has a relationship with the Tallahassee police department, we know that local police officers are hired to provide security, and it’s not uncommon for those guys to be fans and boosters of the program. So what does that mean when it comes to handling their crimes?

TSL: You didn’t just talk about this heinous culture, but you offered up some solutions and how some positive change can come about.

JL: That was important to me. Universities need to be better with doing consent education and talking to their students about it. We need to get away from this idea that coaches should be in charge of teaching boys to be men. We shouldn’t expect them to be outside of the culture that they came up in. 

Teaching people to intervene, that intervening is the right thing to do, is very important. Coaches not only need to be fired, they also need to be fined. Since the system is built on money we need to hit them in the pocket, make them answer to their terrible decision-making, which leads to and encourages so much harm.

One of my big ones is that we need more women everywhere. Anyone who isn’t a white hetero male understands that it’s never good to be the only one in the room. We need more women in locker rooms, more women helping to make better decisions. There needs to be more women all the way up the ranks of the program, participating in important ways and helping to mold these guys.

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TSL: I was very impressed that you had the insight to touch on the troubled history of race as it relates to sexual violence. I haven’t heard anyone frame that in the context of college football like you did. You got to a very deep root of a conversation that not many are willing to have.

JL: Thank you. That was the chapter I re-wrote the most. It was very hard. Racist conservatives used a piece I wrote on this topic recently to say that these guys were nothing but sex-crazed thugs. That was my worst fear. When you write on the topic of football in the NCAA and NFL, what you’re going to end up with are black faces that are the perpetrators of this crime.

That’s often not true at most universities overall, away from football, where it’s going to be white men doing this type of violence, hands down. There is such a complicated history about the way rape allegations have been used against Black men in this country. We can’t shy away from discussing that if we’re really going to fix it.

When we make it about Black men as criminals and women as liars, then we’re ignoring the people who are in charge of the system, people who are enabling and ignoring these crimes. Those guys are in charge of the NCAA, the media, universities, coaching staffs, police departments, etc.

They don’t ever have to answer for that because it’s easier ti individualize and latch onto this narrative of Black men as criminals. It makes me so mad that that’s where the conversation goes. Yes, it’s about the individual cases and players, but it’s also about the things around the player that protects him.

TSL: And really when you look at it, they’re not protecting the player as much as they’re trying to protect the program.

JL: Exactly. I don’t think these programs care about the women victims, or they care very little. But they also care very little about their own players. Yes, they have a privilege because they’re important to the system, but they’re only important momentarily because they can play ball and the school makes an incredible amount of money off of them.

I care about these players. I wish they got better educations, I wish they got paid for their labor, I wish that the system didn’t exploit them in a similar way that most of these women get exploited.

TSL: Thank you for bringing this analysis and discussion to the forefront. The depth and nuance that you bring goes way beyond the standard conversation. What’s the most important thing you want people to take away from this book?

JL: The one single thing is that people need to recognize that this is a systemic issue. It’s not about one player, one coach, one program or one university. There’s something going on in college football in particular that makes people look away from this type of violence and write it off.

We need to start interrogating the entire thing if we’re going to fix it.


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