Man-to-man education on domestic violence could be the key that fits the right lock

Troy Vincent has told this story before, but its impact doesn't fade. He's a child, about 10, and he's hiding in the closet with his younger brother as a man hits his mother. This happens many times. After one incident, they go to the hospital. His mother is hurt. Her jaw. He remembers reaching up and feeding her through the straw.

"Growing up, this was my visual of a relationship," Vincent said. "And I remember thinking, 'Does this ever end?'"

Vincent is speaking to a room full of men, and a few women. Most of the men are black. There are a few nods, some audibly exhale during the telling. Some of these men can relate -- some so much so that it's uncomfortable for them to listen to Vincent's story all the way through. But that's why they're here.

Vincent, now the NFL's executive vice president of football operations, presents a series of slides showing that domestic violence is an issue with deep cultural roots, and one that men need to actively work to end. Some of the slides, which lay out the prevalence of domestic violence and sexual assault, are the same that the NFL presents to players and staff as part of an educational program implemented in the wake of Ray Rice's videotaped punch.

On this May morning, Vincent has come to a ballroom in one of those chain hotels that pop up like towers in an office park, where the cantaloupe on the breakfast buffet has only the faintest taste of melon.

That's where A Call To Men, a violence prevention organization, hosted "A Call To Coaches." The group was founded and led by Ted Bunch and Tony Porter, who is a paid NFL consultant. Porter was tapped by the league two years ago during its Rice crisis, and he's been a big part of the NFL training program on sexual and domestic violence, which in turn helps fund his own programs. He's done a TED Talk that's been viewed more than 350,000 times.

"If women could've done this on their own, they would have already," Porter said.

Having covered the NFL's rehabilitation project for a few years, I understand the reasoning behind men taking ownership of domestic violence and discussing it with other men. Sometimes, as with any space where an ally's voice may be louder than that of the directly affected, there is part of that approach that grates.

One of the theories underpinning male-to-male education is that a woman's voice might be treated like that of a mother or wife -- dismissed and tuned out. So there's a concern that groups like A Call To Men simply reinforce the idea that only men have the authority to deliver this message. Why can't a woman, talking to a professional team about sexual assault, be heard as clearly?

Vincent's and Porter's discussion didn't feel like that at all. It felt like amplification. It felt like connection.

"I love this, it gives me goosebumps," said attendee Nyaka Niilampti, the NFL Players Association's new director of wellness. "To me, taking about healthy emotional expression, it's all part of being healthy. Healthier men mean a healthier society."

The audience of about 200 was made up of coaches from nearby high schools and colleges, as well as NFL and players' union staff. There was even a table with seven elementary school-aged boys dressed in button-down shirts and ties. "The puppies," Vincent said affectionately.

Porter and the other presenters that morning spoke about the need for cultural change -- not about putting women on a fake pedestal that marginalizes them in another way. They spoke about men needing to recognize that their own gender expectations have held them back.

Porter played a video. It was of a small boy, maybe 3 years old. He's getting vaccinations. He begins to cry, and, although the man taking the video seems loving, he tells the boy not to cry. "Be a man," he says. To a toddler.

Again, there are nods and recognition.

Last month, Detroit linebacker DeAndre Levy wrote an essay for The Players Tribune called "Man Up."

"It's important for men, especially in a hyper-masculine culture that breeds so many a--h---s, to stand up and challenge the values that have been passed down to us," Levy wrote. "This is not just a woman's problem."

Levy began to think about these issues, he wrote, after listening to the NFL's presentation on sexual assault, one that bore a resemblance to the discussion in this ballroom. And while the NFL includes women in its presentations to players, it may be the men who have the biggest influence.

That doesn't mean we women should bow out of the conversation about domestic violence. We should -- and will -- continue to write and speak about preventing it. That a man's voice might be stronger isn't necessarily something to be wary of. A message can come in many different forms, and one of those may be a key that fits a certain lock.

The missive of A Call To Men, where religion and culture are touchstones for the audience in the room, isn't meant to be exclusionary. If it ever seems so, Porter said he gets an earful from his female employees, who discuss each speaking event afterward. (He called his staff to the stage for a round of applause, and five women appeared).

Porter presents his audience with a question: Only a few men will ever be violent, he said, but how is it that the good men in the room would ever allow those few men a free pass in society?

Vincent says the reluctance to address the issue is driven by the temptation to say, "Not my fight."

So Porter encourages them to take it on -- not by raising fists, but by examining those cultural expectations. Many in the room are already in agreement. But there coaches who are hearing this discussion for the first time and looking for something to take back to their schools.

"We want to give the player, the coach, some tools, because oftentimes morally he wants to [address it], he's just not equipped to do it without breaking code," Vincent said.

Sexual and domestic violence aren't issues confined to the black community, or to athletes, or to men. Porter knows that all too well. He also knows that the underlying constraints leading to violence don't just damage one person.

They damage the 10-year-old hiding in the closet too.

Other things on my mind this week:

In related news, the NFL's annual broadcast boot camp for current and former players includes, for the first time, a session on covering social issues as a media commentator. It's something that's sorely needed. The discussion will be led by broadcaster James Brown, NFL vice president of clinical services Dwight Hollier and A Call to Men's Tony Porter. There are many former players who cover these issues well already, but you still see athletes who perpetuate stereotypes when they are on set and news breaks.

Daenerys Targaryen is a heroine of epic proportions.

The Undefeated is live! Please read this fascinating story on Robert Griffin III, by Jason Reid. It's the prototype piece that explains how much cultural context matters in storytelling. We spoke to Reid for The Trifecta (ESPN Radio, Saturdays, 12-3 p.m. ET) last week and discussed the reason behind having a site dedicated to an issue, like race and sports, or women and sports -- as opposed to incorporating the same stories into a larger sports site. Podcast here.

Eight games for turning a baseball field into a boxing ring

Comments