Coach for America, and a 2005 honoree at our Men of Strength Awards. Joe is the subject of the New York Times Bestseller Season of Life by Jeffrey Marx and co-founded Building Men and Women for Others (BMWO) with his wife, which addresses issues of masculinity and femininity and seeks to redefine and reframe the social responsibility of sports, coaches, parent and players.
I went to Yeardley Love’s funeral with my twenty two year old son. The University of Virginia lacrosse player was murdered early this month apparently at the hands of a former boyfriend. My son, a college lacrosse player, was friends with Yeardley, her accused murderer, and many of the men and women on the UVA lacrosse teams. Sitting next to him, I could feel and see him trying to process the conflicted emotions surrounding the enormity of this tragedy, compounded by knowing both the victim and the victimizer. The young men sitting around me sobbed and sniffled.
At one point in the ceremony I turned to an emotionally distraught young man and asked him if I could give him a hug. I was surprised at the strength and endurance of his hug as he held onto me seeking comfort and, I suspect, affirmation of his emotions and manhood. As he let go he said “thank you” without ever looking at me. Here lies part of the problem and a solution to the epidemic of violence women experience every day in Maryland and America.
At an early age, boys are fitted with emotional straightjackets tailored by a restricted code of behavior that falsely defines masculinity. In the context of “stop crying,” “stop those emotions,” and “don’t be a sissy,” we define what it means to “Be a Man!” Adherence to this “boy code” leaves many men dissociated from their feelings and incapable of accessing, naming, sharing, or accepting many of their emotions. When men don’t understand their own emotions it becomes impossible to understand the feelings of another. This creates an “empathy-deficit disorder” that is foundational to America’s epidemic of bullying, dating abuse and gender violence. Boys are taught to be tough, independent, distrusting of other males, and at all cost to avoid anything considered feminine for fear of being associated with women. This leads many men to renounce their common humanity with women so as to experience an emotional disconnect from them. Women often become objects, used to either validate masculine insecurity or satisfy physical needs. When the validation and satisfaction ends, or is infused with anger, control or alcohol, gender violence is often the result. Violence against women is often thought of as a women’s issue; but it is a mistake to call men’s violence a women’s issue. Since men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of this violence, this men’s issue calls to question the cultural values that produce men who hurt women. Sadly, Yeardley Love was only one of four women murdered by intimate partners that day. Who knows how many others were raped, battered, sexually abused, harassed or exploited by men that day and every day in America?
Since Yeardley’s funeral was packed with athletes, coaches, parents of athletes and sports fans, we need to look at the role sports could play in preventing future tragedies. Athletic Directors, coaches and educators have an almost unparalleled platform to bring together youth, families, and community partners to break the silence of gender violence and then design, implement and create preventive programs and activities. Educating boys and men in prevention programs is critical to reducing all forms of violence. Coaches can and should teach their players to challenge the attitudes and assumptions that dehumanize women. Players need to be taught how to confront abusive peers and how stand up and speak out on behalf of their mothers, sisters, daughters, grandmothers, aunts and female friends. Since so many boys no longer have a mentoring network of fathers, uncles, elders, and other males to initiate, train and guide them into manhood, coaches should and must assume part of this responsibility.
I’d like to think Athletic Directors and coaches all over America brought their male and female teams together to help process Yeardley’s death and to implement prevention strategies within their schools and communities. Yet as someone involved nationally in the sports world, I know that did not happen. A teachable moment was overlooked in the name of business, schedules, tournaments and the reality that men often choose apathy and indifference when confronting the conditions that foster abusive male behavior. Two weeks after Yeardley’s death I watched the UVA male and female teams take field under the banner of ONE TEAM-ONE HEART-ONE LOVE. In the name of the world I want my sons and daughters to live in; I can only hope Yeardley Love’s murder sparks ONE MOVEMENT to eradicate gender violence. Robert Kennedy said, “Let no one be discouraged by the belief there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world's ills, against misery and ignorance, injustice and violence….Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of our generation.” Each man and every coach must start challenging the social norms that define manhood and hold other men and players accountable for their behavior toward women.
President, Coach for America
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