University of Minnesota football players stand behind senior wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky as he reads a statement about the team’s boycott to media members. (Photo from the Minneapolis Star Tribune)

Sexual violence in college sport represents an important problem that coaches and administrators must address. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the government has conducted 365 investigations of colleges for possibly mishandling reports of sexual violence since 2011. A simple search in the Chronicle’s Title IX database using the terms “football” and “sexual assault” yields around 250 matches for currently open investigations and 49 matches for cases that have been resolved. Further, roughly half of the student athletes surveyed in a recent study admitted to committing coercive sexual behaviors. Scholars have been investigating the relationship between college football and sexual violence for a long time, and the problem has not gone unnoticed by journalists, critics, and higher education administrators.

Jessica Luther’s 2016 book Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape characterizes what she calls a “playbook” that sports organizations draw on time after time to respond to sexual assault allegations and investigations. This playbook includes tactics like convincing victims to stay quiet, just shrugging it off, and focusing on “moving on.” As a communication scholar, my primary interest is the ways in which the culture of collegiate sport and organizational identity is communicated by administrators, coaches, players, and fans – the members of university sports institutions. Their communicative “playbook,” to use Luther’s concept, can be both preemptive and reactionary, and usually involves bolstering values (and myths) of sport participation through their handbooks, public addresses, and promotional materials. This communication can be unintentional as well as intentional. Like Luther, I hope to point out some problems regarding institutional responses to sexual assault investigations and suggest some ways that student athletes in particular can use their voices to change, instead of perpetuate, the status quo in college football.

Let’s reflect on the recent case at the University of Minnesota, where ten players were accused of sexually assaulting a female student in September 2016. Since then, two separate investigations came to different conclusions regarding the matter. Though the legal details of the case and the well-being of the victim are of utmost importance here and in all cases, I want to focus on a particular moment in December 2016 and its rhetorical impact on the culture of collegiate sport both for the Gophers and for the NCAA more broadly. Following a players-only meeting, Minnesota wide receiver Drew Wolatarsky announced that the team would be boycotting all football activities, including the upcoming Holiday Bowl game, to stand in support of their teammates. Their reason? The ten players in question were “denied due process,” and the teammates wanted to make a public statement of condemnation. Wolatarsky said the following:

We the united Gopher football team issue this statement to take back the reputation and integrity of our program and our brothers that have faced unjust Title IX investigation without due process. We are concerned that our brothers have been named publicly with reckless disregard and violation of their constitutional rights. We are now compelled to speak for our team and take back our program.

The phrase “take back our program” should be concerning, as it implies that the “threat” posed by a Title IX investigation is more important than achieving a football culture free of sexual violence. Later on in Wolitarsky’s statement, he rhetorically transformed the athletes in question into victims when he said, “These kids’ reputations…have been ruined.” This is a familiar tune used to defend athletes accused (or found guilty) of sexual assault, and it minimizes the acts at the center of the investigation.

The choice to boycott drew controversy. Minnesota head coach Tracy Claeys initially decided to support the players’ proposed boycott, tweeting “Have never been more proud of our kids. I respect their rights & support their efforts to make a better world,” and was subsequently fired. The Athletic Director, Mark Coyle, and University President, Eric W. Kaler, instead defended the suspensions as being in line with the university and team’s values. Eventually, the team rescinded their boycott threat. Wolitarsky conceded, “It’s clear that lifting the ten suspensions was not going to happen.”

This exchange is important for a few reasons. First, when athletes use their voices, people tend to listen. What they say matters. Sociologists and communication scholars have highlighted the importance of “activist athletes” in public life. High profile athletes can wield political influence. Think Colin Kaepernick, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and John Carlos/Tommie Smith, all standing up/kneeling to send a message of social justice. The players at Minnesota, meanwhile, chose to defend their “brothers” who were “denied due process” instead of attempting to support an institutional culture that is committed to the well-being of all its students. It was a tone-deaf response, even if unintentional.

That leads me to the second reason this is significant. From the perspective of the audience, the intentions of the speaker(s) often do not align with the effects of their speech. Communication is not one-directional, and the context – everything from who is listening, to what else is being said, to the social conditions surrounding the message – can have a bigger influence on the meaning than the intent or purpose behind the rhetorical act. In rhetorical studies, critics adopt this stance to evaluate public discourse according to its social consequences. In other words, that Wolitarsky and the team “didn’t mean” to sound like they were condoning sexual violence does not matter. Regardless of the intent, the team’s statement minimized the importance of sexual assault.

Third, this moment reinforces a point Jessica Luther makes about rewriting the playbook institutions and their members often use in these cases. Advocacy is a powerful tool. We should teach student-athletes about the problems in college football and how to be advocates to change a culture that often condones sexual assault. Athletes’ voices have the power to shape the present and future of college football. This threatened boycott, however, missed the mark. As representatives of the University of Minnesota, student athletes should exemplify and advocate for the principles the institution claims to stand for.

Though the case at Minnesota has faded from broader public scrutiny since the firing of Coach Claeys, we should keep in mind that collegiate sports organizations have an ethical and rhetorical responsibility to enact the values and ideals of sport and drive meaningful change to the culture of sexual violence through their discourse.

Rebecca Alt is a doctoral candidate in Communication (Rhetoric and Political Culture) at the University of Maryland. She is interested in the communication of collegiate sport culture, organizational rhetoric, and identity. You can follow her on Twitter at @rhetorbec.