GORHAM, Maine — When the “culture of masculinity” found in the locker rooms of many men’s sports teams goes bad, the results can be tragic, according to the head of the Maine-based organization Boys to Men.
Take the case of former University of Maine and Kansas City Chiefs football star Jovan Belcher, who was reported to have had a history of conflict with women partners before ultimately killing his girlfriend and himself in a high-profile incident last month.
But Boys to Men Executive Director Drew Wing says the same male athletes who take the field or ice in violent sports can be key to reshaping what he thinks have become destructive preconceptions of manhood in today’s society.
Boys to Men is a Portland organization led by educators, businesspeople and doctors which offers programs to parents, mentors and students to promote respectful, nonviolent social behavior among boys and young men.
Representatives from Boys to Men and Mentors in Violence Prevention, or MVP, were on hand at the University of Southern Maine’s Gorham campus Wednesday for the first of two days of workshops with the school’s more than 200 student-athletes of both genders.
“We ask [workshop participants] about gender boxes, and we ask, ‘What is your stereotypical male?’” Wing told the Bangor Daily News. “And they often say, ‘Heavy drinking, fighting, being the boss, getting a lot of girls.’
“It can be a hypermasculinity that exists in a sports culture, but at the same time, [male student athletes] are in better positions to respond to those stereotypes because they’ve often already proven their masculinity in many ways,” he said.
In a nutshell, the most masculine in what Wing called the “culture of masculinity” are often also the most self-confident, and they have more social currency with which to reject domineering or violent social behaviors.
“There’s some research that men who live in those masculine worlds [of sports] are in the best positions to defy those worlds,” Wing said.
“We all know violence in society is a growing concern,” said University of Southern Maine Athletic Director Al Bean. “There’s a lot of violence in society and you have to address it. You can’t ignore it.”
Addressing subjects such as date rape, bullying and social etiquette in a frank way is precisely what goes on in the MVP workshops, which are given around the country to college and professional sports teams, as well as military groups. And the dialogue is launched by former student-athletes.
“We understand what it’s like to be in their positions,” said Daryl Fort, a former University of Maine football player who led discussions at USM on Wednesday. “That credibility has been a big part of our success for a long time.”
Wing said his organization — which works with groups of all ages and often with children and teenagers who aren’t on sports teams — and its partners from MVP “tap into [the student athletes’] sense of empathy” to drive home the importance of treating others with respect.
“We try to think about what they expect for people they know and love in their own lives,” Wing said. “We try to get them to think, ‘If I don’t want my girlfriend or my mom or another person who means so much in my life to be treated badly, why would it be OK to treat someone else like that?’”
Conversations are held with athletes of both genders — at USM on Wednesday, entire teams came into workshops as full units. Wing said that while male athletes are considered to be most immersed in the masculine culture, individuals from either gender can exhibit domineering and violent behaviors.
Importantly, Wing said, individuals from either gender also can learn to be “positive bystanders” and speak up when they see destructive behaviors exhibited by others.
“We look at athletes as leaders on campus and whether female or male, they’re going to be bystanders to different situations,” said Amy Bowen, a former three-sport athlete at Gordon College in Massachusetts and now one of MVP’s traveling advocates. “Really this is about empowering them, giving them tools to stand up and be leaders in tough situations, be the activists that change the culture on campus.”