Jessica Luther talks book, college sexual violence

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Janelle Matous

She began with one unreported case of sexual assault at a Texas private school. Now, she has hundreds of cases. Jessica Luther exposes the reality behind college football sexual assault in her new book, “Unsportsmanlike Conduct.” The Daily Texan spoke with her about her reporting, the book and sexual violence on college campuses.  

The Daily Texan: What made you decide to write a book on this subject? 

Jessica Luther: I had been writing about the topic for about six months. I came to the topic of college football and sexual assault because I went to Florida State and was a huge football fan. It was November 2013 when it came out that Jameis Winston, our then-quarterback, had been under investigation for sexual assault for 11 months and nothing had been done about it at the university or by the Tallahassee Police Department. That is when I started writing about it because it was sort of a personal thing for me reading all the covers around that school and once you get started there, it’s like an inertia to the work and survivors contact me a lot so I just keep writing.

DT: How did you feel as you were researching this? 

JL: Terrible. The work is a lot of emotional work. Obviously, I dig in and there is a lot of obsessive detail and minutia of things, but it’s really hard to read a lot about violence and mainly be indifferent to that violence. It is difficult work in a way that I didn’t understand when I got started. 

DT: What obstacles did you face along the way? 

JL: Most of the book is based on cases that made it to the media, so one obstacle is that [we only had] those and I feel like it is only a very small subset of the actual number of cases that exists. 

I didn’t do a lot of contacting programs or coaches for this but certainly in the work that I have done around this like on Vanderbilt, Baylor, Missouri [or] other schools, it’s hard to get people to talk to you. It’s rare that I ever get to speak to a coach. People are very nervous talking about these things and I think people look at me as an adversary because of the kind of reporting I do.  

DT: How do you feel about the way the Baylor case has snowballed into such a large investigation, especially now that they are being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education? 

JL: It’s all been wild to see. When Dan Solomon, my [Baylor] reporting partner, and I were working on it, I got a tip because people were concerned that nobody cared about what was happening [and] that there was no media coverage at the time. As we were reporting on it, we were worried that nobody would care about it, which is funny in retrospect, but I can remember the days leading up to publishing we were like “maybe somebody will read this.” 

DT: Why do you think that this issue of sexual abuse on college campuses has become such a widespread phenomenon in recent years?

JL: I credit student activists. We are having a cultural moment around harassment and sexual violence. We are overwhelmed with the presidential election, Bill Cosby, the Stanford swimmer, Nate Parker and Birth of the Nation — the head of FOX News got fired for harassment. We seem to be talking about it a lot in the last few years and I think a lot of it goes back to these student activists. A lot of them are college kids who have pushed hard to have their story heard and they have forced the federal government to pay attention. I think we have a vice president who cares about this issue and has helped promote it on the federal level as well. 

DT: Do you have reason to believe that this issue could be going similarly unreported in other college campuses?

JL: It is everywhere. This kind of violence is pretty ubiquitous just throughout our society and part of why I wrote the book, although it is through a narrower lens of college football, the point of the book is to look at this issue systematically. It is not one player, coach or university. There is a systematic issue and some of this has to do with specifics about college football but also there is a systemic issue within our culture. There is certainly no college or university within this country that has no incidents of sexual violence. That is not possible knowing what we know about the world.