Texas and Alabama college football fans pack the Rose Bowl stadium. Photo by Jason St. Peter.
The biggest sport in the United States is football. Hockey, soccer, basketball, ultimate Frisbee: they all pale in comparison to the ol’ pigskin. Actually, American football has the highest average game attendance of any sport in the entire world, with 17.6 million people attending an NFL game every year. And there’s no bigger football state than Texas.
The University of Texas at Austin college football team—that would be the Longhorns—are worth more than any other team in the league: that college football cash cow is worth $131 million. Feminist writer Jessica Luther lives right in the heart of Texas football country, and she’s a big football fan herself. When she’s not organizing pro-choice protests at the state Capitol or busily blogging about reproductive rights, Jessica Luther is likely watching a football game. She’s hard at work right now on a book about violence in sports culture, an especially critical topic given the pattern of domestic abuse and sexual assault seen among college and pro football teams.
This interview is part of our podcast on “Why We Love Sports”—you can listen to the interview or read it below.
SARAH MIRK: Well, Jessica, I know you're working on a book that has something to do with violence and sports culture, but that's basically all I know about it. Can you tell us a little bit more about what it is you're researching and what you're interested in exploring that relates to violence in sports?
JESSICA LUTHER: Sure, the book is actually pretty specific: It's college football and sexual assault and that intersection. I'm writing it at Akashic Books with Dave Zirin. He has a new sports and culture imprint, and he originally just sort of asked me to write a general book about the intersection of sports and sexual violence or violence against women. I was like, there's too much to say. So I narrowed it down to college football and sexual assault. And it's a thematic look. So I am looking at cases across time—the earliest one that I was able to find was 1974, I think at Notre Dame–and all the cases that I was able to find across time and what patterns I pulled out of that, but also the way schools respond, the way the media responds, the total lack of response from the NCAA. Stuff like that to try to look at the patterns that come out of this in order to start a conversation about how we change that pattern.
So you spend, I assume, all day long knee-deep in really terrible research about the worst thing that could happen. I'm interested in what you're exploring there. What sort of patterns have you seen emerge when you look at the history of violence related to college football?
Yeah, I do spend a lot of time. Actually, one of the biggest struggles for me on the book is the editing process; it's hard to go back into it and revisit the topic once you feel like you've said something. Because there a lot of sort of emotional work that goes along with reading hundreds of cases. So I've located over 110 cases since 1974, which is not a huge number across time. But this kind of crime in particular is massively underreported.
These are cases of sexual assault?
Yes, by college football players. And so it ranges from accusations all the way to people who've been convicted. Most of it, of course, is just accusations cuz very few accusations make it to charges or even, especially, to conviction.There's nothing really scientific about my work, so it's hard to say. There's probably a lot of cases I haven't been able to find just cuz of the way that my limits to research on my own, but one of the things that's kind of alarming is most of the cases involved multiple football players, most of them as perpetrators, multiple perpetrators in an incident. But also, you get witnesses to the crime or maybe even accessories, I guess. So one of the things that's kind of scary about it is the idea that this is taking place, that there are multiple players from the same team who are engaging in acts of violence together, which is a particular thing I'm interested in because of team culture. And this is something I think a lot about with fraternities and sort of that kind of all very masculine space, right? Some of the other stuff that I've looked at is the way that universities don't really do much about it or actively try to not talk about it. This is one thing that I really am interested in, the fact that the NCAA, which is the governing body of all collegiate sports, just doesn't seem to care at all about this. So like when you read the recruiting manual for a college football player, when he's being recruited, it is so—what coaches can and cannot do is so specific. We're talking like time limits of how long they can talk to them on the phone, you know, very specific stuff. And then, when it comes to whether or not sex can be used in recruitment, there's kind of just a nothing in the book. And you think, well, you could do something. And so I look at those sort of points in time that just repeat over and over and over again in so many cases.
So one thing that's interesting, I think, about your perspective is that while you're looking at really the worst side of sports, you're also a sports fan. You're a big football fan. So can you tell me about being a football fan and how you counter those two different realities: the fact that these horrible crimes are able to be done in part because of the culture that football creates, and being a part of that culture and loving the game?
Yeah, I think a lot about my own consumption of sport, especially college football. I have this sort of really sad encyclopedia in my head of coaches and teams and specific players, and I know all of them, and I'm sort of the Debbie Downer of the group.
If I'm with people, and we're watching, I'm like, “Well, oh. That's the guy that did this thing.” And so it's something I'm actively aware of all the time while I'm consuming sports. At this point in time, I can't shut that off. At the same time, I still really love watching. Part of it is that it's just something I've done my entire life, and sort of changing that kind of pattern in your own life can just be a difficult thing to do. At the same time, I feel like we all could relate to the way that we compromise as women moving through the world, where are limits are, right? And at this point, I'm not sure exactly where my limit is with football. I definitely watch it much less than I used to, but I still watch it. I love athleticism, I love competition, I love watching what these people can do and how they do it, and how they do it as a team. Like all the sort of good things about sports, I still really care about, but there is sort of a constant nagging in my head. But at the same time, I go to movies all the time that have people in them that I have issues with, and I just put that to the side while I'm consuming it and then go back to tweeting about it later, something to that affect. So it's not as if I don't already have the skills to consume problematic material and still enjoy it. So I think it's just getting harder to do it, but I still like to watch sports.
Jessica Luther discussing a college football sexual assault scandal on ESPN's Outside the Lines.
What brings you back to watching football still? What do you love about football, specifically?
Oh, that's a good question. I mean, I do, there is just this straight-up athleticism. I mean, oh, I'm trying to remember who it was. There was a guy last weekend who did the most amazing route. He was running, and he did this kind of weird flip thing in the air and kept going. And I watched the Vine of it 100 times. I am so interested in people's abilities to move. I'm really interested in the human body and how people can do sort of what look like superhuman feats to us.
I think a one of the problems that we're discussing here is this: So there's the ability to sexually assault somebody, get away with it, and even have that behavior be praised, like guys sharing photos and saying like, “That's sweet, that's cool.” That attitude is created by the culture around sports, and that culture is something that we need to change. Do you think that that ties in to the sport itself? Is this a football problem because of the way football is? Or is it just that football has this place in American society where it has the infrastructure built around it that allows these things to happen?
I think it's more the second. I'm sort of a structuralist generally on stuff like this. So I do think that it happens to be that that's our most popular sport, and for all those reasons the system works in their favor when it comes to these kind of crimes. I think sport in general, in the same way that a fraternity space or the military—that's also heavily men and very masculine—creates a sort of specific space that that violence can happen and be covered up and minimized. You know, I don't think that's special to football as a sport outside of the fact that football is incredibly powerful as a cultural institution. I sort of don't know what to think about the brutality on the field versus the brutality off the field. We don't really have any statistics. We have such bad statistics just with sexual assault generally. It's not hard to imagine that the messages are incredibly mixed, especially I mean I work on college ball. And so I'll look at recruits who are 17 year old kids, and they have teams that recruit them by Photoshopping their picture onto the magazine, like a fake People magazine cover of them arm in arm with like Beyoncé. And the implication is like if you come here and play football for us, your reward will be fame and women, right? And then, I'm gonna put you on the field and tell you that your job is to go beat up people, and we're gonna cheer you for it. You know, there's a lot going on there in this particular sport, especially when we're talking about young men. That could be very specific to it, but I do think there is something bigger about the fact that football is so powerful as a cultural institution that goes above and beyond it as a particular sport.
So as a football fan and somebody who's critical of the culture around the sport that leads to violence, what do you think you can do as a fan, and we as the collective fan base, can do to help change the culture of the sport? Or is the culture not something that fans can change; it's got to be something that comes from the top, from NCAA officials and people who actually have the money here?
I mean, this is the hardest thing, is that there's a lot of push for coaches should teach players. And I'm not a real advocate of that. I worry about people who were raised in the exact culture we're trying to change as being the leaders in changing that culture. I think that that is just naive in a lot of ways. We see too many instances where coaches are happy to look away. I think a lot about there was a case last year Outside the Lines at ESPN did two major profiles of the Missouri Athletic Department involving multiple football player cases. And after the second one came out, there was a press conference, and they asked the head coach, Gary Pinkel, “What are you guys doing to maybe stop this or do something?” And he was like, “Oh, there's a coach who talks to the guys sometimes.” And it was like, could you be less specific about what that even means and why this guy, and what is he saying, and how often does he say it? Oh, what can fans do? I don't know, man. I think… [sighs] I'm a writer and a tweeter, and so part of it is just to continue to yell about it. I think teams in this age of social media have no choice but to respond in some way when it becomes a thing. And I see the power in that. I recently had a piece that I wrote at Texas Monthly with my friend, Dan Solomon about a specific case at Baylor. And it blew up really fast into national news, and within days of us breaking this—It involved a player who had transferred from Boise to Baylor and then committed sexual assault at Baylor. And the directors of the Big 12 Conference that Baylor is a part of met the next week and changed the transfer rule. What that will look like practically on the ground is another thing. There's lots of ways for teams to get around rules. We know that too well. But you know, people made noise, and they told Baylor that they cared, and they told the Big 12 that they weren't happy. And there was enough of it that within less than a week, the transfer rule had changed from this story breaking. So that's my silver lining.
I think it can be frustrating to feel like you had this big story, and it changed one rule, and hopefully that prevents future tragedy. But that is a big deal. Changing one rule by writing a story about it is a really big deal. And so I'm wondering how, as a fan of football, you feel about being critical of football. Is there ever a time when you feel like it's being unsupportive of the sport that you love to call it out?
No, but I don't think that ever about this kind of cultural criticism, right?
Ha! Yeah, you're right.
I guess what am I doing with my life if I felt otherwise? I would rather just be better. I would rather not have a list of victims that I think about every single day. I have this, I mean I've worked with certain survivors, and I've told certain survivors' stories. And I think about them a lot. And I wish that that wasn't part of my sports viewing experience. And on some level that sounds kind of selfish like poor me, but I just mean just generally I want the sport to be better. I want. One of the reasons that I like to watch tennis, which is my favorite thing to watch, is that that aspect isn't there. But then I watch, and I am acutely aware of the racism that Serena Williams faces every time she gets on the court. You know? It's like none of it's perfect. It's just sort of what you can manage. And in all of those cases, I want them all to be better. I want to have a fan-viewing experience that isn't tainted by these things that seem fixable to me, like seem like they could be better if people cared enough to do anything about it.
Check out the rest of the “Why We Love Sports” podcast here.