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“We Don’t Need Your Permission”

Tweet reads "We are RELENTLESS, TOUGH, AND INTELLIGENT, and..." then there's a picture of the team celebrating on the field in the endzone with the words "We don't need your permission." Below that is the coach, Derek Mason's, signature, and the hashtag #STARPOWER

Earlier today, Vanderbilt Football’s Twitter account tweeted this:

Tweet reads "We are RELENTLESS, TOUGH, AND INTELLIGENT, and..." then there's a picture of the team celebrating on the field in the endzone with the words "We don't need your permission." Below that is the coach, Derek Mason's, signature, and the hashtag #STARPOWER

“We are RELENTLESS, TOUGH, AND INTELLIGENT, and WE DON’T NEED YOUR PERMISSION”

I wrote an email to two communications people in Vandy’s athletics department soon after seeing this that read:

I am a reporter who spent six months prepping and writing a feature on the case of Brandon Vandenburg and Corey Batey for Sports Illustrated. I say that to establish my credentials for my criticism of this tweet that you all posted today.

The slogan “We don’t need your permission” is problematic without the larger context of your program having multiple players involved in a possible gang rape of a fellow student within the last two years, the trial for all 4 defendants still pending.

I think you should reconsider this.

That feature I wrote can be found here. Note: the trial has been ruled a mistrial and the convictions thrown out. There will be another trial, the DA has assured. I felt all sorts of ways about the word “possible” there in the second paragraph, but I sometimes fear that if someone finds my language inaccurate they will focus on that instead of the criticism at hand, so I sometimes hedge.

I don’t know how the people who I sent this email to took it as they never wrote back. Who knows if they read it.

The tweet was deleted within a minute or two of me sending the email and I am sure the wheels were in motion to get rid of it before my message hit their inbox.

But I did feel like I needed to go straight to the source and say something today. I’ve been trying to tease out why ever since.

I recognize my own feelings about this particular case are probably more complicated and my interest in this particular school more deep than the average person since I spent many months working on a feature about it, traveling to Nashville, talking to a bunch of people, writing, and editing it.

There is something though about this being the product of a program that should, in no uncertain terms at this point, know better. It is a case of high (all things are relative) expectations and the absolute terrible feeling when they are not met.

Vanderbilt did respond to the criticism of the tweets with two tweets that read in full: “We apologize for today’s tweet. It’s not a comment about sexual assault. Sex without permission is always wrong and not accepted. Sexual assault is not acceptable at Vanderbilt University, Vanderbilt Athletics and Vanderbilt Football.” (tweet 1, tweet 2)

After Vanderbilt released these apology tweets, Adam Jacobi tweeted in direct response to their words “it’s not a comment about sexual assault”: “it’s just the exact language of sexual assault.” He’s really on point here.

The language of football culture (and too much of our culture at large) dips directly into language of sexual assault liberally and often without thought for the double meaning of non-consent. That’s part of the absolute brilliance of a Friday Night Light’s spoof on Amy Schumer’s show from earlier this summer. The entire skit is about how the whole team and the town are supportive of the players being rapists, everyone except the new coach. Then at 4:16 in the piece, it’s halftime, and the coach uses all the metaphors of sexual assault to talk about what his team needs to do to win:

How do I get through to you boys that football isn’t about rape? It’s about violently dominating anyone that stands between you and what you want. Now, you gotta get yourself into the mindset that you are gods and you are entitled to this. That other team, they ain’t just gonna lay down. You gotta go out there and take it.

This is followed by the team doing their chant: “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Don’t Rape!”

It would be easy to slot a, “You don’t need their permission” right onto the end of his pep talk in that scene. “You gotta go out there and take it. You don’t need their permission!”

What other evidence do we need to prove that the language was bad?

The Athletics Director, David Williams, released a statement about the tweet (which they also tweeted):

We apologize for this morning’s tweet from Vanderbilt Athletics. We deeply regret sending it and clearly failed to consider all of its implications before doing so. The phrase “We don’t need your permission” was condensed from a larger statement and intended as a message to motivate our players and fans and to address those who have doubts about the football team’s competitiveness this season. A staff member shortened the statement for Twitter, failing to recognize how the abbreviated tweet could be interpreted.

The Athletics Department, as part of the larger Vanderbilt community, recognizes that sexual assault occurs far too frequently on campuses with devastating effect. Sex without permission is always wrong and not accepted at Vanderbilt.

That “occurs far too frequently on campuses” is an interesting turn of phrase. He could have simply said, “too frequently on this campus.” And I know, personally, of people who would challenge the claim that “sex without permission is…not accepted at Vanderbilt.” From my SI piece:

In November 2013, O’Brien was one of six women who filed a formal complaint with the Office of Civil Rights against the university, claiming the school had violated their civil rights under Title IX by failing to adequately respond to the issue of sexual assault. In April the Office of Civil Rights announced that it had launched a compliance review in response to the complaint.

After practice today, the head coach, Derek Mason, responded to media’s questions about the tweet. It was his tweet from about two weeks ago that the tweet from today was quoting. His off-the-cuff remarks start at 1:25 in this video:

He said:

That tweet does not reflect this program, it doesn’t reflect the university, more than anything else, our athletic department. We’re always about promoting good will and making sure we don’t offend anybody. And really, I definitely regret that it went out and that it was offensive. With that being the case, I definitely understand where we’re at in today’s climate. It’s truly regretful.

Ok. That’s not either here or there, really. It’s good he calls it offensive and says it’s regretful. I wish I could ask him to tell us more about “today’s climate” and “where we’re at” with it. I’m not sure what coaches or athletic directors or university presidents mean when they say the conduct that comes out of their offices or takes place on their campus is not reflective of those offices or that campus. I’m not sure that means anything at all.

Then the reporter asked Mason about working to build character with his players, about his core values (which seems to be the turn of phrase since University of Texas’ coach, Charlie Strong, got a lot of cheers for his “core values” — honestly, just google “Charlie Strong Core Values”).

Mason said,

I’ve got one rule in my program and that’s “Do what’s right.” That’s it. Everyday, we come in, we’ve got one goal in mind and that’s to make sure we keep it about the football. If we can keep it about the football and less about the distractions, then we can maximize the opportunities to be better.

If teams are going to get better about issues of violence against women/partners or violence off the field, I think we should stop thinking that coaches should be the ones doing that work. We shouldn’t expect that coaches are going to have values outside of “keep it about the football” except for maybe blanket ones like “do what’s right.” The work of addressing “character building” needs to come from somewhere else, from people who are experts at that (and in my dream world, that would start in kindergarten and every student everywhere would get it for every year they are in school, but I dream big). At this point, is there anything about the Vanderbilt athletics program that should make me think they get the problem, or that they see any of this as a problem beyond a PR one, one that exists because of the “climate”? And if Vanderbilt doesn’t get it, well, damn.

It was just a tweet, a single phrase. But I think about these things all the time, Vanderbilt in particular too much, too often, in too much detail. This is why I think I felt compelled to the send the email.

It shouldn’t be so hard to be better in simple, easy, low-bar ways. It shouldn’t be and yet.

Writing About Quidditch

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Today I have my debut at Texas Monthly, which is mainly about the domination of central Texas teams in the new-ish sport of muggle quidditch:

“The level of play in the southwest region is at such a higher level than the rest of the country,” says Beth Clem, a first-year graduate student at Texas State who plays on the university’s team. She credits this, partly, to the state’s football culture. Despite its cutesy origins, quidditch is a high-intensity contact sport, an advantage in Texas, where kids grow up on gridiron. “Half of the guys on our teams played football. They want to tackle; they want to be aggressive. We’re big, so we just wanna go through people.”

Ethan Sturm, a player from Tufts University who is the co-founder and current managing editor of the quidditch analysis website, The Eighth Man, puts it a bit more bluntly: “You’ve got this hub in Texas where the players are simply more athletic than in other parts of the country.”

This proclivity to a certain brand of athleticism helps on the field, but Sturm also points out that it’s a numbers game. UT, A&M, and Texas State all have tens of thousands of students, giving them a larger pool of talent to draw from. The Lone Star Club, which is based in Austin and isn’t affiliated with a university, can attribute its ascent to attracting players who have graduated from nearby schools and want to keep playing.

One more factor favoring Texas teams is the logistics of the quidditch season. The game is played most of the year—the official season runs from the first day of classes in the fall to the last in the spring—and the southwest doesn’t suffer harsh winters, allowing teams in this region to play and practice more frequently.

But what catapulted Texas—more specifically UT—to the top of the league was an innovative technique it introduced to the game that radically changed the way it’s played. Two years ago, at World Cup VI, it seemed every member on UT’s team “was fluent in two-handed catches,” according to Sturm.

This is now the second time I’ve written about quidditch (the first was earlier this year for Vice Sports, about a documentary on the sport called MudBloods).

What I’ve learned having done these two pieces is that it’s just plain hard to write about a sport that so many people don’t know much about. You end up spending a lot of time writing about the mechanics of the game (and this one is particularly complicated). And you only get so much space.

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Doing the TM piece, I interviewed 5 central Texas quidditch players and I ended up asking them a lot about the sport that wasn’t able to make it into the piece because of where we ended up putting the focus. But I really enjoyed these interviews and I am deeply interested in the people who choose to play quidditch. So, below are so excerpts that didn’t make into the TM piece but that I want to share just the same.


The teams are always co-ed. Each team has 6 players on the pitch for most of the game, 7 at the end. Referring to both Title IX, the 1972 law that exists to try to create gender parity in sport in the US, and Platform 9 3/4 that is the train platform where Harry Potter and his friends catch the train to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, US Quidditch has the Title 9 3/4 rule, which states that “each team [can only] have a maximum of four players who identify as the same gender, excluding the seeker” on the pitch at one time. The game, unlike almost any other sport that exists, always has a mix of genders on the pitch.


“You need to experience it” serves as a kind of mantra among the supporters of quidditch generally, a request to those who would criticize the sport or make of it without ever really experiencing it. Quidditch players are intensely aware that running around on a field with a broomstick between their legs is the part of the game that brings the most scrutiny, but even that has a silver lining. Kenny Chilton, a senior on UT’s team, says that this particular aspect of the game means that “the people who play the sport have to have a certain humility because you are running with a broomstick between your legs.” The teams are often tight knit. Sarah Holub, a former UT quidditch team member and current member of Lonestar, says that “all of my best friends play the sport” and a big reason she plays the game is because it is “hard-hitting and it challenges me and I get to do it with my favorite people.”

The reason for this camaraderie is twofold: new team members, especially on university teams, must learn the game from scratch because quidditch is such a new but also complicated sport; and team members see each other a lot. Kaci Erwin, a fourth-year graduate student on UT’s team, says that the game means so much to the people who play it because every season “is such a journey. Half of our team is new, they’ve never seen quidditch played before,” she says. “They are just raw athletes. It’s such a journey to have to build them into superstar quidditch player.” And, on a larger scale, to build the team into a World Cup championship-caliber team.


These teams are full of well-conditioned, strong, smart athletes, which also means that there are a lot of hard-hitting tackles. At the southwest world cup qualifying tournament, it was a common sight to see people limping, arms, legs, hands, and feet wrapped or ice being applied. “It’s kind of a recipe for trouble,” Clem says about injuries in the sport. “It’s full contact. It’s co-ed. You can’t have any hard pads.” They see all kind of issues: “concussion number one,” Clem says, “feet, knees, ankle injuries, a lot of beaters get hand and finger injuries because you are holding that dodgeball as soon as that impact hit your hands. I’ve had a couple broken thumbs.”

But part of what the quidditch players love about the sport is the physicality, especially the women. “I love it,” Holub says of tackling. Erwin seconds this, saying “It has actually been my favorite part of the game. It’s so good.” Peavler agrees, too: “I love it. I’m a really aggressive person. I’ve always thought that was a fun aspect to it.” Erwin explains that a big part of this love of tackling from the women of quidditch is that “as a girl, you never get to play tackle sports.” Holub, who played volleyball in high school and college-level softball before picking up quidditch, says, “I feel like there is no more rewarding feeling than taking down someone bigger than me, someone who underestimates me. I love the feeling of tackling someone. I also love the feeling of not necessarily the action of getting tackled but when I can get back up and I haven’t been fazed, I think that feels really cool, too. I am a fan [of tackling].”


Chilton says that UT begins every season by saying to the new team members, “welcome to the team, we’re going to win the world cup.” Texas, who has won the last two world cups, will try to make that prediction come true for the third year in a row.

Podcasts, Interviews, and Writing

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About a month ago, I appeared on POPSspot Sports Radio. The topic was “Sports & Violence Against Women.” It was a wide-ranging discussion on this topic and I really enjoyed being on the show. (I can’t figure out how to embed the audio on my site so just click over and listen to it where POPSspot has it available).


That same week, I did a podcast episode with Josh Katzowitz. He has a series called “Mightier Than The Sword” where he talks with writers “about writers, about their backgrounds and about the charcoal-to-bark, pen-to-paper, digits-to-keyboard, fingers-to-smartphone-screen world in which I love to live.”

The interview covers what it’s like to write about the impact of sexism on sports in a field that can be incredibly sexist, how I marry my writing to my activism, what “rape culture,” and about my upcoming book on sexual assault and college football.


On August 26, I did an online chat with Katie Klabusich at a site called Tawkers about college football and sexual assault. The downside to the Tawkers format as is: I can’t even cut and paste the text from the chat. The only way to read the full transcript of the hour-long chat is on Tawker’s site, scrolling down through the talk.


Way back in July, I was profiled by David Leonard for The Feminist Wire. In the long interview, I spoke about being a feminist and a sports fan at the same time:

I am a feminist sports fan. I am a feminist anything. That’s a hat I can’t take off.

Of course, being a feminist sports fan is hard a lot of the time. While watching a game, commentators – who are almost exclusively men unless you are watching women’s sports – often assume that the audience is just men or they actually make sexist comments (I’m thinking of Brent Musburger’s famous “boys, make sure you play quarterback so you can get a hot girlfriend” statement during the Alabama football championship game a couple of years ago). The ads around sports are sexist, too. There is a lot of eye rolling and righteously angry tweeting that happens while I am watching that helps me process it all.

A big part of the process of being a feminist sports fan is setting expectations nice and low. It’s about preparing for the inevitable let down and dealing with the disappointment when the letdown happens even though you’ve prepped for it. And it’s a lot of waving my arms wildly above my head and screaming on a regular basis, “I am here! Women are here!”

The interview is much longer and is about much more than just sports.


Recently, I spoke with Parker Molloy at Hellogiggles about women in sports. Here is what I said about the impact of Mo’Ne Davis:

I think the impact of a moment like one we just saw—the nation being captivated by Mo’NeDavis, her awesome play, and her kick-ass personality—is hard to measure. I have no doubt that there will be girls who suddenly imagine themselves as baseball players that wouldn’t have before. I definitely believe that there were plenty of people who, maybe for the first time in their lives, really wondered about why mainly boys play baseball and girls play softball. Emma Span wrote a great piece about why girls play softball for the New York Times earlier this year:

But issues of masculinity and sport are so intertwined that “throw like a girl” probably isn’t going anywhere for a long time. I think the flip side of people really considering the sexism that causes girls (and women) to almost never play baseball beyond hitting a ball in their yard, is people imagining Davis or [Kayla] Roncin as anomalies. Exceptions that prove the rule.

It matters, though, that a whole lot of people now understand that baseball can be for girls and that girls can play baseball. All of sports would be better if we divided players by skill level and not by some arbitrary biological standard.

There is much more to the interview.


Finally, my debut piece for VICE Sports is up today. It’s all about why I loved attending Charlie Strong’s women’s football camp this summer. And while I would appreciate you reading the entire piece, I will tell you that the final paragraph is one of the best moments of my summer.

Quick Thoughts On NFL’s New Domestic Violence Policy

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Today, NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell, dropped a lengthy letter in which he admitted that he messed up when he only gave Ray Rice a 2-game suspension for domestic violence and he outlined 6 new policies that the NFL will implement regarding domestic violence and sexual assault.

My quick thoughts:

  1. Everyone should read the entire letter before forming opinions about it.
  2. Good job, public and sports media who got really angry that Ray Rice only got a two-game suspension for beating his fiancee unconscious. The outcry following that punishment is most definitely the ONLY reason this letter exists today.
  3. 5 of those 6 policies are proactive. This is important. The 6th part – the punishment part – will get a lot of play and sports media will focus on it. But the first 5 policies are all about preventing violence before it happens, both internally within teams and externally within communities. Punishment will not deter this violence but rooting it out before it happens, that could.
  4. All the stuff about being proactive in an attempt to prevent violence (which is the bulk of the letter), FEMINISTS DID THAT. The NFL was listening to somebody when they wrote that letter and it wasn’t just DUDEZ.
  5. The punishment part is bad. These new, incredibly harsh penalties that could backfire and just cause people not to want to report knowing that the result could cost a player his career (people don’t report for much less). It’s hard to see this as a deterrent. [UPDATE: someone brought up that lax punishments are also deterrents for women reporting partners for domestic violence. That's true, too. Part of the problem with focusing on punishments is that no matter what they are, many victims feel fundamentally unsafe reporting due to possible retaliation and/or effect on their partner's life.]
  6. And as Dan Solomon texted me when we were discussing this, the fact that this remains only a punishment to an individual does not stop the horrible behavior we saw the Ravens exhibit in the face of Ray Rice’s case and his suspension (a full court press of rehab publicity, mainly, which shows no signs of slowing down). Dan wrote, “There’s no incentive for them not to be horrible in the future. In fact, there’s the opposite. They need to downplay and PR and spin away all of this to prevent a lifetime ban.”
  7. The NFLPA will hate the punishment part and we should expect them to fight it all the way. At the same time, they could have at least taken the time in their response to acknowledge how great the proactive parts of the letter are.
  8. I don’t trust the NFL. The proactive stuff is wonderful IF it’s implemented in a way that is careful, thorough, thoughtful, consistent, and constant. What has the NFL done to make us think it will do that, to make us think it will do anything unless it gets something out of it? *crickets*
  9. If the sports media chooses to mainly focus on the punishment part of all of this, I fear that this will overshadow the bulk of the letter, which is about all the things we need to do to prevent violence. It will also serve to allow people who just want to move on from all of this to say, “PROBLEM SOLVED!,” when, in fact, all that proactive stuff shows that there is no solving of a problem; this is a long-term, on-going process that takes constant care.
  10. If you feel dissatisfied at the punishment part of this (that you feel like any act of violence against another person should lead to immediate dismissal from the league), at least keep in mind that the punishment the NFL has laid out is much more harsh than how the legal system often handles these cases. There is so much wrong in this society when it comes to violence against women and it doesn’t start or end with the NFL.

Why Sports Are Great: Jackie Robinson West

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Today, my friend Dan Solomon texted me: “Did you watch that little league game yesterday? It was basically Exhibit A in the case for “Why Sports Are Great.””

I hadn’t watched it because I was busy doing family things with my family so I asked Dan, “And why are sports great?”.

The following is his answer:


Because those kids!

The Chicago team [Jackie Robinson West] was just totally outplayed. They hung with [the South Korean team] okay — they managed to sneak a run in — but they only had 2 hits for the first 5 (of 6) innings.

Korea, meanwhile, was up 4-1 going into the 6th, then just ran away with it at the top of the final inning, 8-1.

And the Chicago kids are all so, so sad.

And their coach doesn’t try to rally them to win. He doesn’t lay on a locker room speech. He just tells them that he’s so proud of them, that nobody in America can say anything to them, because they’re the ones who are here. Nobody else got to play in this game. So don’t worry about losing or winning. It doesn’t matter.

And then the Chicago kids rally for a great final inning. They’re laughing and playing and hitting, and they score three times before they finally lose, going out 8-4.

And afterward, they go and rush out to meet the Korean kids and they teach them cool new handshakes and congratulate them on their win, and everybody is all smiles.

The coach put President Obama on hold to go out and be there with the kids. HE PUT PRESIDENT OBAMA ON HOLD. “Can I call you back in 10-15 minutes?”

Amazing.

Obama is inviting the kids to the White House.

They’re having a party in their neighborhood in Chicago when their plane lands today, and a citywide parade on Wednesday.

I just don’t think I can remember the last time I saw a team in any sport play with as much heart as those kids did in the 6th, when they could have been crying and disappointed. And everybody seems to recognize how great that is, and want them to know how much they admire them for it.

I love it. If every baseball game were only 6 innings, this might have actually convinced me to watch it more.

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Shame On Bob Stoops

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Bob Stoops is the head coach of the Oklahoma Sooners football team.

Stoops’ team has worked very hard this off season to transfer Dorial Green-Beckham, a former wide receiver from Missouri, to their school to play this season (they found out on Friday that there efforts were for naught).

Green-Beckham was kicked off of Missouri’s team for alleging pushing a friend of his girlfriend’s down some stairs. Gary Pinkel, G-B’s former coach at Missouri, has recently said it was because of that incident and “other information” he knew about his WR (G-B has a history of off-field incidents).

The news about G-B broke in April at the same time that Missouri was still dealing with the effects of a damning January report by Outside The Lines, revealing that the school might have ignored and failed to investigate a case where multiple football players raped a fellow student; she later committed suicide. About the time G-B got in trouble, the president of Missouri was passing an executive order changing how reporting of sexual assault would work on campus.

Missouri could also have known that Outside The Lines was working on a different piece about their program. This latest OTL report, which was published on Friday, is about former Missouri running back Derrick Washington, who was dismissed from the team 2010 after being charged with sexual battery (for which he was found guilty and served 120 days because he was a first-time offender; then he returned to the field and played ball at Tuskegee). TURNS OUT, Washington had been accused of violence against women, including sexual assault, THREE other times before he was finally arrested for the fourth incident. And his coaches and school administrators knew about this. In response to this latest OTL report, Pinkel admitted on Friday that “he knew about a 2008 rape allegation against former running back Derrick Washington, but didn’t discipline him because police didn’t file charges.”

To bring this all the way around: Bob Stoops has brought G-B to his team after all of this and appealed to the NCAA to waive the year-long wait that a player normally is forced to endure after transferring. G-B was dismissed from his former team for violence against a woman. He was dismissed by a coach who has a history of looking the other way when allegations of VAW are alleged against one of his players.

ON TOP OF ALL OF THAT, The Big Lead reported on Friday, the day the NCAA finally declined that waiver, making G-B wait a year for eligibility at Oklahoma, Stoops and his team have suspended running back Joe Mixon. Why?

At the end of July, Mixon was accused of punching a female student at a restaurant. Last Friday, news came out that he would be charged with a misdemeanor count of acts resulting in gross injury.

As Jason Lisk at The Big Lead wrote:

So while Oklahoma can try to argue technicalities and get Green-Beckham eligible just a few months after that occurred, we can point out realities. It is a blatant case of hypocrisy. That, or winning the right way only includes suspending for behavior that occurred within a short distance from the Oklahoma campus.

My friend Lauren Chief Elk, in response to these cases where football coaches and athletic directors could not care less about times when their players are violent toward women, always asks about accountability. Where is the accountability here? Why wouldn’t Stoops go after G-B if he is only punished for losing games, not for his players committing violence against women? What would happen if coaches (and ADs) had to answer for these kind of recruitment and coaching decisions? Why is Pinkel still at Missouri, for that matter?

But really. At this point, when your moral compass appears to be even more broken than Gary Pinkel’s, shame on you.

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