Coaches lead discussions to influence athletes’ attitudes toward women, avoiding violence
For 15 minutes once a week, young men at a dozen high schools and colleges across Western Pennsylvania put football, basketball and other practices on hold to think about the women in their lives.
Coaches lead the introspective discussions, conversational group sessions centered at first on defining respect and accountability, then specific themes of aggression, sexual consent and what it means for the student athletes to foster respect for women and curb domestic violence.
“We’re trying to use their popularity, so to speak. If we can get these athletes to model respectful and proper behavior, whether it be in the hallways or at the mall when they go to the movies, I tell them people know who they are,” said David Wingerson, a community educator at the Center for Victims in McKeesport and East Liberty who helped implement the Coaching Boys Into Men campaign at Gateway High School in Monroeville.
More than 200 football, basketball and baseball players and wrestlers at Gateway and nearby Woodland Hills High School in Churchill will begin or have undergone the sessions since last year, helping rank Western Pennsylvania among the most prolific and rapid adopters of the 12-week program.
An explosion of high-profile abuse cases in the NFL is driving schools nationwide to embrace the research-supported approach, which has expanded into more than 30 communities and reached more than 150,000 student athletes since its 2008 introduction in Iowa, organizers said.
“I think we’re at a tipping point,” said Brian O’Connor, a public education director at the San Francisco-based Futures Without Violence nonprofit, which distributes and promotes the programming. “I feel anytime there’s a situation in the news that’s able to gain some traction in raising visibility around this issue, then absolutely we see an uptick in people’s understanding and willingness to get involved.”
O’Connor cited the cases of Ray Rice, the former Baltimore Ravens running back arrested in March on charges that he punched his fiancee — now his wife — in the face, and Adrian Peterson, a Minnesota Vikings running back indicted in September on allegations of child abuse.
The Peterson case served as a classroom example Monday at Shaler Area High School, where assistant boys basketball coach Jerry McMeekin asked 18 players to explain accountability and how they had shown women respect in the past week. One said he bought an iced tea for a classmate who couldn’t afford it.
“The NFL has gone through a tough, tough time with domestic abuse and violence issues. Same with the NBA,” McMeekin told the group. “We’re high school guys taking this on.”
A regional educator for Coaching Boys Into Men, McMeekin advocates the program on behalf of the South Side-based Pittsburgh Action Against Rape crisis center, trying to train coaches across the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League in how to deliver the curriculum.
The strategy paid off in a study in northern California, where researchers linked the program to limited abuse rates among young men in high school sports, said Dr. Elizabeth Miller, chief of adolescent and young adult medicine at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.
“I think there’s something really magical going on that’s been unbelievable to watch happen,” Miller said.
At the outset of the California study, about 14 percent of 1,000 young men said they were abusive toward a dating partner within the past year. A year later, Miller said, program participants showed no increase in self-reporting of abuse, while 20 percent of non-participants said they had been abusive.
Participants report clearer understandings of what constitutes stalking and how to intervene when they see someone at risk, including in alcohol-fueled social situations.
At Robert Morris University in Moon, men’s basketball forward Aaron Tate, 20, of Cove City, N.C., said the sessions help him and teammates nudge their peers when “someone might not recognize what they’re doing.”
“You know how everybody tries to pick up a girl” at parties, Tate said. He said the sessions can make “us second-think our decisions,” including the messages they post through social media.
Carlow University, Point Park University and La Roche College are among other schools that have picked up the program. Others are considering it, advocates said, acknowledging some coaches hesitate with discomfort over the subject matter.
“We’re coaching guys to be aggressive on the field,” McMeekin said. “It’s really hard for guys to know the difference, for when to turn it off.”
Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or [email protected]