On Saturday night, when I saw that Missouri football was trending on social media, my immediate thought was the same one it has been for about two years now whenever I hear about Missouri football: "Sasha Menu Courey."
Menu Courey was a swimmer at Missouri who committed suicide after a downward spiral that began with, she said, being raped by a football player—perhaps multiple players. ESPN's Outside the Lines told her story in 2014. As someone who writes a lot about the intersection of sport and domestic and sexual violence, it's common for me to associate a team with the name, face, or story of a woman who reported being harmed by a player.
But Missouri's story is bigger than Menu Courey, and in September 2014, I wrote a detailed story for VICE Sports about problems within Missouri's athletic department titled, "Missouri Football's Rape Culture and 'So on and so Forth'." I advocated in the piece for firing then-athletic director, Mike Alden, "because of how poorly he has handled this exact same issue over many years, and how his poor handling of it has led to a culture where women are harmed, but many don't want to say anything." Alden has since retired as AD.
The piece has a had a minor resurgence as student protests, including members of the football team, at the University of Missouri over racial equality have catalyzed campuses around the United States and made national news. The story has been shared on message boards and if you search Twitter for it, you'll find it has been tweeted often over the last few days. It was linked at a site that most often brings up campus sexual assault in order to write it off as a non-issue, and to say activists and the media are overreacting. The author of the piece covers the intersection of college football and sexual assault almost exclusively in order to draw attention to black men committing rape, which is one of the oldest and most insidious racist narratives in this country.
While I see the recent events at the University of Missouri as a powerful instance of change and a glimpse of what's possible when students, and especially student athletes take a stand, critics are using my story about sexual assault in the Mizzou athletic department as a cudgel to make the point that Missouri football players are incapable of taking a moral stand about anything. I wrote that story, but I could not disagree with critics of student action more.
When I published my Missouri sexual assault piece last year, the comments were angry, which is not uncommon when I write on this topic. This time, though, there were a host of comments that featured my picture with jabs at what I look like. It was bad enough that editors deleted comments and heavily moderated the comment section after that.
It is concerning, to say the least, to see the very piece that caused people to respond so nastily has suddenly become relevant and hot. It is concerning to see that people only care about sexual assault in athletic departments when it can be used as a tool to discredit student activism. Why isn't this news now, they ask. It wasn't news when I wrote it because many people are not actually interested in addressing problems of sexual violence. It's only news now because some people want to discredit the students', especially the players', desire for an administration that responds to their concerns over racial actions and tensions on campus.
This has always been my worst fear and biggest concern about writing about sexual violence and sports, especially with football: that people who want to demonize and criminalize black men because they are black would do so with my work. I know authors can't control what happens to their work when it is published and goes out into the world, and I know that my work often has racial undertones because of what I cover. (I have written on this subject at least twice in order to attempt to insert nuance and care into the conversation, even if that often feels as futile as mitigating the problem of sexual violence). I am heartbroken to see my work linked to in the context it has been these last few days. Going forward I will think even more about the potentially damaging aspect of my work as I try to balance addressing a problem in sports with the structural problems of racism in society—problems that include but are not limited to the language we use to condemn black men.
The conservative news site World Net Daily put my piece up against Domonique Foxworth's piece for VICE Sports this week on how "University of Missouri football players broke the power structure." They claimed that both works existing at the same publication is hypocritical. But it's not hypocritical at all.
There's no one better to explain the fact that one can simultaneously oppose sexual assault and support the rights of Mizzou students than the parents of Sasha Menu Courey, who talked with ESPN this week about the football team being part of the protest. Her mother said, "I am supporting 100 percent the students and athletes from Mizzou. The university needs to not only change but transform the way they support their students when they are struggling with racial assault or mental health issues, and not wait until they die by suicide or the media get involved before giving 100 percent support to their students."
Asking for people in power at Missouri to be held accountable was exactly what I did in my piece last year. There is no hypocrisy between my work and what Foxworth wrote this week, what the students at Missouri did and what Menu Courey's parents want.
Last April, I said that football culture had the power to change rape culture, and then I used how Missouri football rallied around Michael Sam as an example of why I believed it could do that. This recent Missouri moment bolsters my belief, showing that football players can make quick, radical change on their campus if they want to, and their coach supports them when they do it. I'd like to see this done with sexual and domestic violence as well—and I'll keep advocating for it.
And while I will always think about Sasha Menu Courey whenever Missouri football crosses my radar, I will also think about this latest series of events and remind myself, even if for a fleeting second, that change is possible.