Ten years ago, before the University of Virginia and Jackie, there was the University of Colorado and Katie.
It was 2004 and the CU-Boulder campus was in an uproar over allegations that its football team used sex and alcohol to woo recruits, accusations that had their roots in an earlier off-campus party tied to the alleged rape of three women. Katie Hnida had been a student at CU. She played on the Buffaloes as their first female kicker, and in 2000 she was hanging out with a teammate at his apartment when, she said, he raped her.
When she came forward, almost four years later, in the midst of the controversy, she slammed into a wall of skepticism and scorn. The football coach dismissed her accusation by saying she was a terrible kicker. People called her a liar. She says she thought the fact that she’d been a virgin would spare her the dredging up of a sexual history because, she says, “I had none.” It didn’t.
“To this day, people call me a liar,” Hnida says now. “Sometimes I wish they could be there when I get so nauseous and sick that I’m throwing up and nights I can’t sleep and when I got into a depressive funk. Those times are rare now — it does get better, I want people to know that — but they are still around because it never truly goes away. It changes you.”
It is largely forgotten now in the heat of the U-Va. story that 10 years ago the same kind of furor ensued, the same kind of accusations exploded about a campus culture of relative privilege turning away from a serious problem. The same vows of reform and calls for dialogue and soul-searching were made. So, too, was the equal insistence that the problem was alcohol and the lack of common sense on the part of women — even as more came forward to say they’d been raped. The CU scandal roiled the campus for years and contributed to suspensions and resignations.
There are obvious differences between then and now, between CU-Boulder and U-Va., between Hnida and Jackie, not the least of which is that Jackie’s story has evolved into a textbook case of journalistic malfeasance amid growing doubts among her friends about inconsistencies in her story. Jackie’s account is of a brutal, gang sexual assault, the kind of rape everyone accepts as rape because she says it was violent and she was sober and did not know all her alleged assailants. Hnida’s alleged assailant was a friend, a teammate, someone she knew and trusted.
Hnida went on to write a book about her days as a woman playing Division I football and now makes her living as a violence prevention trainer. She speaks nationwide to groups, including campus organizations and college football teams, about her experiences and she works with numerous organization dedicated to preventing violence against women. She views the U-Va. story as another marker of how much has changed – and how much hasn’t – in the ongoing campaign to alter a way of thinking about rape and its victims.
What she sees both sickens and encourages her.
“I get a very diverse perspective when I speak on campuses because I usually get brought in by a group that cares a lot about the issue — a women’s center or a resource center. I see all the wonderful work they are doing. But, always, after the speech, I talk to women and even men, recently, who tell me about what it was like for them, and what the university’s response was if they took it that far . . .
“I can tell you we don’t have a giant problem with women lying about rape in our society. We do have a major problem with women being raped, especially on college campuses.
“And we have a long way to go in creating a safe space for survivors to come forward in a way where they are not going to be immediately attacked. I understand people don’t want to believe this is common, that it might be the boy next door. But most rapists function in everyday life. Very well.”
That’s something, she says, she didn’t understand when she started classes at CU in 1999.
“I thought a rapist was a stranger, with a weapon, on a dark night when I was someplace I shouldn’t be,” she says. “I had a rape whistle on my key chain. It was two feet away from me during my actual rape and I never thought about it.”
Hnida told no one what happened in her teammate’s apartment. She eventually transferred to the University of New Mexico to play for the Lobos, went into therapy, had flashbacks on the field and then slowly began to tell a few people what had happened.
“I didn’t want to come forward,” she says. “The violation of rape is so severe that your entire sense of self shatters, your agency is taken away, everything is violated.”
She went public in an interview with Sports Illustrated’s Rick Reilly in 2004 as the football rape scandal was raging. She’d gone to the Boulder district attorney, only to be told that the odds that her alleged assailant would be found guilty and sentenced to prison were remote. She watched the public ridicule of the young women in Boulder from afar, feeling that in some way, she was partially to blame because she’d remained silent, because “I should have said something.”
She has healed a lot, she says, though none of this is easy for her to talk about. She just finished up eight weeks with 12 speaking engagements and at each she tells her story.
“I usually have it contained in a box where I can put it back and close it and live my life normally,” she says. “But occasionally, you open and close it so many times, it’s hard to put back.”
She likes to speak with her audience close in, where she can look at each person, where they can see her. She has developed a sense for who in her audience will come up to her later and confess, some still with a shame that kills Hnida. She always asks the group that invited her to have a rape crisis counselor standing by.
Hnida said she did not read Jackie’s story right away. She was afraid it would trigger flashbacks. And she declined to speak directly on the controversy at U-Va.
“I can tell you what it’s like to be a rape victim in this society and in this world, and as a survivor, I always have in mind what it was like when people were talking about me. It’s the worst thing you’ve ever gone through and everyone in the world will decide whether to believe you because of true information or false information. Only two to eight percent of rapes are false accusations. But you are held to a standard that exists in no other crime, the perfect victim with the perfect story. You have to have done things this way, this way, this way.
“Before I was raped, I would have never thought that I wouldn’t go straight to the police. I would have thought that would be my first phone call. Until it happened, I had no idea I would respond the way I did. . . .People are hell bent on black and white with no room for gray and a lot of things fall into the gray.”