Review: Jessica Luther's Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape

[Content Note: Sexual violence.]

Most of you probably know that Jessica Luther (@scATX) is a good friend of mine. But, just in case, full disclosure: Jess is a good friend of mine. I am also cited as a source in this book, by virtue of my extensive work on the subject of rape culture.

Book reviewing is a very particular skill, and it is not one I possess. I am often asked to review books, and I rarely accept, because I don't feel like I can do justice to the authors' work. As a result, this won't really be a book review, in any kind of traditional sense.

I am unreservedly recommending Unsportsmanlike Conduct. It is a difficult and important book, written by a person who addresses the subject with a unique expertise and an abundance of sensitivity.

It should be required reading for anyone involved with male collegiate athletics, in any aspect. The brevity of that statement should not serve to undermine its import and urgency, but instead to convey, without caveat or superfluous clause, how certain I feel of its truth.

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When I first started blogging 12 years ago, I was one of a very few people who regularly wrote on the intersection of rape culture and sports culture. I hated every minute of it.

I hated reading the stories; I hated when another story about an athlete—or athletes—raping a woman landed in my inbox; I hated the process of deciding whether to write about the story, whether I had the wherewithal to do it; I hated the writing itself, the struggle to eke out every word while waves of memory threatened to drown me in turbulent pools of recollection.

I am a survivor of rape by a talented and admired high school athlete. These stories, in particular, were painful for me to navigate, as the trauma of the assaults and the secondary trauma of the gaslighting and victim-blaming and indifference and isolation would creep their way to the surface from the depths of my every cell.

Because every story was the same. Every survivor at the center of every story reminded me of my experience. And it was because of them that I wrote about these stories; that I resolved to bear witness and document the pattern of abuse all of us in this grim sisterhood share. But I hated it. And it took a toll.

Along the way, Jessica Luther and I became friends. We first found each other as writers, and our conversations about work quickly and insistently segued into conversations about everything else. We became the kind of friends who could tell each other anything, and did. The kind of friends where you can't remember a time where you didn't know each other.

Sometime after we became friends, Jess emerged as an expert on the subject of rape culture in sports. She wrote about difficult cases—and she did it with such care and decency. She weathered, not always easily, the blowback directed at any woman writing on this subject. Her persistence established her as a respected authority.

And she always, always, centered survivors.

This is hard work. It is emotionally draining and painful. Carrying other people's pain, being their champion, day after day, changes you forever. And it often creates an obligation—a feeling that you cannot quit. That once you've taken up the mantle, to abandon it would be unthinkable. Especially when there are so many stories to tell, so many people who need someone to be their advocate.

Because Jess has done this work, and done it so well, I was able to set it aside. I don't feel compelled, the way I did when I was one of the few people writing about it, to immerse myself in that oppressive ache, over and over. Her work has given me freedom.

We talk a lot about these stories. I tell her, when it gets hard, that she can be done. That being done is allowed. She has done so much of value already, even though it can feel as though no amount of work could ever be enough.

If there is a day that comes when she simply cannot do it anymore, I will support her decision. And if she keeps doing this work forever, I will always be on the other end of the phone—to listen, to offer advice when it's solicited, to encourage her, to be her champion the way she is a champion for us.

To tell her I am grateful for what she has done. For this gift, this book that means everything.

This book that not only explains this immensely complex problem, but imagines a world in which things could be better. In which women (in particular) could be safer.

It is an objective within our reach given the collective will. Jess never loses sight of that. To the contrary, she urges us to reach with her.

I guess what I'm trying to say is this: It's not just that Unsportsmanlike Conduct is a good book. It's that it was written by a good person. And on this subject, especially, that matters.

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Purchase Unsportsmanlike Conduct at Amazon.

As always, if you would like to purchase the book but cannot afford it—or even if you can, but would like other ways to support this important work—make a request at your local public library and/or university libraries that they get a copy of the book.

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