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What a college football team’s canceled boycott reveals about the politics of rape

One expert says the problem is bigger than the players.

The Minnesota Golden Gophers football team huddles in the first quarter against the Wisconsin Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium on November 26, 2016 in Madison, Wisconsin.
Dylan Buell/Getty Images

On Saturday, the University of Minnesota Gophers — minus 10 players who have been suspended as the school investigates their role in an alleged sexual assault — reversed their decision made last week to “boycott all football activities” until the suspensions were lifted, reports the Star Tribune.

After police reviewed a 90-second recording from the night of the incident — with a fellow student during the early morning hours after a September game — and interviewed players who said the sex was consensual, local prosecutors announced in October that they would not press charges because they didn’t find evidence that excessive force was used or that the victim was physically helpless.

Members of the team seemed to believe that because the accused players weren’t facing criminal consequences, the university suspensions were unjust. ("We got no answers to our questions about why these kids were suspended when they were just found not guilty by the law," senior wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky said last Thursday.)

In actuality, the school’s decision about whether sexual misconduct occurred will be made completely separately and according to a different set of standards from the ones a court would use to evaluate rape. University hearings are scheduled for January.

The university’s Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action report — a part of this investigation into whether “sexual misconduct” occurred — was published by KSTP-TV on Friday. According to the Star Tribune, it was the public airing of this disturbing 80-page document that “changed the narrative” for the players and led to their decision to reverse their boycott.

The report contains a graphic, detailed account of the woman’s allegations, which say that 10 to 20 men, including a Gophers football recruit, were “chanting, laughing, cheering and jostling for a position in the line to have sex” with her as she made comments including “I can’t handle this anymore” and “I don’t want this to happen.” It includes the players’ accounts of the night, and a finding that “the accused students engaged in a collective effort to conceal the identities of the men who were present in the apartment” where the assault allegedly occurred and may have deleted group text messages surrounding the event.

While the football team’s boycott is over, the larger story of sexual assault on college campuses — and by football players specifically — is not.

To help understand the University of Minnesota case in this context, I spoke to longtime sports and investigative journalist Jessica Luther. Her book, Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape, describes habits and techniques — what she calls the “playbooks” — that coaches, teams, university, the media, and fans use in response to alleged assaults by athletes. She says these all combine to minimize consequences for perpetrators and maintain a culture in which assaults occur.

The following is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

Your book covers the typical ways that football programs, universities, the NCAA, and sports media typically respond when athletes are accused of rape or sexual assault: things like denial, discrediting the victim, and using weak language to minimize sexual violence. Explain what your research shows about how that “playbook” tends to work.

Jessica Luther

The book looks at three specific avenues: what university coaches and administrators do in response to reports of sexual violence, and what the NCAA doesn’t do. Also, how the media reports on it, with things they say over and over again. There’s lots of similar stuff: “Nothing to see here,” “We have let everything play out,” “Move on...”

It’s a lot of looking at patterns in the relationships between police departments and athletic departments, the way university administrators can intervene, the way coaches don’t want to take it seriously, [often by saying] it’s an individual that has nothing to do with the team — arguing that there’s no team context to this kind of violence, even in cases where there are multiple players involved.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

Prosecutors declined to charge the 10 Minnesota players, but they were still suspended by the University of Minnesota. Did this represent a departure from the traditional playbook — particularly the “nothing to see here” play?

Jessica Luther

I’ll say from the criminal side, it’s pretty normal — criminal cases around sexual violence very rarely get charged; it’s less common for them to go to trial and even less common for them to lead to convictions.

But I will say, just the fact that they found that [the players] had violated the student conduct code and elevated that information during the football season is pretty weird. The fact that the athletic director chose to suspend the guys pending a hearing in January ... it does seem different.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

You write in the book that many of the sexual assault cases you’ve found involve gang rapes or athletes as either participants in or witnesses to sexual violence. That pattern is seen in the allegations in this case. What’s the significance of that?

Jessica Luther

The book covers about 115 or 120 cases [of allegations of sexual misconduct against college athletes] — it’s now closer to 125 — over four decades. ... It’s mainly the cases that hit mainly national media. Forty percent of them are cases where multiple players are accused of assault. There’s an additional 10 percent if you include guys who witnessed it or helped out after, like at Vanderbilt [where football player Chris Boyd admitted in 2013 to helping to cover up an on-campus rape by moving the woman’s body].

There is this collective violence that’s happening that we need to be addressing in some way. I don’t really have a great sociological answer except that it does make me think there’s something in the system itself and the culture of these programs that we need to be talking about.

To me, there are important moments like the coach tweeting that he’s proud of these guys for their effort to “make a better world.” What is he doing? He does say something like he respects their right, which I do too — I like the idea of these guys using their power for good. But this is not one of those moments.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

Part two of your book is about your ideas for how colleges could handle sexual assault better and even prevent it. The first thing you mention is consent. In the Minnesota case, the police report says that the sexual contact “appears entirely consensual.” Meanwhile, the woman involved says she doesn’t recall how the sex acts started and is quoted in the report saying, “I was removing myself from my mind and body,” and recalling that she was attempting to shove people off of her.

This seems to reinforce what you wrote about how consent is “often the point on which these cases turn, be that in the criminal justice system, at the university legal, or even on an interpersonal level when a survivor recounts their story. We have such a poor grasp, as a society, of what consent looks like and how it works in practice. This is our collective failure.”

Jessica Luther

Yes, there’s the line in the book about a cultural failure to teach what consent is, and you feel it in a moment like this.

Part of it is that in the police report, we’re trusting that cop’s understanding of consent. That you’re going to pull from a video that someone accused of a crime [likely] made without that woman’s consent in the first place ... [and conclude from] that that she’s consenting to multiple people who she says raped her across 60 to 90 minutes. ... Feeling confident enough to make that judgment is pretty wild to me.

We have a pretty bad understanding generally about how consent works. In the law, it’s “no means no,” so there has to be an indication that she was saying no, and that she was fighting hard enough. But one of the things she talks about is that there were so many of them, and she felt unsafe and didn’t know what to do or how to get through it.

[The University of] Minnesota uses affirmative consent [as a standard to decide whether sexual misconduct in violation of the university code of conduct has occurred] — so “yes means yes.” Players who’ve been accused have to explain how they knew she wanted to have sex with [them].

It’s a tiny but fundamental shift. “No means no” puts 100 percent of the burden on the person who is victimized; “yes mans yes” divides that equally between the two. So I think affirmative consent is a good thing.

But in a lot of cases, it sounds like [the accused players] are confused about how to know when their partner — the person who reported them — has consented.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

How did the now-retracted 2015 Rolling Stone story describing a campus sexual assault that turned out to be a falsified accusation complicate the public discussion about how universities should react to sexual assault allegations?

Jessica Luther

It sits alongside Duke lacrosse as one of the two main cases people hang on to as evidence that we don’t need to take reports seriously. I do think it has an impact on our ability to report as journalists on this.

It makes it harder and more complicated to do this work, because people have such an easy thing to latch onto to say that these things don’t matter or we shouldn’t take them seriously.

But we’re in this good moment where there’s so much counter-reporting to that narrative, where lots of survivors have come forward to tell this story. The Stanford rape victim’s statement was an important moment culturally for us.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

You make the point in the book that in the politics of college football and rape, there are more interesting and important players than the football player and the victim. You call them “the people who have drawn up and executed their own plays to deflect responsibility for their role in perpetuation of violence.”

Who are these people in general, and how, if at all, do they seem to be operating differently in the case in Minnesota?

Jessica Luther

This is a really interesting case for me because the players took such a prominent role in the case. And I wish I could talk about this topic without ever talking about a specific player, because I think what’s going on is systemic.

Players are at the bottom of the pyramid when we think about what’s going on here. College is transient. They come and go. Coaches, university presidents, the beat writers who cover this stuff, the NCAA: These are the people who get the most out of us focusing so intently on the specific case or a single program. And so as someone who cares systemically about the issue, we always have to be looking higher up. I want someone to sit down and make the coach answer for where he was in all this.

In this case, right now I would say that the coaching staff should be getting many more questions asked of them. The players have to answer for this moment, for making a big public spectacle of trying to uphold the status quo of rape culture. But who taught them what due process is but didn’t teach them what consent is?

There was a line in the team’s statement about the university president having breached judiciary duty. Who taught them that phrase but didn’t tell them a single thing about [what could have prevented what is alleged to have happened] that night?

Once that statement was read, nobody was talking about the violence. And everyone except the victim benefits when that happens.

One interesting thing about Minnesota is that whoever released that EEOA report from the university, it’s a hard report to read. So people who read it probably have feelings about the case they wouldn’t have otherwise. It’s easier for us to judge as a society when we don’t have to be confronted with the violence itself.