Austin-based reporter Jessica Luther was raised a Florida State University football fan. Her parents were alumni, and as an undergraduate there she faithfully supported her team. When rape allegations were made against FSU's star quarterback Jameis Winston in late 2013, Luther's love of her team ran into her responsibilities as an independent journalist who covered sports and culture. She dove in, tracking every rape case or allegation connected with football players. She was particularly interested in the cases against college football players that were being largely ignored by the national media, all at a moment when campus sexual assault was being talked about more than ever.
The book she wrote after that exploration, Unsportsmanlike Conduct, published September 6, rationally explores the "playbook" that college football powers rely on when these incidents occur — "plays" like "Nothing to See Here," "The Shrug," and "Moving On" — and how the culture of college football is a microcosm of toxic masculinity and rape culture. Even as a journalist who covers sports and gender myself, I felt near constant shock reading Luther's descriptions of this systemic problem.
Since she finished writing the book, Luther has been continuing on the same beat, covering stories like the Brock Turner case, the sexual assault by a football player and subsequent administrative cover-up at Baylor, and the fallout from the Duke-lacrosse false accusation case. She has also started work on her next book, cowritten with ESPNw's Kavitha Davidson, How to Love Sports When They Don't Love You Back. I called Luther at home in August to discuss the intersection of college football and sexual assault, and whether any hope for change is on the horizon.
Maggie Mertens: In the book you describe the connection between football and masculinity as one of the roots of off-the-field violence perpetrated by some college football players. Could you explain how masculinity and football have become so intertwined, and how that plays into sexual violence?
Jessica Luther: There are ways that the language of sports makes women inferior. There's a reason that we have the phrase "You throw like a girl" as an insult. You get called a "pussy" if you're not doing well. There's always been an implication that to be good at sports, you have to be manly. Football is one of the most brutal sports that we have. So they're doing a thing that we code as masculine. And there are almost no women who participate in any part of the football process.
That all matters, because one of the things about sexual violence is — I feel like I always have to preface this with: I'm not a psychologist — it's a dehumanization of the person who is being violated. They're not seen as a fully human person. That's why you can do violence to them.
MM: One thing I found so bizarre were these "hostess" programs, where universities will set up the football recruits with the most attractive young women on campus as a way to sway them to choose their school.
JL: So you're trying to recruit seventeen- and eighteen-year-old guys to come to your school. No one can pay anybody, which is the normal way in our capitalist society that we convince someone to come work for us. So in order to lure them to campus, there's a handful of things that you do. You hire the best coaches, you tell them you can help them make it to the NFL, you give them ridiculous facilities.
The other thing they do is they position them as big men on campus and tell them, sometimes explicitly but often implicitly, that access to women is one of the things they'll get when they come to campus. Coaches will do things like have someone Photoshop a picture of the guy they're trying to recruit on a magazine cover walking hand-in-hand with Beyoncé, or some other famous woman. And these hostess programs are definitely being used still, though there are kind of rules about it now.