On Oct. 19, the athletics department of the University of Wisconsin-Madison confirmed what plenty of people already knew: private, explicit photos and videos of the women’s volleyball team had leaked online. The images appeared on a variety of platforms, including 4chan, Reddit, Twitter, Imgur, Telegram, Discord and TikTok — and remain available via most of those social channels.
The UW-Madison Police Department, law enforcement agency for the university’s campus, launched an investigation into the material as constituting revenge porn, a Class A misdemeanor in the state, with penalties of up to nine months in jail and a $10,000 fine. Wisconsin’s law against revenge porn is broader than most, as it does not require that such content is disseminated in order to “harass, embarrass, or humiliate” the individuals depicted, only that it is a “private representation” shared without their consent.
In their statement, the school also specified that the women on the team were not being investigated for any wrongdoing themselves.
Some of the NSFW pictures, captured as the Badgers partied in their locker room following a championship win in the Big Ten conference last December, appeared to first surface Oct. 18, on a 4chan thread for discussing volleyball more generally. They show the women in various states of nudity and cutting loose as one might expect of athletes who have secured a national title, and captions indicate that the festivities were partly recorded through the app Snapchat.
Hours later, a redditor shared one photo on r/NCAAgirls, an adult forum for “celebrating beautiful college athletes,” where the images are typically culled from the students’ own social media. Moderators deleted the post, but not before some users downloaded it. Latecomers then asked for those who had saved the picture to send it to them. “Way too conservative mods here,” complained one redditor who had managed to snag the photo before it disappeared. Mods also removed two comments on existing public pictures of a clothed Wisconsin player while leaving the photos up. By Oct. 20, a subreddit called r/WisconsinVolleyBall was hosting the trove of leaked content, but the group caught a ban several days later “due to being unmoderated,” per Reddit’s notice on the page. Yet another subreddit, r/wisconsinvolleyleaks, was created on Oct. 24, and has nearly 1,000 subscribers, several of them attempting to sell the material to each other.
As the explicit imagery spread to other sites, reactions were largely unsympathetic, with people either seeking it out for themselves, speculating that it would boost attendance at matches, or shaming the women on the team for taking such pictures in the first place. On Oct. 24, a TikTok user shared one of the locker-room clips, declaring that it had taken over his “entire fyp,” or For You Page, where the app recommends videos. A tweet expressing hope that the UCLA women’s volleyball team would be next to have nude photos leaked garnered 15,000 likes. Elsewhere on Twitter, users posted links promising all the content in one place, with “individual players sorted out,” or the names of teammates listed. A recurring joke imagined not the distress of the women at being exposed this way, but the horror experienced by their boyfriends, brothers, and fathers.
Rolling Stone contacted both the UW-Madison Police Department and the university’s athletic departments for comment on these social trends, or any developments in the case. “Due to the ongoing investigation as well as the protection of the privacy of the student-athletes, we won’t be able to, at this point, answer anything further outside of the statement we released last week,” says Patrick Herb, director of communications for University of Wisconsin athletics. The UWPD has yet to respond.
On Oct. 25, Josh Richards, a TikTok star with 27 million followers and co-host of the podcast BFFs with Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy, posted a video in which he pretends to be “Shooting my shot at the entire Wisconsin volleyball team,” and another in which he says he’s “Disguising myself as a girl to be allowed to tryout fo [sic] Wisconsin volleyball.” They’ve each been viewed over 2 million times. TikTok user @dk829200 pulled more than 6 million views and 440,000 likes with a clip that shows him DMing several of the Badgers players on Instagram a video of the lawyer character Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad and Better Caul Saul, explaining that he’s “Helping out the wisconsin volleyball team, boys ill keep you updated.” Comments on TikToks referencing the scandal range from “Suddenly I wanna go to college” to “They were mid.”
All this uproar hasn’t affected the team’s performance; the Badgers, named in preseason Big Ten poll as favorites to win the national championship again this year, beat the Michigan State Spartans on Oct. 21 in their first match since the photo leak had been confirmed. And on Oct. 23, they mounted a comeback against the University of Michigan Wolverines to win a nationally televised match. This despite a popular TikTok of the broadcast of the latter event in which the user wrote, “I know not a single soul in that gym is thinking about the game right now.” In the comments of a TikTok from a man who has riffed on the team several times — in this one he poses as their coach and compliments them on their “nice tits” — some have predicted that spectators from opposing schools will come up with taunts referencing the photo leak. “Away game student sections are gonna create some good chants and posters that’s for sure,” said one person.
All told, the case is a dispiriting reminder that nearly a decade after a massive leak of nude celebrity photos and a national conversation about revenge porn resulted in new laws and community guidelines for apps, the common response to these incidents remains juvenile, exploitative and cruel. Many who may not have seen the photos still got in on the voyeuristic action by joining in the lurid commentary about them. UW-Madison affirmed that the team is not at fault, yet could not prevent a wave of victim-blaming. Even if a perpetrator responsible for the leak is apprehended and convicted, the pictures can’t be retrieved, and these young women will have to live with that. We might do them the easy favor of not being creeps about it.