Time for football coaches to wield their influence for change

Paul Garland for ESPN

In the most basic sense, coaches help provide us with entertainment. Yet we demand much more of them than that. We have an entire genre of film and television built around the idea that coaches, particularly in high school and college, have a deep and long-lasting influence on their players. As a society, we buy into the narrative that through strict discipline, hard work and inspirational words, coaches can mold young people into good, successful adults.

My work focuses specifically on the intersection of football and sexual violence, and people often ask me how we can begin to mitigate this problem within sports. While there are many answers to this question, an obvious one is that coaches must be a part of the solution. That's especially true in the bright spotlight of the NFL, where misogyny and violence against women have become epidemic. So the day before the presidential election, when Patriots coach Bill Belichick sent a letter of support to Donald Trump-whom numerous women have accused of assault (allegations that the president-elect denies)-and added his voice to endorsements by Rex Ryan, Mike Leach and a handful of retired coaches, I wondered what message that sent to his players, fans and anyone else who was listening.

Coaches understand their level of influence better than any of us. They're folded into our communities; they can get movement and money on whatever issues they support. What they say matters, which is why they are so careful with their words and so often try to remove themselves from hard conversations. This is especially true for issues like domestic and sexual violence. We care so deeply about a team's ability to win that when a player is reported for committing off-field violence and his playing time is jeopardized, it's all we can talk about. How a coach responds to allegations often sets the tone for how his team and the fan base react. At Baylor, where 17 women reported 19 players for sexual or domestic violence in the past five years, coach Art Briles lost his job after his team was found to have a cultural accountability failure. Yet there were calls from boosters to reinstate him.

The NFL continues to struggle with how to respond to reports of domestic violence, with teams not handling the problem openly and coaches often offering no significant comment. This came to a head again in October with former Giants kicker Josh Brown, who admitted to abusing his then-wife in 2015. The inaction spoke volumes: The team had re-signed Brown in the offseason despite knowing his history; the league suspended him for one game once his admission became public, despite a policy that allows for up to six; and coach Ben McAdoo, who once stated he wouldn't tolerate domestic violence, said little more during the episode than "We're not going to turn our back on Josh. He's a teammate and a guy we're hoping makes strides." Brown was later released.

Coaches can no longer ignore their role in perpetuating a culture that takes these issues too lightly. After the election, Belichick backed away from his letter, saying it wasn't "politically motivated," just a note to a friend. The letters he writes don't mean "I agree with every single thing that every person thinks about politics, religion or other subjects," he said. Yet by his refusing to engage in the conversation any further, how are we to know what he means?

There are coaches across the country who are engaging in issues like healthy relationships, consent and gender equity. Nebraska coach Mike Riley apologized to Brenda Tracy, who reported being assaulted by multiple players during Riley's tenure at Oregon State in 1998. She spoke to his current players earlier this year and has said she now considers Riley "a friend and an ally." Futures Without Violence has a program called Coaching Boys Into Men, which integrates a coach-led discussion of those issues into regular practice. Cowboys tight end Jason Witten helped put the program into schools in the Arlington, Texas, area. The key is getting more coaches interested in doing the work.

It's going to take the country a long time to unpack everything that's happened in this election cycle. We are at a moment when the ability to shift the conversation from one of "locker room talk" to one of anti-misogyny feels like a herculean effort. For young people and fans of sport, coaches are spiritual and cultural guides for how they view the world. Coaches must embrace that role, not shun it.

Jessica Luther's book "Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape" is out now.

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