Jessica Luther was born to be a football fan. Her dad raised on her the sport, and when the time came for her to choose a college, she only sent in one application: to Florida State, where she would attend every single home football game. But now when the author of Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape, released by Akashic Books last week, thinks about football, it fills her with a sense of dread.
"I don't really watch it," she says. "I used to care very deeply and know the schedule before the season ... if I do find myself watching it now, it's often very short and I just feel flat emotionally. I don't cheer."
Luther, a journalist based in Austin, moved there from her home state of Florida in 2002 to study classics and history at the University of Texas. But after ditching academia she decided to make a go of it as a writer and quickly found herself gravitating toward a subject she knew a lot about: football.
She began investigating the evident and concerning connection between sports culture and violence. Luther quickly became an expert on the topic, which she has written on for The Guardian, Texas Observer, Texas Monthly, Sports Illustrated, Salon, The Atlantic and many more publications.
Two years ago Akashic Books approached her to write Unsportsmanlike Conduct. The book delves into instances of sexual violence perpetrated by football players and the response to their crimes by their athletic departments, universities, the NCAA and the media, to show there is a "playbook" for dealing with violence in football that is common to football institutions nationwide.
"I try really hard not to individualize these issues," Luther says. "We really like to do that. 'It's this one guy who did this thing,' or, 'It's this one coach,' or, 'It's this one university.' It's easy to write it off. You can just not care about those people or that place. You can just isolate it and say it exists alone."
One of the roadblocks to changing the system is that football fans often don't want to hear bad news about the sport they love. As soon as news of domestic or sexual violence by another football player, such as former Dallas Cowboy Greg Hardy, hits the media, coaches and fans alike are often ready to quietly resolve the "issue" and put it behind them.
Sometimes this type of denial is so pervasive that a football player at a major university standing trial for rape doesn't even make it into the local paper or become common knowledge. That was the case at Baylor University, which Luther received a tip about on Aug. 5, 2015, while she was writing Unsportsmanlike Conduct.
The tipster said that Sam Ukwuachu, a defensive end who'd transferred from Boise State in 2013 with a record of violence, was about to stand trial for rape. Oddly, there wasn't a speck of information about the alleged crime on any Waco media outlet, but when Luther enlisted the help of her friend and mentor, fellow journalist Dan Solomon, they quickly found Ukwuachu's name on the trial docket.
"We were in the car to go to Waco within the hour," Luther says. Luther and Solomon, who had worked together on one piece before, broke the news of the Baylor rape scandal. The scandal eventually resulted in the firing of Baylor head coach Art Briles, and resignation of athletic director Ian McCaw and chancellor Ken Starr for their apathetic response to Ukwuachu's crime, which he had been indicted for a year prior, as well as their eagerness to welcome a student who had behaved violently toward women at his previous school.
Ukwuachu was convicted of second-degree sexual assault on Aug. 20, 2015.
Luther says the most surprising thing she discovered while researching Unsportsmanlike Conduct was how many cases involved gang rape. She looked at 120 that had been reported to the media over the course of decades, and although she didn't have complete data or approach her research as a statistician, she says 20 percent of the ones she examined involved multiple perpetrators.
Luther's book offers suggestions for how football culture should be changed so that it does not continue to condone violence. Luther says the firing of responsible parties is the key first step. Although the unfortunate reality is that Briles' career probably won't be stymied by his failures at Baylor much.
"Briles will likely get another job because he's such a good football coach," Luther says. "The system will pull him back in. There was some accountability but that's not enough. When things go badly you can't just push this off on the idea that these are individuals."
With each new story Luther publishes, and now her new book, more victims of sexual violence at the hands of athletes come forward to share their stories with her. "Sometimes they don't want me to do anything, they just want to tell me," she says.
Luther says it's hard to continue to write about such a sad topic, and she'd like to move on to something else — she took a four-month break while writing Unsportsmanlike Conduct because it got so heavy — but she feels an obligation to the victims who now view her as the point of contact for these stories.
"It's not that I want to do happy work per se, it's just work that doesn't have to do with trauma," she says.
Luther's new lack of interest in watching football recreationally isn't an intentional boycott. In fact, she says passionate football fans are in the best position to advocate for change.
"I don't think boycotting necessarily would do the changing," she says. "I think the change has to come from the inside. I think it's more useful to be someone who cares a lot, and is a big fan who is asking for those changes. I get why people go to sports as a refuge and I know what it means to find joy in sports ... I would never ask someone to give it up."
And the issues of consent central to all of the crimes Luther has been investigating extend far beyond football. She's concerned with changing football first, but really she believes it's a cultural shift that needs to take place.
"We need a shift from 'no means no' to 'yes means yes.' With 'no means no,' the burden is on the person who's being harmed. We talk about this almost exclusively with sex. ... It's about respecting boundaries and consent in a lot of moments."
Jessica Luther will appear at Deep Vellum Books (3000 Commerce St.) at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 14. There will be a short talk followed by a Q&A and a book signing. Admission to the event is free. For more info, visit deepvellumbooks.com.
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