Book Review: Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape, Jessica Luther (2016)

September 14th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

A Fan’s Take on the Intersection of Rape Culture, Racism, and Capitalism in College Football

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received an electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for discussions of rape and violence against women, obviously.)

So I am not what you’d call a sports fan. Occasionally I enjoy playing baseball, basketball, or tennis for funsies or fitness, but that’s about the extent of it. I ran out of fucks to give as a spectator when my youngest brother aged out of Little League.

Jessica Luther, on the other hand, “was born with garnet and gold blood.” Her parents graduated from Florida State University; she spent her autumns rooting for the Seminoles religiously; and, when it came time to go off to college, she only applied to one school. Once at FSU, she had her ass planted firmly in the bleachers for every home game, rain or shine, humidity and frost be damned:

I learned early on how to be a fan. There are rules and rituals the fans of a sports team follow and do, a kind of collective performance before and during games that show the love for our school and team. The playbook for fans consists of memorizing chants, wearing the right colors, painting our faces, and always singing along whenever you hear the school’s fight song. The most important play, though, is the one where you give your team your love and devotion, and you trust in the players and coaches even when they play badly and even if you have to ignore what they do when they are off the field and out of uniform. This, the fan playbook prescribes, is what good fans do. I used to be a really good FSU fan.

That is, until the 2012 rape allegations against Jameis Winston forced her to confront some of the more problematic aspects of the sport she so loves.

Let me stop right here and say that it’s not that you have to be a fan of something in order to earn the right to critique its more problematic aspects; far from it. But the particularities of fan identity vis–à–vis sports – Luther cites studies which show that many fans’ self-esteem is linked to their team’s performance – certainly encourage suspicion and hostility towards outsiders, as do structural barriers against women in sports, not to mention larger cultural narratives surrounding rape and violence against women. To the football fans in the audience, Luther wants you to know that she’s one of you, and her interrogation of that which you hold most dear comes from a place of love: both for victims/survivors, and for the sport itself. The wake up call is coming from inside the house, okay.

Luther’s been writing about the intersection of sports, violence against women, race, and money for several years; Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape is the culmination of her work (at least thus far). Luther compiled a list of more than 115 cases of college football sexual assault allegations, from 1974 to 2016. The number’s a little fuzzy, since many cases involve multiple rapists, including athletes from more than one college or sports team (so, for example, basketball players slip into the text here and there). If it seems small, just remember that a majority of sexual assaults go unreported. According to RAIIN, only 20% of female students report their assaults, compared to 32% of non-students. Additionally, most of the cases are from the past ten years; older cases just never made it onto the Internet and thus her radar.

And this also doesn’t account for those allegations that, for whatever reason, never receive media coverage. The book’s conclusion opens with one such case: allegations against a Baylor player, Samuel Ukwuachu, which somehow remained hush-hush until just twelve days before his trial. Luther received a tip from a source and immediately set out for Waco, just a day before the Waco Tribune finally broke the story.

Using these cases as a jumping-off point, Luther argues that sexual assault in college football follows the same script, or playbook. If you pay even the tiniest amount of attention to sexual assault cases, no doubt you’ll recognize many of the plays: minimizing sexual assault; blaming the victim; police and judges (and coaches, athletic directors, and other authority figures) shielding the perpetrator; biased media coverage that centers the perpetrator and repeats sexist, rape apologist tropes, to name a few. But some plays are specific to college athletics, or at least more commonly found in this arena, such as transferring a student to another school (with an unblemished record, natch), where he’s free to prey on a whole new pool of unsuspecting students.

And then there’s the particular miasma of college football that sets the stage for violence against women to begin with. College athletes are worshiped like Gods, both on and off the field. Because of their earning potential, they’re shielded from the consequences of their behavior, even when it’s criminal. Instead of calculus and chemistry, they’re schooled in entitlement. We all know this – but Luther digs a little deeper.

Because they are unjustly labeled “amateurs,” college athletes are prohibited from earning a salary, accepting gifts, even profiting off their own name and image. Instead of money, colleges dangle women in front prospective players. Potential recruits are often shown around campus by female hosts, who are pressured to entice them with sex – or at least the potential of sex. In one mind-boggling (and law-defying) case, three women from the University of Colorado reported that football players and recruits had raped them at a party; DA Mary Keenan refused to press charges, because the players had “third-party consent.” In other words,

“They had been built up by the players to believe that the situation they were going into was specifically to provide them with sex. Their mind-set coming into it was that it was consensual because they had been told it had been set up for that very purpose, and that’s what was going to happen.”

Needless to say, there is no such thing as “third-party consent.” You cannot give consent (to anyone and anything, apparently!) on another person’s behalf.

Also shocking is the prevalence of gang rape:

In all, just over 40 percent of the cases I’ve studied are gang rape allegations involving multiple players. If you add in cases where teammates are witnesses or later accomplices in harassing the woman who reported the violence, it creeps up close to 50 percent. This is incredibly high compared to what is known about gang rapes in the overall population.

More than anything, these numbers are emblematic of the toxic masculinity so often found in locker rooms. In gang rape, violence against women is transformed from an unthinkable violation to a male bonding experience.

In addition to misogyny, Luther also explores the racism that undergirds the whole system. Returning to the “amateur” status of college athletes, it’s important to note that the people making money off the backs and bodies of these predominantly black players – the coaches, athletic directors, and university presidents; the NCAA; and even the media – are nearly all white men. They have a vested interest in attracting good players and keeping them on the field – and to do this, they objectify women and hang victims out to dry. Not because they care about their players, or believe in their innocence, but to keep the cash monies coming in.

Overall, these folks follow the same script that we all start learning before we’re even old enough to talk (e.g., a boy who pulls a girl’s ponytail or shoves her down on the playground is just showing how much he likes her), just with a little context-specific “bonus” material. Much of the reasoning behind protecting athletes who rape is equally applicable to Hollywood actors (Bill Cosby, Johnny Depp, Woody Allen) or other celebrities (R. Kelly, Julian Assange, Roman Polanski; I could go on for days) and “too important and/or talented to be held to account” men. I would’ve liked Luther to link her discussion to rape culture more generally – for example, explain exactly how objectifying women as compensation in lieu of money leads to assault – especially for the not-feminist football fans who might be reading; nevertheless, she does an excellent job, using a mere 224 pages to their fullest.

I could go on and on (seriously, I took nearly 60 pages of notes on my Kindle!), but suffice to say that Unsportsmanlike Conduct is a smart and insightful look at rape culture as it manifests in college football. The book is meticulously researched and documented (the end notes take up 16% of the book; they’re not listed in the TOC, but fall under the Conclusion), and argued with passion and nuance.

I also appreciate that Luther offers a list of solutions – alternate plays – in the second half of the book. It’s easy to feel like the scourge of violence against women is too entrenched in our society, too firmly upheld by cultural institutions, too massive and far-reaching to tackle. Depression and apathy are reasonable responses. But Luther ends on a hopeful note, offering some suggestions for positive change. Picking up this book – and maybe sending a copy to your school’s president or athletic director – is one place to start.

Many thanks to Akashic Books for providing me with a review copy – and for creating a platform to discuss these important (but often unpopular) topics.

Read with: Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture–and What We Can Do about It by Kate Harding (2015)





Editor’s Foreword

Introduction: The Playbook

Chapter 1: The Field
Chapter 2: What the Playbook Doesn’t Show
Chapter 3: Nothing to See Here
Chapter 4: The Shrug
Chapter 5: Moving On

Play #1: Consent Is Cool; Get Some
Play #2: Understand Trauma
Play #3: Go Federal
Play #4: Intervene, Maybe
Play #5: Follow the Players
Play #6: Be Specific
Play #7: Teach Coaches to Teach Boys to Be Men
Play #8: Clean It Up
Play #9: Fire People
Play #10: Do Anything
Play #11: Do Better
Play #12: Calm Down
Play #13: Hire Women

Conclusion: Change Is Possible


About Jessica Luther

Copyright & Credits

About Edge of Sports

About Akashic Books

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Yes. Jessica Luther examines the intersection of sports, racism, rape culture and misogyny, and money in sexual assault involving college football athletes.

Animal-friendly elements: n/a


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