Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Unsportsmanlike Conduct, by Jessica Luther

Jessica Luther is a life-long, die-hard fan of Florida State University football.  Yet the revelations of sexual assault by star football players has left her feeling ambivalent about the program.  "The FSU fan in me is desperate to feel the high of cheering on my team without the weight of knowing the cost of the system that creates football champions."  In Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape, Luther examines the "play book" for addressing accusations of rape, finds it lacking, and proposes a new one.

Luther has been tracking college football rape cases for many years.  She found that with few exceptions, press coverage, if there is any at all, is limited, regional, and short-lived.  She runs through a litany of rape accusations and the school, team, or police responses, making the argument that colleges, and we as a society, don't take such accusations as seriously as we should.  Some of her new "play book" responses are perfectly reasonable and doable.  Clarifying consent and promoting bystander intervention are a good start, but some of her other proposals are in the flimsy "wouldn't it be great" or "if everyone could just. . . ." realm.  We're not talking about values of football players, we're talking about values of society.

Maybe it's beyond the scope of her book, but to me, if we're going to address rape among football players, we have to examine sexual culture of young people, particularly on college campuses.  There are several issues which she does not mention.  First, today's college students have lived their entire lives immersed in readily available pornography.  Early exposure and easy access to depictions of explicit sex on their smart phones and computers shape the expectations young men (and women, actually) have regarding sex.  Yes, many men view pornography and do not turn into predators and have healthy sex lives.  But I can say with certainty that sexual predators, on or off college campuses, are fueled by and "inspired" by porn.

The increased sexual "freedom" of women (Thanks a lot, feminism and "free love.") has led to the hook-up culture, which is prevalent on college campuses.  Anonymous sex, sex outside of any kind of relationship, "friends with benefits," recreational sex are now hallmarks of campus party culture.  Luther alludes to this, in cases where players or recruits go to parties with expectations that everyone there will be having sex.

And speaking of parties, Luther says 40% of football player rapes are gang rapes.  It makes me wonder, is consensual group sex among these college kids de rigueur?  Are they getting together for group sex with willing female participants on a regular basis, and then when a young lady is unwilling they respond by pressuring her or forcing her to participate?  Is it common for teammates to share sexual partners?

My suspicion is that some students, including but not exclusively athletes, are awash in this culture of porn, casual sex, and group sex.  They come to relationships and social situations with expectations that are frequently met by willing participants.  They are not prepared for cases in which someone is uncertain or unwilling.  Luther's suggestions for change can make a difference, but unless this culture of cheap, casual, frequent sex is reversed, sexual exploitation will be inevitable.  I know this sounds puritanical, but I don't think it's too much to ask for football players to keep it in their pants!!

Luther makes some valid points and certainly has done her part to continue this conversation and raise awareness.  I appreciated her pointing out the hypocrisy of the "hostess" programs, where pretty coeds were used as bait to draw in recruits, in many cases having sex with them on recruiting weekends.  Their very presence seemed like an offer to the recruits.  The NCAA has sort of addressed this practice, but not very convincingly.

One thing that bothered me about Luther's treatment is her dismissal of exonerations at trial, and her lack of discussion about criminal convictions in contrast to Title IX rulings.  On the one hand, she hearkens back to lynchings of black men accused of whistling at white women: "Fears about powerful black men being punished via false accusation are not irrational or dramatic; they are borne of actual experience."  Yet she dismisses the idea that football players are sometimes falsely accused.  "The statistical odds are very high that the person reporting in these [rape] cases is not lying."  Worse, she seems dismissive of cases where the accused were found innocent in a court of law, implying that they are actually guilty despite what the court ruled.

She does not address a big problem with Title IX, that a student can be found simultaneously guilty under the lower threshold of Title IX ("more likely than not") and innocent in a criminal court ("reasonable doubt").  As many cases have demonstrated, this double standard has led to confusion, lawsuits against schools, and, importantly, disruption of the lives and education of the accused.  If Title IX is to continue as the law of the campus, reforms will be needed to avoid its being the unjust kangaroo court that it frequently tends to be.

A recurring theme in Unsportsmanlike Conduct is victims' unwillingness to report rape or to press charges.  They speak of fear of recrimination, harassment, and abuse.  Unfortunately, this is a reality for some victims.  For their sake, I hope that the greater awareness that Luther and others are promoting will create an environment in which a victim can report crimes against her with confidence and with the support of her community.

Like Luther, I am a life-long fan who has been disappointed by the predatory practices of a few, bringing unspeakable harm to their victims while making their whole team, not to mention their school and alumni, look bad.  Luther's presentation is incomplete, particularly by not addressing the sexualization of society, and of college life in particular, as the driving force behind the epidemic of rape on college campuses.  Her blind spot for men falsely accused, or accused and found innocent in court, is glaring as well.  May the conversation continue. . . .

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

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