Unsportsmanlike Conduct by Jessica Luther
I first learned about Ms. Luther during Wendy Davis’ filibuster of HB 2 in Texas – the bill that would eventually become the TRAP law that made it all the way to the Supreme Court as Whole Women’s Health. She is a journalist who has built her career focusing on the intersection of sports and culture, reporting extensively on how women are treated when they report that an athlete has sexually assaulted them.
Unsportsmanlike Conduct is a book from a small press that focuses exclusively on issues in sport, and the publishers approached Ms. Luther to write it. They also worked with her to create the framing for the book, which is about sexual assault committed by football players, and how both the victims and the student-athletes are failed by the system as it currently stands.
The first half consist of five chapters that set the stage – or field, as it were – as it currently stands. There is the field – the universities and colleges themselves – as well as what we don’t see.
She explores the tension that exists with a sport that sees majority black players and (assumed) majority white female who are assaulted and raped, and the history of racism there. The chapter that focuses on this history was fascinating and depressing, and important for understanding the entire issue. One fact she shared, which I found both unsurprising but also depressing as hell, was that the most important predictor of opposition to paying student athletes was if someone had a negative view of black people. Yikes.
With this history firmly grounded, Ms. Luther moves on to discuss the ways Universities, the NCAA and police will try to simply make the reports of rape and assault go away. Or, Coaches and Athletic Directors will claim that the cases just aren’t that big of a deal. Finally, she includes my personal (least) favorite – the attempt to just move on, and pretend everything has been handled appropriately. I loathe the ‘we’re looking to the future’ mentality, when the transgressions of the past have not yet been properly addressed. It is infuriating, and this chapter handles this well.
With the field set, Ms. Luther focuses the second half of the book on things that can be done to improve things now. There are ten chapters of varying length; the one that I think is the most critical (if we were to rate them) is the one that explores the reality of what trauma looks like. We so often hear ‘why didn’t she go to the police right away’ or ‘why did she text the guy a week later’ or ‘her story changed,’ but the media doesn’t provide the context for how the brain recovers memories after a traumatic event like a rape or assault.
I think this is an important book. Unfortunately, I cannot see coaches or the NCAA bothering to read it, because it is so critical of them. But if more students, players and journalists took the time to read it, I think we could see some progress. If the subject matter isn’t too triggering for you, I really hope you consider picking it up.