“We Don’t Need Your Permission”

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

“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 1tweet 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.