The Olympics kicks off this week in Rio de Janeiro, amid protests over its high costs and impact on Brazil’s poorest communities. While sports represent our cultural values and tie in closely to our identities, it’s not hard to see how sports from the college level to the Olympics are driven by one thing: money.
On this episode, we talk with women’s soccer fans about soccer’s wage gap (and hear some amazing fan songs). Then, professor Jules Boykoff breaks down the economics of the Olympics and explores the incredible history of protests at the Olympics, including the current games in Rio. Finally, we call up author Jessica Luther to discuss how colleges often let athletes off the hook in rape cases—and the role money plays in college sports programs.
Listen in and please share the show with your friends.
DISSENT AT THE OLYMPICS:
SOCCER’S WAGE GAP:
UNSPORTSMANLIKE CONDUCT IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL:
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This podcast was transcribed by Cheryl Green of StoryMinders. We’re proud to make Popaganda accessible to people who are Deaf or hard of hearing.
[recorded clip, outdoors, people chatting in background]
MAN: Upper and lower level seats guys! Cheaper than the box office. I got them under cover. Gonna get rained on. Anyone need tickets, guys?
SARAH: On a super muggy summer day, I joined the crowd of people swarming toward Portland’s soccer stadium. An afternoon thunderstorm didn’t dissuade the thousands of people, who were decked out in red and black scarves and hats and shirts, from lining up outside, eager to get to their seats. In the United States, this was a relatively rare sight: not the fact that people were braving the element to attend a sports game, but the kind of game they were attending. All of these people were turning out to watch women’s soccer.
[crowd cheers, band plays]
16,942 people–to be exact–bought tickets to this Portland Thorns vs. Kansas City match, and they were dang proud of it. Before the match, volunteers handed out sheets of paper bearing the fans’ official songs. The fans group is called the Rose City Riveters. Like Rosie the Riveter. Get it? As the crowd settled into their seats, a live band and energetic superfans, called capos, led the arena in a sing-along that I am sure sounded pretty intimidating to the rival team.
[Crowd chants “When the Thorns Go Marching In” to deep drum beats]
In Portland, the women’s soccer team plays on the same field as the men’s team, which is called the Timbers. And the women’s team, the Thorns, are actually a really good team. They’re currently ranked number one out of the National Women’s Soccer League’s 10 teams. The Timbers have been around for longer and draw more fans, even though they’re not as highly ranked: sixth in men’s 10-team Western conference.
But there’s one big, unavoidable difference between the teams: the men are paid A LOT more. That’s right, I’m at this soccer game not to eat hot dogs and cheer on the team and sing heart-warming songs, but to talk about the wage gap.
Sports tie into our identity, our history, and our culture in really important ways. Why do 16,000 people turn up for a soccer game on a rainy afternoon? Because the team means something. Why do people get joyous when their team wins and crushed when they lose? Because the game is more than just a game; it connects to their personal identity in some important way. We see the performance of national identity in all the spectacle around the Olympics. We hold up athletes as national heroes not just because they’re good at throwing a ball into a hoop or doing a specific kind of twirl while also wearing ice skates, but because their skills represent values: determination, bravery, and all that stuff. On a smaller scale, our own performance as athletes is supposed to say something deep about who we are: You know, are you fair, are you a hard worker, a good teammate, a sore loser, a greedy ball hog?
So sports are a performance of our values. But then, that’s at odds with the main driving force that shapes sports all the way from the high school level to the Olympics: Money. While they represent our purest values—liberte, fraternite, egalite, etcetera etcetera—modern sports are built around a single framework: capitalism.
That tension is what we’re talking about on today’s show, which is all about the intersection of sports and capitalism. We have an interview with a historian who explored the history of capitalism and the Olympics, and a discussion with author Jessica Luther about the role money plays in college football and the handling of sexual assault. But first, let’s get back to the soccer pitch.
[clapping, chanting, drums]
Across all professional sports, women are usually paid less than men. And soccer is no exception. In the National Women’s Soccer league, the minimum salary for a player is $7,000. The minimum for a men’s player is $60,000. The maximum salary for women in the National Women’s Soccer League is $39,000. The maximum salary for men is $3,000,000. This inequality stems from all sorts of reasons that you can easily guess: the men’s teams sell more tickets, they have more sponsors, they’ve been around longer, there’s bigger hype around them, they have different union negotiations, they get more airtime on TV, systemic sexism as women in all industries face a wage gap….But one group of soccer players recently asked a big question: “Hey, if we had just as big of an audience as the men’s team and actually performed better, shouldn’t we get paid the same, at least?”
Take it away, CBS evening news!
[prerecorded news clip]
ANCHOR: Today, five of America’s top athletes filed a federal complaint charging that soccer pays women a pittance to win world championships while it pays big to the men who lose them. Here’s Jim Axelrod.
[crowd cheers wildly, commentator announces the plays]
JIM AXELROD: When the US Women’s soccer team won the World Cup last year, they drew the highest TV ratings for any soccer game in American history, men or women! They also got a nice parade and a bonus from the US Soccer Federation of $75,000 for each player, according to the filing. Compare that to the men’s team. If they won a World Cup, they’d get more than $390,000 as first place bonus.
SARAH: This spring, five players of the US Women’s National Team—that’s the team that plays in the World Cup and in the Olympics—filed a federal complaint saying that their pay showed pure discrimination. Sports Illustrated reports that in 2017, the Women’s team is projected to bring in a profit of $5.2 million–after all the costs and everything–while the men’s is likely going to lose $1 million. But when you add up all the bonuses and salaries and stuff, the average player on the women’s team makes 40% less than the average men’s player. Here’s player soccer start Hope Solo, who’s one of the five people who filed the complaint, explaining her motivations on The Today Show:
HOPE: You know, Matt, I’ve been on this team now for a decade and a half, and I’ve been through numerous CBA negotiations. And honestly, not much has changed. We continue to be told we should be grateful just to have the opportunity to play professional soccer and to get paid for doing it. And in this day and age, you know, it’s about equality. It’s about equal rights. It’s about equal pay, and we’re pushing for that.
SARAH: The group that runs the two national teams, it’s called US Soccer, has come back saying: “Hey! Your union negotiated this contract; you signed off on it. So don’t come after us now.” They also say that it’s unfair to “cherry pick” the profit and loss info from this past year because the women’s World Cup win was exceptional, and that doesn’t come along very often.
But now, as the Olympics looms and the women will be once again be playing on an international stage, they’re not backing down. At a Chicago match against South Africa’s national team this July, the team wore shirts saying “Equal Play, Equal Pay” and spoke out in media outlets asking for the same financial compensation, playing conditions, and travel arrangements as their male counterparts.
In one video, fans also pushed for Equal Play, Equal Pay:
[PSA with music]
FEMALE SOCCER PLAYER: Every single day, we sacrifice just as much as the men. We work just as much. We endure just as much physically and emotionally.
SECOND PLAYER: The pay disparity between the men and women is just too large, and now it’s our job to keep on fighting.
THIRD PLAYER: Equal Play, Equal Pay.
WOMAN: Equal pay for equal play.
NEXT WOMAN: Equal Play, Equal Pay.
SARAH: The Equal Play, Equal Pay messages seems to be getting some traction. So will the Olympics give the soccer team the high-profile platform they need to push for change? We’ll see. Meanwhile, back at the Thorns game, I was busy bothering soccer fans for their opinions on the wage gap.
[indistinct crowd noises]
TRAVIS: So, let me find a Thorns patch.
SARAH: This guy, 45 year old Travis Diskin, was wearing an old jacket covered in really cool-looking embroidered patches. With such a colorful array, I had to ask what the patches were all about. And each patch represented some aspect of soccer fandom.
TRAVIS: This patch here is a melding of the Cascadia tree for the Timbers and then the rose and a sunburst for the Thorns, showing that there’s people that support both groups here.
I asked Travis about his thoughts on soccer’s wage gap.
TRAVIS: The US Women’s National Team is some of the best players in the world, and the US women perform better than most other nations. So they should be paid at least equally what the US men’s team are. They’re a poorer-performing team than other teams internationally.
SARAH: People like Travis have been watching soccer for a long time. But I wondered what the younger generation thinks about the wage gap. Is it even on their radar? So I walked up to a group of three 18 year old girls who had just graduated from high school.
Hi, I’m talking to soccer fans for a radio show. Could I interview you guys really quickly?
SARAH: OK, great.
These girls definitely already knew about soccer’s wage gap, and they has lots of thoughts on why women were paid less.
FAN: I think that it probably has to do with the hype that surrounds men’s sports, and especially men’s soccer, as opposed to women’s soccer. Because people don’t really think of women’s as being exciting or getting the crowds. And that’s probably true; it doesn’t get as much profit as men’s. So I can see the reasoning for why men would be paid more, but I don’t think it’s really fair because they’re doing the same work and because women bring home such big titles as well, that I really don’t think it’s fair. Also with how the trend is, always been going on with men being paid more, it kinda makes sense that that’s what’s going on with sports as well. But since we’re all girls, we totally oppose that, and we feel that they should be paid at least equal. Especially with how successful both of them are, they should be both rewarded the same.
SARAH: Talking to these girls made me wonder, since sports reflect our values, what values does the unequal pay in women’s soccer reflect to these 18-year-olds and their friends? What does the fact that their favorite players have to fight for equal pay tell them, loud and clear, about their own future job prospects and what awaits them in the workforce as adults? It’s not a rosy picture, but it’s an honest one.
SARAH: Jules Boykoff is a Politics professor who has spent years exploring something most people don’t spend much time talking about at all: the connection between sports and political activism. He just published a book about the Olympics that is not like any book about the Olympics that I’ve ever read. It’s called Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics.
Okay, so, actually, to be honest, it’s the only book about the Olympics I’ve ever read because, until talking to Jules, I didn’t really care about the Olympics beyond, you know, watching the awesomeness that is ribbon dancing.
[prerecorded commentating on ribbon dancing]
COMMENTATOR: Well, it’s got continuous movements, it’s lively, it’s fast-paced.
SARAH: Why should somebody who doesn’t care about sports care about the Olympics? What is interesting about the Olympics to you?
JULES: Well, beyond sport, I think it’s important to consider the Olympics because they’ve turned into this monstrous juggernaut that sort of rolls around the globe. When this juggernaut flies into the Olympic host stadium, it creates all sorts of social ripples that effect everyday people in the Olympic city. So if you care about capitalism, you should care about the Olympics. If you care about local politics and fairness and justice, you should care about the Olympics. If you’re interested in activist groups, you should care about the Olympics. If you care about feminism, you should definitely care about the Olympics. If you care about workers’ rights, you should think about the athletes as workers. And you would think, then, about the Olympics.
SARAH: OK, so years before he was someone who talked to students about Marxism, Jules was Midwestern a sports fan.
JULES: Well, I grew up in Wisconsin where I was an avid sports fan, and I followed the Olympics really carefully, especially winter sports. And in fact, I loved Eric Heiden, the speed skater. He went to the same high school that I went to. I had my little rainbow cap just like him. I’d go watch hockey. The Miracle On Ice from 1980 was a big part of my life and growing up.
[clip from Miracle On Ice: fans screaming, cheering, commentators yelling]
SARAH: As a teenager, Jules fell in love with playing soccer. He got really good, too, and wound up snagging a spot on the US Olympic soccer team. He didn’t wind up playing in the Olympics, but he did get to travel around the world playing soccer matches. And on those matches against rival nations, something interesting happened.
JULES: I guess I kind of had a little bit of a political awakening through that experience, in the sense that I was playing in a tournament in France against Brazil, and it felt like every single person in that stadium was rooting against us. At first, I thought oh, of course they’re rooting against us because we’re playing against Brazil, and Brazil’s awesome. I would cheer for them too.
[stadium full of fans yelling “boo” loudly, rising in volume as Jules talks]
JULES: But then, we went on and we played Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia. It didn’t matter who our opponent was. So in my, admittedly, slow, naive, 19 year old mind at that time, a seed was planted that there was a whole lot more going on than just what was happening on the field and that there were wider dynamics that informed why people would cheer for one team and maybe even against another team.
SARAH: During his downtime between games, Jules started doing a lot of reading. About politics, economics, and history.
JULES: I think I tried to start answering the questions that were raised in France about why would somebody cheer against the United States? So I guess that kind of leads us all down the path to today.
SARAH: Decades later, he’s still trying to answer those questions. His book, Power Games, explores how the Olympics illuminates some harsh truths about capitalism.
Jules sees the Olympics as an example of what he calls “celebration capitalism.” During the Olympics, and leading up to it, the normal rules of politics are temporarily suspended in the name of a media-trumpeted, hyper-commercial spectacle, all safeguarded by beefed-up security forces responsible for preventing terrorism, corralling public dissent, and protecting the festivities. “Celebration capitalism,” he writes, “is an upbeat shakedown, trickle up economics with wrenching human costs.” Damn!
SARAH: Just break that down for us a little bit more, because the story that’s told about the Olympics is that hosting the Olympics is great for a city, is great for the host city, is great for everybody involved, and is really a positive celebration of what humans can do and human achievement. So how do you see it as being really something that’s exploitive at its core?
JULES: Mmhmm. Well, for a long time, people who wanted to host the Olympics could roll out those vague promises about an uptick in jobs, the economic boat would be floated by the Olympics, and all of these sort of things. But through time, independent economists and historians and people involved in politics have shown that that’s just simply not true. The numbers don’t bear that out. If you want evidence of that, turn no further than Mitt Romney, Republican nominee for the Presidency a few years back, who said, when Boston was being presented with the idea of hosting the Olympics, he said, “The Olympics are really not a money-making opportunity.” And I think Mitt Romney saying that–this is the guy who rescued the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. So he has an affinity for the Games, he’s a Republican, he’s conservative. And when Mitt Romney says that, it really shows how far the way we talked about the Olympics has changed.
SARAH: During the period of celebration capitalism leading up to the Olympics, it’s a time when the public is so caught up in the spectacle and pride of an event that public officials and moneyed business people can get support for projects that otherwise would inspire a huge backlash. To understand exactly what that means, we have to unpack it a little bit.
OK, so, you know Naomi Kline?
JULES: She wrote this terrific book called The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. In that book, Naomi Kline talks about how in moments of social peril, whether it be a terrorist attack or war, severe economic downturn, that neoliberal capitalists swoop in and say, “We have the solutions to your troubles in this moment of exception, and we will give you neoliberal policies,” which is to say privatize everything with a pulse, get rid of all regulations, and push forth the mantra that we should let the market decide.
SARAH: Disaster capitalism. We saw this after 9/11, with the passage of the Patriot Act that stripped away a lot of our privacy rights and paved the way for imprisoning people without trial. We saw it after Hurricane Katrina, when schools were privatized en mass in New Orleans.
Let’s just let Naomi Klein explain it
NAOMI: I realize I don’t think it sounds conspiratorial. I think it sounds obvious, right? I’m, in fact, embarrassed to be pointing this out because it’s such an obvious point. But it amazes me that people don’t talk about it all the time: That Dick Cheney was in the business of privatizing the US military before he went into office. That Donald Rumsfeld was in the business of profiting from pandemics before he went into office. That Bush was in the oil and gas business before he came into office. That his father was connected to the Carlow Group, which is a major weapons dealer. That Paul Bremer, the chief envoy in Iraq who laid the economic framework for the occupation, that one month after September 11th, he launched a Homeland Security company to advise other corporations on how they could protect themselves in this new era. That Rudy Giuliani did the same thing three months later. So these are all people who see profit directly from terrorism, natural disasters, and pandemics.
JULES: Celebration capitalism is a similar moment, a state of exception, whereby politicians and their buddies, their well-connected elites around the host city, push through a series of policies; however, they’re not privatizing. They’re not neoliberal policies. They’re just like you said. They’re lopsided public/private partnerships where the public pays, and the private entities around tend to scoop up the profits. When I was up in Vancouver during the Olympic moment in 2010, I interviewed numerous activists who were trying to raise questions around these dynamics. One of them, a guy called Am Jo Hall, said to me, “The Olympics are a corporate franchise that you buy with public money.” I think he got the spirit of celebration capitalism exactly right.
[street samba music]
SARAH: In Vancouver, Canada during the 2010 Olympics, many people were upset about what happened to the Olympic Village: After the games, the tall towers that once housed athletes were turned into luxury condos that then, the city struggled to sell. The development had been promoted as a way to boost the city, but wound up with a reputation for being a ghost town.
ANCHOR: …would leave a positive social and economic legacy.
MAN: The Olympic Village was always promoted as potentially a jewel of Vancouver’s Olympic experience. It would be a new kind of housing, it would be green housing, it would be a new neighborhood in what had been, before, more of an industrial area.
ANCHOR: All good intentions, but the sums didn’t add up, leaving Vancouver’s taxpayers with a legacy of debt.
CITIZEN: It is a huge rip off for everybody who lives in Vancouver except for a handful of favored people that are friends of the people in City Hall and will be getting nice places to live.
JULES: So you can go from city to city to Olympic city, and you can see celebration capitalism at work. You can see that certain swath of political and economic elites who are making money. So let’s be clear: There are certain people who make money off the Olympics, and those people tend to be a privileged sliver of the global 1%. It’s not the everyday people of the Olympic city.
ANCHOR: The 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics were a disaster from the beginning, with expensive roads constructed and accommodations half-finished. It’s no surprise what’s happened to the town’s Olympic venues. Just six months later, the area is a ghost town. The Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics put on an amazing spectacle, but now its parks are empty. This kayaking venue is now bone dry.
JULES: It’s like Montgomery Burns times 14 or something like that.
[clip from The Simpsons]
MR. BURNS: I’ll keep it short and sweet. Family. Religion. Friendship. These are the three demons you must slay if you wish to succeed in business.
JULES: In Rio de Janeiro, we see celebration capitalism in full throttle Technicolor. Another great example of this is the golf course. So golf is making a return to the Olympics after a 112-year hiatus. So what do they need? They need a golf course. Well, Rio already has two golf courses, as they trumpeted, by the way, in their Olympic bid back in 2009. Well, it turns out neither course is quite up to snuff for the golf fans. They could’ve converted one of the courses, but they say it would’ve cost just as much as building a new one. So they’re building this new course. Well, where do they decided to site this new course? They site it over the edge of Marapendi Nature Reserve. So they make a huge slice into a nature reserve for starters, OK? Second….
SARAH: The golf course is funded by a well-connected developer named Pasqual Morro. As long as he puts up the money, about $20-30 million, to build the golf course on a series of 140 attached luxury condos, after the games are over, the government grants him the right to sell the condos at a steep profit on what was, remember, land that was supposed to be a nature preserve.
JULES: He’s gonna make millions and millions of dollars off this, OK? There’s no doubt about it. State of exception that you’re talking about? The mayor of Rio, Eduardo Paes, he went in in the middle of the night right before Christmas 2012, and he had the local laws changed so that his buddy Pasqual Morro could build taller condos, thereby build more condos, and thereby sell more condos and make more money. So this is kind of how it’s working in Rio, and it’s pretty in your face egregious.
SARAH: This kind of wheeler dealer situation is why there have been major protests against the Olympics since forever. Way back in the 1920s and 1930s, labor organizers staged a socialist alternative to the Olympic games. They called it The Workers Olympiads. Activists at the time saw popular sport as an important tool to demonstrate solidarity, with workers of every country standing shoulder to shoulder together against fascism. In more recent years, we’ve seen major protests against the Olympics. For example, right at the outset of the Vancouver Olympics, people were protesting the Games’ arrival.
[clip of protestors chanting “No Olympics on stolen Native land!”]
SARAH: Leading up to Beijing, there were protests around the world, including Tibetans who disrupted the Olympic torch relay in London.
[news clip with yelling, shouting, fighting in the background]
ANCHOR: …as they did, the torch’s progress was punctuated with confrontations. Along the route, there were people who’d come to support China and confronted with their Tibetan counterparts. They were ugly scenes.
SARAH: In Rio, some of the country’s poorest people have been pushing back.
JULES: But yeah, I mean we’ve had tons of really smart, creative activists fight back against the Olympics. We have this group in Rio called Comitê Popular du Copa do Mundo e Olimpíadas, which is Popular Committee for the World Cup and the Olympics. They got their start around the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
[clip of people yelling, chanting in Brazilian Portuguese]
JULES: These are smart, seasoned activists who’ve been planning for this for a long time. I had the good fortune of sitting in on a number of their meetings when I was living in Rio. Their weekly meetings, I’d go to. They’re just really impressive. They’re smart, and they’ve been standing in solidarity with a lot of the people who’ve been affected by the Olympics. For example, there’s a community just next to the Olympic stadium they’re building in Barra da Tijuca called Vila Autodromo. This is a favela that’s been there since the 1960s, and people have been pushed out because of the Olympic Games.
ANCHOR: Residents here have been campaigning to stay for 20 years, since local authorities first started complaining about what they called “ecological and aesthetic problems.” Now, they say the land is on the Olympic site and in the path of a road that needs to be built here by 2016. Residents associations say it’s a pretext to force them out.
JULES: People from the Comitê Popular have been standing in solidarity, holding events with the people from Vila Autodromo. So that’s just one group that’s active in Brazil. In London–I was there also for the Olympics–they took more of a sort of tell the truth, but tell it slant, as Emily Dickinson might say, approach where they brought humor to the game. There’s this amazing group there that I followed and worked with called Space Hijackers. They’re just terrific. They’re really creative. One of the things about the Olympics is there’s this sort of incredibly intense brand micro-management, where corporate sponsors get pull position, and they dominate the field. So McDonald’s, you know that health food that all athletes should be eating, McDonald’s is a big corporate sponsor. So as a result, in Olympic venues, only McDonald’s French fries are allowed.
[McDonald’s commercial with elevator music]
NARRATOR: McDonald’s Olympic Twist Fries: Inspiration with a twist. This month only.
JULES: Now in England, chips are a big thing, right? You have your fish and chips. So you couldn’t bring any chips. None of those British chips could enter. So Space Hijackers set up this catapult outside of Olympic venues where they were going to catapult chips over the fence and into the Olympic areas.
JULES: So this incredible creativity as a way of challenging some of these weird rules and laws that are put in place to host the Olympics.
SARAH: So given that the Olympics is often used to screw over regular citizens in a lot of different ways, is it a little bit weird that the nation still bands together to cheer it on? We’ve seen how the Olympics is used to justify rewriting laws to pour public money—our money—into big developments that make lotsa profit for the Mr. Burns’s of the world. But people still get so excited about the Olympics. I get excited about the Olympics. Have you seen the videos of Simone Biles’s gymnastics routine? She looks amazing!
[clip of Biles’s music, crowd cheering wildly]
SARAH: Amid all the spectacle and pomp and circumstance and consumerism of the Olympics, the athletes are the real deal. There’s nothing wrong with being excited about humans who push themselves to do incredible things. And that’s one of of the weirdest things about the Olympics: Swirling around the athletes are all these land deals and construction contracts that are making some people a lot of money. But the athletes themselves have to remain amateurs. There’s this weird purity the Olympic Committee attaches to them not making money from being professional athletes. As if it would somehow taint the image of the Olympics to have money involved. Meanwhile, it’s their bodies that are on the line. It’s their bodies that fall apart after years of being pushed to the limit. And it’s their determination and seemingly superhuman abilities that we tune in for, that inspire us.
JULES: People sometimes say that sports is like the new opiate of the masses, kind of like religion was back in the day of Karl Marx. I don’t buy that. I don’t think that it’s quite that simple, that sport is the new opiate of the masses. I actually went back and reread my Karl Marx from that time period. When you look at what he has to say, even about religion, he says that religion is “the heart in a heartless world.” So he’s really not saying that religion is this total evil. He’s saying it’s the heart in a heartless world. Maybe in a way, sports can be that in our contemporary era as well, sort of the heart in a heartless world. And I do believe that sport can really open up conversations you can have with people across the political spectrum. That’s definitely been my experience. Now, before I started writing about the Olympics, seven years ago or so, I spent a decade of my life researching and writing about how the state and media squelch political dissent. Let me tell ya, when I showed up at Thanksgiving, and I wanna talk politics, and I wanna talk about, “Hey! Did you hear about the American Indian movement, uncle?” My right wing uncle who didn’t wanna talk about the American Indian movement, how they were being squelched. It went nowhere.
SARAH: [laughs] You’re like, “Hey, everybody! Let’s talk about drones. Also, pass the gravy.”
JULES: [laughs] Exactly. It was very unsuccessful, my forays into politics with people with whom I differed politically, like my uncle, for example. But with sports, it’s totally different because it’s an entry point for conversation, and you can get to really interesting political spaces. And you can get to really interesting political spaces of agreement with people. After all, there are a lot of people who are fiscal conservatives who find the spending on the Olympics absolutely abhorrent, and there are conservatives and liberals and progressives and everything between and outside of that, who will share the same favorite athlete. So I don’t see why we need to forfeit the ground of sports and say, “Oh, we shouldn’t be talking about that as people interested in politics or as intellectuals or as poets.” No, I think all those people can appreciate sports and use it as a way of talking to people we might not otherwise get the chance to talk to.
SARAH: Jules Boykoff’s book is called Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics. Check it out.
SARAH: Hey, listeners! If you like this show, help support it! We created a B-Hive membership level just for you: The Podcast Pollinators! Join fellow listeners as a member of the Podcast Pollinators. And when you do, you’ll receive a special mug, a subscription to Bitch magazine in print and digital, a snazzy sticker, and Listen Bitch, a monthly roundup of all our favorite shows and music reviews, straight to your inbox! Become a Pollinator today at bitchmedia.org/pollinators. Thank you so much!
Journalist Jessica Luther grew up as a sports fan.
JESSICA: I can’t actually remember not being a fan of sports.
SARAH: When she was a kid, Jessica grew up with a single dad. He was in the Air Force. They moved a lot, from Nebraska, to Washington DC, to Florida. But wherever they were, Jessica’s dad loved watching football with his little elementary school-aged daughter.
JESSICA: I can remember just the two of us hanging out on the weekends, and there was one TV, of course, back in those days. And we watched football, is what I mainly remember, but we probably watched other sports too. I remember he was very–he still is–very big on sportsmanship. So when the other team would get hurt– Like, my dad’s very competitive with his teams, but if someone on the other team got hurt, we had to respect that. We wanted them to get better, and it’s not worth it if other people get really injured and all those sorts of lessons that he was teaching me.
SARAH: Jessica carried that idea of sportsmanship close to her heart all her life. But it led her to a place that she never could have predicted when she was a little kid watching TV. Now, as a journalist living in Austin, Texas, she just finished writing a book about college football and sexual assault. It’s called Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape.
Just a warning about this segment: We’re gonna talk about sexual assault and how assaults are treated by media and college administrators, but we’re not gonna talk about any graphic details of specific cases.
[marching band playing majestically]
SARAH: As a kid, there was no bigger team in Jessica’s life than the Florida State University Seminoles. That was her dad’s favorite team. He’d gone to Florida State, and it became important to Jessica too.
JESSICA: We have our famous, our infamous, chants that are racist, channeling of whoever made the chants up, their image of what Native Americans sound like.
SARAH: Graduating from high school in 1998, she chose to attend Florida State University too.
JESSICA: It was the only school I applied to, when it finally came time. I was a very good student in high school and had all these dreams of what I was gonna do. And then I, at some point, decided that was the only school I was gonna go to.
SARAH: Jessica fell in love with Florida State. And football was a big part of that.
JESSICA: I mean, I just loved it. It felt collegiate to me. It was what I was hoping college would feel like. I loved all the game-day stuff. I loved all the sports stuff. I literally went to every single football game.
SARAH: Florida State is in the capital of Florida, Tallahassee, and at times, it can feel like the whole city revolves around football. It’s not just a game; it’s the center of civic life and culture.
[fans, marching band, cheering]
JESSICA: The entire town sort of shuts down. You can’t get into a restaurant. People book hotels months in advance, if not a year in advance, in order to be able to go to a game and have a place to stay. There are just people everywhere, and they’re all decked out in their gear. Everyone’s really excited. There’s just like lots of random cheering that happens. It’s like a massive party atmosphere, and it’s fun and you’re part of it and you feel this– I mean, I get why people have part of their identity is attached to that school and that team and that camaraderie that comes from being a part of that. It’s just so exciting to cheer along with other people for the same team when you all care so deeply for what’s happening on the field.
[cheering takes over, races in tempo]
JESSICA: So when I was there, Florida State actually went to the national championship game, and they played against Michael Vick’s Virginia Tech Hokies at the New Orleans Sugar Bowl. I got tickets, and again, I dragged my husband along with me, my boyfriend at the time. We went to the game, and the big storyline outside of that game was that our star player, Peter Warrick, had been arrested for a felony robbery during that semester and had sort of gotten a slap on the wrist in the way that you would expect and was out on the field. I just remember believing very soundly that he should be out there. Why wouldn’t he be out there? The only thing that matters is if we win this game, and I believed that.
SARAH: A lot of people feel that way, that whatever an athlete does off the field doesn’t matter. That winning is the only thing. But after Jessica graduated and became a journalist, something changed. In the summer of 2013, she noticed that two major football teams, the teams from Vanderbilt and the Naval Academy, had gang rape cases going on at the same time. It struck her as very strange and unsettling that not very many people were talking about the cases.
JESSICA: I just remember at the time being so fascinated that sports media didn’t care at all, like they were much more obsessed with whether or not this other quarterback in college, Johnny Manziel, had signed an autograph and got paid for it, and therefore, broken rules about getting paid as an amateur player. There was such a cognitive dissonance for me with how could they not care that two different major football programs have ongoing gang rape cases, and it was like crickets?
SARAH: Then in November 2013, the news broke that Florida State University’s new star quarterback had been accused of sexual assault. His name is Jameis Winston. It turned out at a female Florida State student had reported the crime more than a year before, in December 2012. It took a year for the case to become public. This was part of a pattern: Florida State’s victim advocate office had 113 sexual assault reports in 2014, yet FSU’s administration reported only 14 of them to the federal government. The student in Winston’s case filed a lawsuit that states that Florida State University, “in concert with Tallahassee Police, took steps to ensure that Winston’s [alleged] rape of plaintiff would not be investigated either by the university or law enforcement.” The university settled the case settled for $950,000. Winston, meanwhile, was never prosecuted for any crime. He was a first round draft pick for the NFL and is currently making $6.3 million a year as a quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The student who brought the assault charges? She wound up transferring.
Jessica Luther says that when she first hears the news about this case, she was sad. There’s no other word for it. Just sad.
JESSICA: [sighs] It’s so hard. It’s almost hard to explain the sadness of you have this joy in your life, and just suddenly being like, “Oh man. This is not what I thought it was.” I mean, I remember Winston was young, he was a red shirt freshman, and he had just come out of nowhere. We had been, as a team, really flailing for a long while, and all these pieces came together. We finally had a very good offensive line, which had been lacking for a long time. Then, they put a quarterback behind it, and he was so good! It was so exciting, and by the time November rolled around, there was whispers that he was gonna win the Heisman trophy, which is the top award in college football. But I can remember being very sad about it. I didn’t, I just didn’t want it to be my team. And it’s weird to talk about it now because I have definitely had a huge evolution in my own thinking around this issue since then. But I recognize the fans who get really angry about reporters writing about this and that feeling of why are you focusing on my school, and everybody’s terrible, and not just us, and all these feelings you have. Because for me, I instantly recognized that I was gonna have to somehow reconcile this for myself. That this wasn’t OK. Then, the more I learned about the case, the less OK I became about all of it. It’s a really messy, terrible case of people just sort of looking the other way and not trying very hard to figure out what actually had happened.
I did jump in pretty quickly. I was upset about the coverage, I was upset about how much of it was about it, where there was very little, even a mention of a woman involved. That’s part of how I started writing on it, was I wanted to correct that narrative as much as I could and say that that’s not OK; that’s not how we should cover this.
SARAH: Can you lay out concretely what was wrong with some of the reporting initially on this that made you upset? You said it was so focused on him and didn’t talk about the woman involved at all. Just concretely explain what did you see that you were like, “Ugh, that’s not the way we should be talking about rape allegations”?
JESSICA: Yeah, I think this will be probably familiar to anyone who has watched sports media cover any of these kind of cases. What ends up happening–and it’s not a surprise–the way sports works is that we, as journalists, are trained to write about the athletes and the stories around teams. When, suddenly, this kind of off-field issue happens, and there’s a possible victim involved, sports media doesn’t really know what to do with that. They’re so trained to write about things from the perspective of athletes that they continue to do it. So you get this sort of, “What is the impact on Jameis Winston? Will he still be good at football?” That was too much for me, this idea of what impact would this have on his ability to play football?! There were pieces that would barely even mention, outside of saying someone had reported or accused him. So what happened was, in November it comes out there was very good investigative journalism that happened at The Tampa Bay Times, Matt Baker at The Tampa Bay Times. He got some sort of tip. He figured out that this assault was–the investigation to the assault–was ongoing since December 2012. When he puts in the request to Tallahassee Police Department in November 2013, it sort of breaks open. I think TMZ might’ve beaten him by like an hour or something. So we come to find out that the police had never forwarded the file to the State’s Attorney’s office. So the State’s Attorney immediately takes over, and then they do their own investigation almost a year later. Right before the Heisman, the State’s Attorney came out, did a weird press conference where he announced that Jameis Winston would not be charged, a lot because it’s hard to collect evidence for something like this 11 months later. This guy, Greg Doyle for CBS Sports at the time–he doesn’t write for them anymore–he wrote this piece that’s very typical. I mean, I’m saying his name, but this is just a very typical response. He’s like, “OK! Time to move on! Everything’s done here. Legal thing is over. Nothing to see.” I can remember at the time being mad about that. Well, there’s still a woman, right? Is she done? Has she moved on? Have we all just moved on?
JESSICA: I do not like how sports media’s ready to just move back to the field, like it’s all done now. It’s not done. There are still bigger questions that need to be asked, and we need to remember that these kind of cases don’t just end.
SARAH: Sports media really talks a lot more about plays and the game than real life crime and behavior of athletes, especially when that behavior gets into actions that are not cool and scandalous and cool headline fodder, but are really depressing and dark and scary.
JESSICA: So something will happen on field, like there will be some kind of bad foul. Everyone will argue about whether or not that person should be punished extra because they did this horrible foul. There will be these giant conversations about it. And then, another player on the team will do this horrible thing off-field; no one wants to talk about it. I always think that’s so interesting because of course it’s easier for all of us to have a discussion about this foul and the punishment for it, because it doesn’t really mean anything outside of the field. We don’t have to have big philosophical discussions about our relationship to that foul and that punishment or something like that. Whereas, when something happens like sexual assault or domestic violence or even talking about players with mental health issues or any kind of big thing that radiates out into life, it really pulls you away from the sport itself. It makes you really look at things that are important and big and difficult to have conversations about. I think a lot of people–I do this–I turn to sport cuz it’s simple. There are rules; people follow them. They don’t follow them, then something happens. And those things start to fall apart for you when you have to interrogate these off-field issues that intersect with other things in your life.
I mean, I really do get why people don’t wanna talk about it. I don’t wanna talk about it anymore a lot of the time, but I also can’t forget about it. Now that I’ve done this for so long, for me, I think about all these women who’ve contacted me about things that’ve happened to them. Those are the kind of things I can’t put aside when I’m watching sport anymore. I just can’t not think about it anymore. It’s kind of ignorance is bliss, right? And I can’t go back from what I know.
SARAH: So you have lots of women contact you and say, “Hey, this has happened to me. This has happened at my school”?
JESSICA: Yeah. Anytime I publish a big story, and especially if I end up on national television like Outside the Lines on ESPN, there’s always a response where people contact me. It’s not necessarily people who want me to report on them. They just wanna tell me because they think I get it, and I will be a safe ear for them.
SARAH: And that’s so rare.
JESSICA: Yeah, I think so. I think people see me, and they think, “Well, if I tell her, she’ll believe me. She’ll get what I’m talking about.”
SARAH: It’s not just sports media that wants to move on. It’s university administrators too. I’m hoping you can talk about what role does money play in this? How much of this has to do with football teams, especially being moneymakers for big colleges.
JESSICA: I think it’s huge. I mean, it’s often true at big schools with big football teams that the head coach of the football team makes more money than anybody else on campus. So therefore, they end up being the de facto most powerful person on campus. The football team brings in a bunch of money, often. It’s often the financial machine of the athletic department, if not a big chunk of the university. It makes boosters happy, alumni who want to give money. So yeah, and these players are not paid. So this is a big thing for me in the book cuz I return to this. These guys aren’t getting paid for any of this. So you’ve got things like when they’re recruiting them, they can’t pay them. They’re not negotiating salaries or something like that. Instead, what you often see is they try to build bigger facilities, better facilities. And then for me, the dark side of this is they often use women as recruitment. These women almost stand in as cash. We can’t offer you money, but we have really pretty girls here who will do very nice things for you if you come. So the implicit promise of these recruitment programs, which I see that as a spectrum. The other end is sexual assault. This idea that these women just exist for these guys’ pleasure is part of recruitment.
SARAH: Schools often throw big parties full of attractive female students when they’re recruiting athletes. These students are called hostesses. Since there are strict rules about coaches not spending more than a few minutes with a potential student when they come to tour campus, athletic departments support groups of female students who give tours, answer questions, and are supposed to keep the recruits entertained. There have been a lot of cases where women volunteering as hostesses have come forward about being sexually assaulted.
JESSICA: There’s so much money that is being thrown around. So yeah, if they get hurt, or if they get in trouble, there are things in place to get them better and back on the field as soon as possible cuz they’re the ones making the money. Jameis Winston at Florida State, the idea that he might not have been able to play because he got in trouble, we’re talking about a team that was on its way–and it did win the national championship behind this guy. And the kind of money that that brings in, you get more people apply to schools when teams win national championships, boosters donate money. It’s this whole thing, and then it self-creates this whole– When Jameis Winston wins a national championship at Florida State, a big time recruit will come play for them so that they can recreate the cycle. So they’ve invested a bunch of money in these guys. They need them to stay clean. They need them to stay on the field. It’s just a really bad system that is driven by gigantic, gigantic funds.
SARAH: A big problem with the system is that the schools are at odds with themselves. The school has a strong financial disincentive to investigate rape allegations if they might wind up keeping a player off the field. But schools are not just supposed to be concerned about making money. They’re supposed to protect all of their students, not just the ones who are football stars. When schools overlook sexual assault, it’s students who have already faced violence who pay the price.
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Here’s our listener comment of the week, which comes from listener Jenny. She wrote in to say: “Hey. Just reaching out to let y’all know how much I enjoy reading & listening to what you have to offer. I’m a regular podcast listener who is waiting EVER SO PATIENTLY for July to be over so I can get my next fix.” Guess what, Jenny? July is over! We are back! And here’s a plug for our next episode of Popaganda, which will be called Designing for Democracy:
HILLARY CLINTON: I don’t know who created Pokémon Go!
[crowd cheers wildly]
CLINTON: But I try to figure out how we get them to have Pokémon Go to the polls!
SARAH: That show comes out in two weeks. See you then.
Popaganda is produced by the team here at Bitch Media. Bitch is an independent, non-profit, feminist media organization. We’re entirely funded by our B-Hive members, subscribers, and likeminded sponsors. So if you liked today’s episode of Popaganda, please become a member online at BitchMedia.org today. Let us know you liked the show in your order comments. Our jingle is by Mucks and Owen Wuerker. Additional music was provided by Blue.Sessions. Look up their creative and minimalist sounds by going to Google and typing in Sessions.Blue. And the show is produced by Alex Ward at the studios of XRAY FM, an independent radio station in Portland, Oregon. Thanks for listening.