sexual assault

Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman delivers her impact statement during the sentencing of former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, who pled guilty to multiple counts of sexual assault. (Photo by Dale G. Young/Detroit News via AP)

For most of January 2018, one of the worst sexual abuse scandals ever in sports dominated the news cycle, as former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to life in prison. During the trial, more than 100 sexual abuse victims testified about the predatory environment Nassar had created. Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman delivered an awe-inspiring 13-minute testimony that received national praise. Raisman, who identified herself as a powerful voice and advocate for all victims of sexual abuse, embodied the persona of feminist advocate and champion for abuse victims. However, Raisman’s credibility as a feminist advocate has come into scrutiny in light of her decision to pose – for the second time – for the 2018 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. This case raises several questions: Can Raisman still be considered a feminist advocate in light of her choice to pose for a sexist, white, heteronormative, and objectifying magazine feature? Where is the line between empowerment and objectification? As a rhetoric scholar, I am interested in how both Raisman’s traditional form of activism (public address) and her embodied rhetoric are compatible feminist discourses. My purpose is to explain Raisman’s multi-modal activism through the lens of feminist rhetorical criticism – highlighting the concept of “power feminism” – in order to complicate what feminist sports scholars and hosts of the Burn It All Down podcast call the “Sports Illustrated swimsuit conundrum.”

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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.

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