High School Footballer Urges Male Athletes To Join The Fight Against Sexual Violence

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Now this is the kind of news relating to football players we like to read about! Three cheers for Ohio high school linebacker Jerome Baker for speaking out against sexual violence and challenging his fellow men to stand alongside with him in this fight.

Let’s also be clear, this is a fight that needs both men and women raising their voices and taking action together, so while some may take this article as us placing emphasis on a male voice, rather than the women who fight against rape and assault (as can sometimes happen in very serious issues that affect the feminist community), we see it as elevating just another crucial voice in this conversation.

Plus, if you look through our articles we have plenty of resources and information on the men and women as well as campaigns that are aimed at tackling sexual violence, and more specifically, sexual assault and rape on college campuses.

Many of us are familiar with the Steubenville rape case that happened in 2013, where two high school football stars were found guilty of raping a 16-year-old girl. The story was heavily shared on social media and the added public attention from everyday people helped ensure this case was brought to prosecution.

It was a case that ended up dividing many, especially because the two boys who were found guilty expressed how their jail sentence will gravely affect their lives, once again showing how easy it is to galvanize sympathy for rapists, especially star athletes. Accusations we have read many times include plenty of victim-blaming, not just in regard to what led to the incident, but also for her speaking up and potentially ending a pro sporting career. There is something incredibly wrong with our society when we care more about what a girl is wearing, how drunk she was, or how a football player’s career may be ending, as opposed to digging into the reason why men and boys rape.

And we are not alone in this thinking, because it is an issue that has affected Jerome Baker, especially since he lived in close proximity to the Steubenville case when it happened and had played those guys many times. After the story went national, it started to bother Jerome about the reputation footballers were getting, and didn’t like that him and all his friends were being looked at as perpetrators.

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“[We] were looked at strangely. People just looked at you as violent people. I really didn’t like that whole outlook on us,” he told SB Nation. He knew he wanted to do something about this issue, and the actionable idea came to him after a conversation with a friend the perception of football players.

That particular friend he had a conversation with happened to be the founder of an anti-sexual violence group called Whoaman (who also make films about this issue!) and gave Jerome some advice about the issue. His friend mentioned that footballers are in a position of leadership and that he could use his voice to influence the way people think.

“He said, ‘People are going to follow you no matter what. If you’re doing the right thing, they’re going to follow you. If you’re doing the wrong thing, they’re going to follow you, too. It’s just a matter of which one you want to do’. That stuck with me,” says Jerome about his friend Tyrone White.

Jerome came up with the idea for footballers in his area to take a public pledge to end violence against women and girls, and set a new standard of how people would perceive athletes. He initially targeted 31 high school football players in a part of Ohio with the hope that they could be ambassadors to their community. Jerome would spend all his spare time making phone calls, and speaking to people at schools about the importance of taking the pledge which read:

In the pledge we will promise to treat women and girls with respect and speak up if we witness or hear of assaults – to stand as a protector and speak out against perpetrators. Let’s be the voice that prevents assaults like what happened two years ago involving members of Steubenville’s football team. Let’s use our status as athletes to encourage change and promote behavior that respects women and girls and does not bring harm to them.”

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When it came time to signing the pledge at an event in August 2014 after doing his hard campaigning, the response he got was better than he anticipated. 50 high school students turned up to take the pledge, and they weren’t just football players either!

On pledge day, Judge Dick Ambrose, a former Cleveland Browns player and now a municipal court judge in Cleveland read out the words penned by Jerome, and then invited former sexual violence victims to stand up and share their story. SB Nation reports that Jerome was shocked to see one of his female cousins stand up and share about her experience.

“I was surprised. I had never thought of my own family going through situations like that. I was in awe like everyone else was. It was my own family and I didn’t even know,” he said, which made him realize this idea of his had to go much further than a pledge.

Working with Jerome’s friend Tyrone, he recruited other high school athletes to work with the Whoaman organization to help create education about this issue that they could share with even more people. Jerome used every opportunity he could to talk to other players about how they could be more effective in the fight against this issue, and the barriers they faced. One of the common issues that came up was the idea of a guy being seen as less masculine if he didn’t joke along with the rest of the guys about women, for instance.

One of the guys who Jerome recruited, Kevin Gramajo, a cross country runner from John Marshall High School, recalled an incident where a group of high school boys were joking about one particular girl to see if the whole soccer team could sleep with her. When he spoke up about their comments, he was immediately called names and seen as “weak” for not playing along.

But this is what we need to see more of, young men being willing to stand up to the status quo and not being afraid of having a few names thrown in their direction if it means they are changing the popular narrative when it comes to girls and sexuality.

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“It seems there’s a culture where males feel like it’s uncool to stand up and say something. You go into a locker room where a bunch of guys are making jokes, and as soon as someone says, ‘Hey man, that’s not funny,’ you’re labeled as weak,” said Kevin.

One of Jerome’s other recruits, Alex Sumislawski, a football player from Avon High School, identified how this skewed perspective on masculinity then carried on into the rest of society.

“It’s not just at the high school level. It’s all throughout our culture, in music, in pop culture. Girls are calling each other bitches and ho’s as compliments. We’ve created a culture where that’s OK. It’s not,” said Alex in the same article.

“Guys need to know how to treat women, and not based on what everyone else is doing. What everyone else is doing could be the complete wrong thing, and you need to be the difference. You need to be the one doing the right thing,” he continued, adding that parents are also responsible for teaching their children about the dangers of rape culture and sexual violence.

Since August 2014 when 50 high school athletes showed up to take the pledge Jerome created, one year on there are now more than 100 athletes who have stood up alongside the others. Clearly it is not something he is giving up on, and Jerome and Tyrone traveling to Washington D.C in the Spring to rally support for U.S. Senate Bill 355, known as the “Teach Safe Relationships Act of 2015.”

The Whoaman organization is now taking the pledge to colleges because if there is a place where awareness and action needs to be take in regard to rape and sexual assault, it is universities across America. A new study conducted by the Association of American Universities concluded nearly a quarter of all college students across the country are the victims of sexual assault.

The study polled 150,000 students at 27 colleges across the country and found 23.1% of female undergrads and 5.4% of male undergrads said they were victims of non-consensual sexual contact due to physical force, threats, or incapacitation through drugs or alcohol. What’s even sadder is that only 28% of these incidents are ever reported, either to the school or the police. A lot of times victims feel shamed, blamed and ostracized for even speaking about their experience, so it becomes easier to hide what happened, giving a subconscious cue to the perpetrator that what he did was not wrong.

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Jerome may have only gotten 100 pledge signatures so far, but the impact he is having on just his community alone is the type of action we need to see in schools and colleges everywhere. It starts with one person, one person willing to make a change and stop the trend of sexual violence.

We are so in awe of Jerome Baker and the young men who are standing alongside him to help young women be able to live in a world where they don’t have to fear what men will do to them at parties, at bars, on a dark isolated street, on a college campus, etc.

We will not stop sharing stories of the men and women who are choosing to help end this disgusting epidemic that treats victims as second class citizens, while also getting to the heart of the issue about why sexual violence is wrong! It’s sad that there aren’t more headline-dominating media stories like this, but we have seen plenty of people sharing the original SB Nation article on social media. Let’s keep spreading the word!

Singer and humanitarian Lady Gaga recently released a music video to her powerful track ‘Til it Happens To You’ which was written for the ‘Hunting Ground’ documentary. It was a powerful film showcasing compelling stories of girls who were raped and essentially shut down by authorities, teachers and even football coaches who didn’t want their experiences to ruin reputations or careers. If this is the world we are living in, we ought to hang our heads in shame and weep for all the silent victims who will never come forward, or worse, who have committed self-harm or suicide.

When it comes to sexual violence and rape, some of us may never personally experience these atrocities. Lady Gaga’s lyrics talk about how until it happens to one of us, we may never know what it feels like. That might be true, we go one step further and say no one should have to wait until it happens to them. If more of us bystanders took the power back out of the hands of perpetrators, we might start to see a cultural shift toward the end of sexual violence. We can ALL be Jerome Bakers.

We hope every parent of a high school or college aged child will share this story with them.

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