Macalester College football players are heading back to high school this fall, hoping to give new meaning to “locker-room talk.”
Practice starts Aug. 13 for the St. Paul Central High School football team. Not long after that, Ethan Levin, a sophomore defensive lineman on the Macalester football team, will return to his old high school with his new teammates and a message.
“The story [young athletes hear from media, movies and music] is that men should be dominating at all times, and powerful,” said Levin, who wants to counter the narrative that “power means being wealthy, being athletic and being a womanizer — sleeping with lots of women. And the women’s thoughts and feelings aren’t being accounted for in that process. It’s just collecting objects, at the end of the day.”
He’ll sit down with his younger peers and walk them through a scenario: Say you’re at a party. Say there’s alcohol and pretty girls and your buddies are elbowing you because, hey, the girl on the couch over there clearly had one drink too many.
If you’ve picked up a paper lately, you know the worst ways that story can end.
Levin is trying to write a happier ending. He spent the past year creating Athletes Against Sexual Violence, a program to help college players talk to their younger peers about concepts like consent and sexual violence — things Levin didn’t learn about until he was in college, when one of his Macalester teammates hosted a seminar about the responsibility of bystanders, or teammates, to step in when they see something awful.
“We’re here today to talk to you because we’re football players too,” he’ll tell them. “We understand what it’s like being a football player, we understand the pressure and the culture. We’re here to help you grow because we care about you.”
If students take nothing else away from this talk, he’ll tell them, remember that “you are not entitled to anyone else or their body. ... Every individual has the right to their own body, and every individual is worthy in their own right.”
By the time Minnesota girls graduate from high school, 12 percent report that they’ve been sexually assaulted on a date, according to the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MNCASA). By the time they finish college, 29 percent have been sexually assaulted. By midlife, 33 percent of Minnesota women have been raped. Other groups, like the LGBTQIA community and people with disabilities, are at even greater risk.
There’s no single, simple solution to a horror like that.
Not from law enforcement. Star Tribune reporters Jennifer Bjorhus, Brandon Stahl and Mary Jo Webster reviewed more than 1,000 sexual assault cases reported across Minnesota over the past two years and found … a whole lot of nothing. No investigators assigned in a quarter of the cases. No victims interviewed in a third of the cases. No witness interviewed in half of the cases. Seventy-five percent of the time, there were no charges. Ninety percent of the time, there was no conviction.
Not from government. Although politicians are organizing task forces, with the aim of task forcing the system to care about survivors of sexual violence.
But maybe, just maybe, if more people stepped up like those kids from Macalester, things could get better.
“Peer-to-peer education is really important in prevention,” said Hannah Laniado, MNCASA’s associate director of strategic priorities. “Preventing perpetration is really the most effective way of reducing sexual violence, so talking about consent can be one of the ways to do that.”
A visit from a college football player, for any reason, would have been a huge deal for Levin when he was in high school.
“That would have been so cool for me. I would have listened to him. I would have soaked all that in,” he said. “To be totally honest, I wanted to go back to Central and prepare these kids for what they’re going to face in college with party culture. ... We go and party too, we’re having fun. But [we explain to students], this is what needs to happen to have safe and consensual sex and relationships.”
Central students did seem to get the message when Levin and a few of his teammates visited last year, said football team coach Scott Howell.
The coach watched his players, particularly the ones who dream of playing at the college level — the ones “who think they’re the hot stuff around here” — quietly slip on the “Central Football Against Sexual Violence” wristbands the college players gave them.
“They received it really well. They had a lot of great questions,” Howell said. Those bands on his players’ wrists, he said, were a tangible reminder to “think about what you’re doing. It’s easy to let emotions take over. ... It’s that whole peer pressure thing. It’s running rampant today like never before. It’s out there, it’s huge.”
Levin, meanwhile, has launched a website — athletesagainstsexualviolence.org — to help student athletes push back at the social forces pushing in on them.
“If the identity of a football player is someone who stands up to sexual violence, as opposed to the traditional perpetrator of sexual violence,” he said, “that could be huge for preventing all sorts of harm from being done.”
MNCASA had many more resources about sexual violence and prevention at expert-witness.mncasa.org.