I have this memory from my time in Nashville of driving by the Wendy’s on West End (s/o to the Wendy’s on West End) and seeing a cluster of people on the side of the road holding cardstock signs that said "HONK TO END DOMESTIC ABUSE!"
I honked, but it was a really sarcastic honk. Basically my car made a fart noise and the hood opened up and a cartoony retractable gloved hand came out and made an exaggerated "shaking the yahtzee cup" motion.
That’s the thing about token shows of support: they don’t really seem to do much, and they’re easy to be cynical about. I’m sure there were a fair amount of eye-rolls when "stickers!" became the university’s answer to "rape?"
But optics matter. Symbols matter. And nowhere is that more clear than Vanderbilt football.
There was a time, not too long ago, when I really wanted to change the Vanderbilt mascot from the Commodores to the Blacksmiths. Our mascot would be a giant, leather-hided man of indecipherable origin, donning a welding mask, relentlessly hammering swords on an anvil on the sidelines while cheerleaders and local children fed his fire, careful not to get too close, as he was mute and possibly deranged. I had a whole mythology set up where he strapped Mr. C to a stick of dynamite and killed him on the jumbotron at halftime of a Tennessee game, ushering in a new era of Vanderbilt athletics wherein we become the most terrifying, bewildering, unpredictable team in the country.
I was pretty sure this overhaul in public presentation would solve at least some of our problems. No one ever took me up on it. The point was, though, that the culture of Vanderbilt football had become so tolerant of losing that, no matter how we recruited or trained, we had lost that energy propels teams beyond their means.
Vanderbilt didn’t become the Blacksmiths. Better: they hired James Franklin.
Franklin came in with charisma and personality and deep, unwavering belief that this team would—not "could"—be great. And then we started winning games.
The practices got harder, yes, and the facilities got better, sure, and the coaching got ballsier, thank God, but in my mind, everything Vanderbilt did suddenly meant more because this team had an identity and a mission that they were fighting for.
And the markers of that mission were—like Green Dots—purely optical. Consider the off-the-field things that helped get us here:
New traditions: "Anchor Down" is new. The carrying of an anchor onto the field is not new, but suddenly feels way more badass than it used to. "We’re 1-0 this week" is new. "6 seconds" is new.
Irrational, unstable fans: Back in the day, there was only one Insane Vanderbilt Fan (s/o to OG Vandy Lance), but now the Rivals message board is a veritable Arkham Asylum.
Incredible PR moments: Remember that video of the coaches playing dodgeball against the players, before Franklin had ever coached a game? Or remember when Brian Kimbrow challenged Chris Johnson to a footrace? That was awesome, too.
Feats of courage: A couple seasons ago, Coach Franklin nearly incinerated deserving Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham with hot, lacerating terror. It was that moment, in every superhero movie, when the superhero punches his former bully through a wall. And it was significant.
Seeing that the status quo is caught and compromised to a permanent end: There was this moment, in Franklin’s second game as coach, when UConn picked up a fumble, returned it for a touchdown, and Vanderbilt fell behind. A fan yelled out, with a hopelessness known by few sports fans more than Vanderbilt fans, "Same Old Vanderbilt!"
Franklin heard the naysayer, gathered the team, and shouted to his team, loud enough for the naysaying fan to hear, "You are not the same old Vanderbilt."
And then, legend has it, just in case the naysayer hadn’t heard him, Franklin turned to the stands and screamed directly at the naysaying fan to shut up or get out. Then there was a pick-6 (Casey Hayward), Vanderbilt came back and won, and outcomes on the field continued to improve.
This is why I like Vanderbilt football. The story, today, is of a system that wasn’t nearly as beyond repair as decades of people, with good reason, assumed.
Surely you see where I’m going with this.
Rape culture is real, full stop. If you disagree, you are wrong, and you would be wise to find someone who understands these issues more clearly than you and have him or her explain them to you.
Rape culture is not simple. It is not "pro-rape" rallies. It is not secret meetings of shadowy figures in alleyways, plotting their next moves. Rape culture is casually remarking that rape is a crime perpetrated mostly by strangers in alleyways.
Rape culture is excessive reliance on euphemisms when discussing sexual violence. Just a peeve here, but don’t water down the language to the point that something horrific sounds like something vaguely impolite.
Rape culture is speculating on a victim’s dress or level of intoxication, as if variables there make for more or less understandable assaults. Such questioning assumes rape as the constant and a woman’s protective actions as the variable, such questioning decreases the likelihood that rapes go reported, and such questioning is generally shitty.
Rape culture is treating an occurrence as an outlier, rather than acknowledging its place in a broader narrative.
Rape culture is marginalizing the fight as something somehow incompatible with masculinity, conservative politics, sports fandom, or a non-activist mindset.
At Vanderbilt, we have a playbook for changing an entrenched losing culture, and it’s happening through the efforts and passion of our coaches, players, assistants, fans, administration, alumni, and donors.
Keep going to the games. Bring friends. Be loud. Convert strangers. Wear stickers. It helps.