This week we’re featuring freelance writer, speaker, and author Jessica W. Luther. On top of covering the intersection of sports and culture, Jessica has written extensively on sports and sexual violence off the field. Read on to find out how she transitioned from a Classics and History graduate student to a freelance sports journalist and her new book “Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape” coming out next month.
Q: You have a very unconventional background. You started out studying Classical civilizations at graduate school, and then you decided to change careers completely. How did you decide to make the transition into freelance writing? Why did you choose to write about the intersection of sports and culture?
A: I actually went from Classics into History, and I came within a few chapters of completing my dissertation. I made the decision to go into freelance writing, though, while still in school. I had been blogging and a friend said to me one day, “You know, you can get paid to write.” After lots of encouragement, she walked me through the process of pitching and helped me place my first piece. I took over from there, modeling the process off of what I had seen her do, and then I learned as I went. This all dovetailed then with my dissatisfaction with higher education and struggles with my mental health. I ultimately decided the best, most healthy decision for me was to leave graduate school. Once out, I took to writing and never looked back.
I had to figure out how to network, how to pitch so the story was compelling enough to get picked up by an editor, how to work with different editors at different sites who each wanted content for a specific audience, how to work on deadline with multiple pieces going at once, etc. I’ve been in the game now for a good four years and with each pitch, each edit, each publication, I learn something new the helps me navigate the next time.
I came to sports organically because of my love of sports. I’ve been a sports fan as long as I can remember. My first sports piece was at the Guardian and I remember how easily that entire process went and how much I enjoyed it. A light bulb went off for me that, “Hey, maybe I can mainly write about sports.” Turned out, I could.
Q: Over the past few years you’ve written extensively about sports and violence off the field, in particular college football and sexual assault. In fact, you have a book coming out September 6 entitled Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape. How did you begin writing about the topic?
A: The issue of bodily autonomy has been important to me for a long while now, and it’s the kind of thing where I can’t quite pinpoint when it became that way for me. Part of that, then, was the preservation of bodily autonomy by honoring someone’s consent, not violating their boundaries, and treating other people with respect. Sexual violence goes against all of this. Once I got into sports writing, it didn’t take long for me to notice how often issues like domestic violence, interpersonal violence, and sexual violence popped up around athletes, often with the athletes accused of committing the crime.
Specifically, in the summer of 2013, there were two high-profile cases of college football and sexual assault, one at Vanderbilt that happened that summer involving four football players and a trial of three Navy players that was ongoing. Sports media gave it little attention, which I found distressing. So, this was very much on my radar when, in November 2013, the public found out that the quarterback at Florida State, my alma mater and my favorite team, had been accused of sexual assault nearly a year earlier and the police had never forwarded their investigation on to the state attorney. It became a major story and I was upset at the coverage, especially how little of it dealt with or even addressed the violence that was reported or gave a care that there was a woman involved who said she had been harmed. I started writing about it and I never really looked back.
Part of the reason for that is that once you write on this topic in any way that shows you care about the people who report, that you consider the impact of what you write on survivors of sexual violence, and that you want to tell the full story about what has happened, victims and survivors start to contact you directly. Often, it’s simply to tell you their story and to be heard. Sometimes it is because they would like to you to help them tell their story publicly. Tips come in and I feel compelled to follow up with them.
Q: What was the most startling realization you had while writing the book?
A: The most startling thing for me was how often these cases involve multiple players. I have located about 115 cases of sexual assault where a college football player is accused, charged, or convicted since 1974. Here is what I say about them in the book: “In all, just over 40 percent of the cases I’ve studied are gang rape allegations involving multiple players. If you add in cases where teammates are witnesses or later accomplices in harassing the woman who reported the violence, it creeps up close to 50 percent. This is incredibly high compared to what is known about gang rapes in the overall population.” Whenever I truly think about this aspect of the cases, I am alarmed all over again.
Q: Were there any institutions or programs that you came across that have instilled a strong culture against violence and sexual assaults off the field? What have they done to combat this behavior? What can other institutions do to emulate them?
A: I actually don’t have positive examples. There are certainly non-examples, where we know nothing about a program or there has never been a reported case to my knowledge. But that’s not the same thing as a program that actively tries to dismantle toxic masculinity or to incorporate healthy messages about consent or relationships. I wish I could give you a better answer here but I am still looking.
Q: After such extensive research and writing about the sports and violence do you still consider yourself a fan of sports? Do you find it difficult to reconcile your fandom with the controversies surrounding sports?
A: I do. I still watch sports. I love sports. I find it harder and harder to watch football, though. In part, it’s that I have this extensive knowledge of the players, coaches, and programs that makes it difficult for me to watch and enjoy it. It’s also all the other stuff we know about football: the concussions, the fact that the healthcare they will need their entire lives to manage the damage done to their bodies and brains will not be covered by the university they sacrificed them for, the exploitation of their nearly unpaid labor, etc. It’s a lot to put aside just to watch a game.
As for what I would say to fans trying to reconcile their disparate feelings about sport: to each their own. Whatever one person’s line in the sand is, that will most likely be different than someone else’s, and that’s fine. I would encourage someone who is upset about the state of the sport they love to speak out about it, to try to pressure the people in charge to change, to tell the media they want to hear those stories, etc. That is certainly easier said than done but it is the only way it will change.
Q: You also write a great deal about strong female athletes. Who is your favorite female athlete and why?
A: Serena Williams. I think this is a pretty obvious answer these days, but I’ve been a hardcore tennis fan for most of my life now and a devoted Serena fan for most of her career. I also deeply love Venus Williams. I appreciate how they have opened the game up both in terms of the strong, powerful way they play and what kind of bodies we expect to see on court. I appreciate that they have advocated on behalf of women’s equality and racial equality. And I just enjoy watching them play.