In his 2011 article in The Nation, titled “Jocks vs. Pukes,” famed sports journalist and social commentator Robert Lipsyte described as part of “jock culture” male athletes essentially receiving a free pass on treating women however they choose. Lipsyte wrote:
“Men have traditionally been taught to pursue their jock dreams no matter the physical, emotional or financial cost. Those who realized those dreams have been made rich and famous; at the least, they were waved right through many of the tollbooths of ordinary life. Being treated like a celebrity at 12, freed from normal boundaries, excused from taking out the garbage and from treating siblings, friends, girls responsibly, is no preparation for a fully realized life. No wonder there are so many abusive athletes….”
“…Games have become our main form of mass entertainment (including made-for-TV contests using sports models). Winners of those games become our examples of permissible behavior, even when that includes cheating, sexual crimes or dog torturing.”
Let’s unpack that, starting with the first line: “Men have traditionally been taught…”
Who taught them? Perhaps their parents or peers, maybe our media culture. Who could have taught them differently? Their coaches at every level of sport.
This is not to say coaches are responsible for their players’ crimes. It is to say that coaches have unique leverage to shape the values and character traits of their athletes, so coaches can and should convey to their athletes what constitutes appropriate, respectful behavior, which would help end sexual/dating/gender-based violence.
Further unpacking Lipsyte, “Being treated like a celebrity at 12…” hits the sense of entitlement young athletes can gain if coaches don’t nip it in the bud, the sense of entitlement that would have an athlete feeling above the law or thinking that “no” does not mean “no.” Even coaching athletes at the youngest ages, a coach’s responsibility to educate players on how to treat others respectfully comes with the whistle, the clipboard, and the esteem of the title, “coach.”
Many coaches already teach the boys in their charge about respect for women. That’s important, because any number of them may look up to the too-many pro and college athletes perpetrating gender violence. Back in the day, we would have said “allegedly perpetrating” but now the moments are caught on videotape.
Some coaches may provide this type of education just around homecoming or other traditional school-based celebrations that combine sports and dating. Others build it into ongoing character-development curriculum delivered on the field, in a classroom, or in the locker room (perhaps most fittingly, given recent discourse on “locker room talk”).
One of the foremost practitioners of such coaching is Joe Ehrmann, a former NFL Pro Bowl defensive lineman, high school football coach, founder of Coach For America, and author of InSide Out Coaching.
In this interview, Ehrmann speaks about the cultural values exposed by the social furor around one of the aforementioned caught-on-video perpetrators. “Women can’t end gender violence. All women can do is reduce the risk. Gender violence is not going to end in America until we raise up a generation of men that have the moral courage and the moral clarity to start calling out other men on sexist language, actions and attitudes toward girls and women.
“As a coach, you have an almost unparalleled power, platform and position to bring about the change that is so desperately needed.”
In the interview Ehrmann details the curriculum he used during homecoming week at Baltimore’s Gilman School to teach players how to respect their dating partners. Techniques include 30 to 40 minutes of practice time per day reflecting on how they would want their mothers or sisters treated and hearing from parents about how they want their daughters treated.
At Positive Coaching Alliance, among many other activities, we partner with schools and youth sports organizations nationwide to present workshops for youth and high school sports coaches, parents, student-athletes and administrators. The workshops for coaches place great emphasis on their acting as character-educators, whose job is to teach athletes to respect others. The student-athletes learn about being an “upstander” instead of a “bystander” when others in their community are threatened with any kind of violence or abuse.
We also strive to educate through online resources and commentary tied to such horrible incidents as the death of Yeardley Love and the Brock Turner case and through on-campus work in partnership with Men Can Stop Rape. It’s important that as many people as possible band together to prevent sexual assault. And with roughly 40 million youth and high school athletes in the U.S., it is critical that coaches join the conversation.