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A Winning Play from the NFL: 1in6 Thursdays on the Joyful Heart Foundation Blog

I was encouraged this week by the National Football League’s appointment of an expert panel to help “lead and shape the NFL’s policies and programs relating to domestic violence and sexual assault.” The move came in response to a series of domestic-violence and abuse incidents involving NFL players Ray Rice, Ray McDonald, Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy.

Understandably, the focus has been on confronting the visible, egregious actions of those players and the people they hurt. The resulting discussion also provides a unique opportunity to expand our understanding of how the complex, life-long impacts of sexual abuse, assault and interpersonal violence affect both men and women. I was reminded of the reality that many more players on professional teams may be survivors of childhood trauma as well – including sexual and physical abuse and domestic violence.

I applaud the inclusion of NO MORE co-founder Jane Randel to the  panel along with Rita Smith, the former executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence; Lisa Friel, who headed the Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit in the New York County District Attorney’s Office for more than a decade; and Anna Isaacson, the NFL’s new vice president of social responsibility.

As the head of an organization devoted to supporting men who have had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences in childhood to live healthier, happier lives, I was particularly encouraged by Randel’s commitment in a letter to NO MORE partners to “be as inclusive as possible and practical throughout this process.” One of the unique strengths of the NO MORE campaign has been its conscious inclusion of men and boys when speaking about those who have experienced the impact of sexual abuse, assault and intimate partner violence.

Obviously, no trauma history justifies abusive or violent behavior. But I am hopeful that other professionals in the field will share my belief that looking at how traumatic experiences might impact adult behaviors is a critical step toward changing cultural normsIndeed, trauma-informed practices and policies have allowed for a historically positive shift in how mental-health professionals, educators, and law enforcement treat and respond to survivors of abuse, with increased effectiveness.

It occurred to me while reading reports about the suspended NFL players over the weekend that, of the 1,700 male players in the NFL, nearly 300 of them will have experienced sexual abuse when they were boys growing up. The ACE study predicts that nearly 1,100 of them experienced at least one of 10 traumatic experiences in childhood – and that’s in addition to any neighborhood violence, racism, peer violence or losses, or adult traumas they experienced.

Each of them was raised in a culture that discourages males from showing vulnerability, fear or sadness. Each has chosen a profession that asserts his power, his prowess at fulfilling expectations of manhood, and his invulnerability as a man. 

While some men engage in violent and abusive actions, many more men are survivors of sexual, physical and emotional abuse than become perpetrators of violence.

Media coverage of the charges of abusive behavior by the NFL players has raised the profile of the discussion.

If we confront just the dominance and fail to explore the vulnerability of those who act like the suspended NFL players, we risk missing a critical dynamic of sexual and interpersonal violence. We can keep punishing. We can keep voicing disdain and disgust. We can expose those who commit such acts in hopes of discouraging others.  But when we look at Rice’s and the others’ behavior and think, “that makes no sense,” it’s time to start exploring other explanations.

I can’t help but think that to get to the heart of abusive and violent behavior, we need to understand why violence makes sense to the NFL players and to the millions of other men and women who behave abusively toward the very people they love and depend on for their sense of well-being. What past experience, or fear, or trauma, might trigger such an overwhelming reminder of powerlessness, that they opt for violence, when to all outside appearances they are already in control?

And then collectively, we have to develop strategies to help them address their vulnerability in ways that helps them accept accountability for the harm they’ve caused, that heals them and poses no threat to others.

We’re honored to be a part of that effort through our involvement with NO MORE.

By Steve LePore

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Steve LePore brings over 26 years experience in nonprofit management and consulting to 1in6, which he founded in January 2007. He originally worked in the private sector as Director of Human Resources for Six Flags Corporation and Landmark Entertainment Group. In 1988, Steve co-founded My Friend’s Place, a resource center for homeless and runaway youth in Hollywood, California and became its full-time Executive Director in 1990. In June 1999, he left My Friend’s Place to found the Santa Clarita Valley Youth Project, a community-based outreach program preventing high-risk behavior among students in his own neighborhood. Steve is a Durfee Foundation Stanton Fellow (having researched effective strategies to address difficult social issues and create change through program and policy development) and also served on the board of CALCASA (the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault).