Meg Gisonda and other Virginia Tech Womanspace members launched the #SitDownVTFootball campaign to voice their concerns to President Sands and the Athletic Department administration about the conduct of the Virginia Tech Football players who were in attendance at Womanspace’s 26th Annual Take Back the Night on March 26. President Sands and leadership in the Athletic Department have since responded promising to address the behavior. These roundtable contributions tell the story through the eyes of three feminist leaders on VT’s campus who were there, and who are demanding accountability.
I had the honor and privilege of speaking at the annual Take Back the Night rally, a rally and march that protests gender-based violence. I’ve spoken at Take Back the Night twice prior, and was thrilled to hear that the Virginia Tech football team would be attending. What an incredible opportunity to learn, I thought. I’m so proud of my community for stepping up in this way.
But once the event ended, I could do nothing but weep with anger and disgust. As a speaker, I sat in the first row of the room. Some VT football players sat towards the back, but even that did not shield me from their appalling behavior.
The players came in late, and were overheard saying, “When is this over? Why are we here?” It was clear from the beginning that they were uninterested in the event. A VT alumnus attending the event complained that, once seated and the event began, the players were talking amongst themselves, texting on their cellphones, and even texting each other across the room. After a gender non-conforming individual and transgender woman spoke, they were overheard as saying, “No, we are not clapping.”
When survivors of sexual assault took the stage to share their stories, the players mocked them. They snickered. These brave young people stood up, myself included, and told 500+ people the details of their assault, and their fellow students made fun of them at an event designed to support and honor them. When I shared my story, I wish I could’ve heard exactly what they were saying so I could’ve addressed it then.
Their behavior could not have been addressed at the event, because a vast majority of the players got up to leave while the event was still taking place. The woman speaking kindly asked them to sit back down, as the event was not yet over, but the players refused to acknowledge that she said anything and continued to leave. Writing this, I am still shaking with rage that they would dare invade a safe space and disrespect the speakers, the event coordinators, and the attendees in this way.
The football team had an unprecedented opportunity to step up and act as community leaders at this event. They could have attended the event, and given the space and the community within it the respect they deserve. I believe the players should be held responsible for their abysmal behavior. The players who were respectful should call out their teammates and encourage them to sit down, listen, and engage.
Continuing their “winning” streak from last season, the football team continues to disappoint me.
On March 28th, Womanspace at VT held our Take Back the Night event. This annual rally and march aims to raise awareness of gender-based violence. This year was Virginia Tech and the New River Valley’s 26th annual event. We have been making positive change in our community through Take Back the Night for 26 years. After the events that transpired on last Thursday night, it is clear we still have a long way to go.
I was a Coordinator for this year’s event. I was also the MC. I have literally spent hundreds of hours planning this event for the people who were in attendance. But my work over the past few months is nothing in comparison to the brave souls who spoke at this year’s event. There were two courageous people who were motivated to step on stage and share their experiences with gender-based violence in order to prevent future violence. Another brave soul shared the story of a past Womanspacer. There were also many speakers from local organizations who gave remarks on the pervasive problem of gender-based violence in the world and in our community.
I was on the stage with the speakers for the entire event. I cried with them. When Wendy Godley performed Monica McIntyre’s “Mourning to the Moonlight,” I wept as she sang lyrics that call desperately for change and healing. I can only imagine the risks and emotional trials of these survivors as they shared their stories in front of over 500 people.
From the stage, I couldn’t hear or see what was happening with VT Football. All I could hear were cries for change. All I could see were energetic and passionate faces. But it wasn’t long before I saw the face of my co-coordinator next to me on stage telling me what was going on.
Then a new set of tears came. These were tears of shame and of rage. These were tears of profound disappointment. More than anything, these were the tears that will motivate me to continue this fight. It is clear to me now that we will need to continue to Take Back the Night for years to come.
We will need to Take Back the Night from VT Football. We will need to continue changing our community because our work is far from over. I hope that everyone in our community realizes that the problem is larger than the insensitive behavior of VT Football players. There are many other people in our community who need to be made aware of the importance of these issues. It just happens that VT Football was forced to come to the Take Back the Night event. After months and months of work, all I can say to VT Football and the community at large is that an apology will not work here. Words will not solve the crisis of gender-based violence. We need action and that action starts with every one of us. If VT Football had stayed for the duration of the program, they would have heard these suggested actions:
Become informed by picking up and reading the pamphlets that are available all over our campus.
Pick up sexual violence resource magnets and share one with a friend.
Question statements, jokes, and innuendoes that promote sexism and gender-based violence.
If someone tells you they have been sexually assaulted, give your support and ask how you can help. Remind them that the assault was not their fault.
Take a self-defense class.
Support businesses that promote equality and safety for all people.
Share your views on legislation with your elected representatives.
Volunteer at the Women’s Center at Virginia Tech or the Women’s Resource Center of the New River Valley. Add your name to the Womanspace listserv. Join organizations representing feminist issues. Get involved!
Now, let’s get back to work.
After planning for months, the Virginia Tech football team managed to radiate their ignorance throughout the theater at Take Back the Night. A number of people in the audience felt triggered and unsafe once the team made their very obvious and late entrance. Throughout the entire event they spoke loudly, giggled, and texted. One man even watched a movie whilst a survivor was telling their story. This behavior is completely unacceptable, and so a number of community members and some of the Womenspace team had a meeting with the athletic director Whit Babcock.
This meeting was organized by Babcock, and he had a very loose set agenda and wanted to cover three main topics: (1) hear the concerns from the community about what transpired at Take Back the Night, (2) to give us some background on how the football team came to the event and (3) determine the next steps and move forward. One out of the three was accomplished.
We all sat down, raised some main points and Babcok tried to defend himself and throw the team and Beamer, the head coach, under the bus. He kept informing us that he did not have a good idea on what his team had planned for that evening, and that it must have been their initiative. Yet, when the footballers walked in they kept asking where they were. A few weeks later my friend was talking to Holland Fisher, and brought up the Roanoke article. Fisher said that everyone was mad at them because they left the “LGBT ceremony” early. This is not an LGBT ceremony. This is an event to raise awareness and try to eradicate gender-based violence. I cannot emphasize this point enough; they were oblivious to what this event was, so how could they have taken the initiative to attend?
After this, we decided to go around the circle and say how what they did affected us. Most people were very polite, explained that they appreciated Babcock calling this meeting and stated what the letters we wrote said. Babcock was oblivious as to what had transpired, and when asked whether he had read the letters he said he did. I am not quite sure that he did. I read some of the letters and know how powerful they were. If he had read them he would have been better prepared with some answers as to the hundreds of questions we posed in them. The stories did not seem to phase him until one lady told everyone how them being there triggered her. But I had had enough.
Watching his stoney face, he stated that they might have been blind-sided as what to expect (if they even had expectations). He stated (and I’ll paraphrase) that he was sure they were taken aback that it wasn’t just sexual violence.
Besides these very minimal statements, he did not have anything constructive to add. He had no idea what Beamer had said to his football players, nor has he made a decision as how to punish them. We need to start taking action, we need them to make a very public apology. They humiliated survivors, and they humiliated the Womenspacers who put so much time and energy into the event. This issue has not been solved, but the campus seems to be unaware of what transpired. I believe the best punishment would be making the football players say what they did and apologize at the Virginia Tech Spring game, on April 25th.
I am still so furious with the team, and I do acknowledge that not all of them acted like middle schooler’s, however they are meant to be leaders. They are the face of our school, whether we like it or not, and they need start acting like mature adults. If they can’t do that, then they should not be allowed to play. They should not be allowed to represent us.
We need answers, and we need to know that sexual and domestic violence survivors are believed and that they have a supportive community helping them. We need to make sure that survivors do not feel threatened to break the silence, and that they are able to rely on us for emotional and physical support. The football team needs to answer these questions and they have to start acting like adults, or else we won’t treat them like adults. They have been granted immunity too many times and enough is enough.
We are fed up, and we are taking action.