MOUNT VERNON — The message is clear: Treat everyone with respect.
Jerry McMeekan spreads that message wherever he goes. Through the nonprofit group Futures Without Violence, McMeekan is looking to end domestic and sexual violence by focusing on today’s youth — specifically, today’s young athletes.
“The program focuses on teaching coaches how to talk to their young male athletes about how to approach girls,” said McMeekan, who is a violence prevention educator for Pittsburgh Action Against Rape. “There’s lots of good stuff to help coaches.”
McMeekan, a native of Allegheny County in Pennsylvania, introduced a program to about a dozen area coaches who attended Monday’s gathering at The Elks in Mount Vernon, which donated the use of their meeting room. The program, Coaching Boys Into Men, gives coaches the tools they need to teach their athletes what are the right ways — and the wrong ways — to treat members of the opposite sex. The program is specifically designed with high school and middle school students in mind.
The program involved a 12-step process, which can be broken up into 12 weeks. Each step allows the coach to discuss with players such topics as responsibility and respect.
“We want to exploit the unique relationship between player and coach. Not a lot of things can cut that bond,” McMeekan said. “We’re looking to reach the leaders who are under the Friday night lights, and get the sports headlines.”
One of the coaches who attended was Rusty Griffith, a middle-school basketball coach at Centerburg. Griffith saw how the message can be sent to younger athletes, as well as to those in the high school and college level.
“It brings the topic to the forefront,” Griffith said. “It’s a good starting point, to go to the middle school programs. It all starts somewhere.”
New Directions, a domestic abuse shelter in Knox County, sponsored the training. Director Matt Hellman discovered this program, which originated in California but is run regionally out of Pittsburgh.
“I played athletics through high school and college, so I know how much influence coaches have on their athletes,” Hellman said. “They listen to them about what to do on the field, and this is for those coaches to help direct them off the field.”
The training covered potential abuse of many types, from comments made between players to outright physical abuse. The seminar also focused on newer forms of abuse, such as social media comments and lewd texts.
Recent abuse claims involving professional athletes have helped bring the problem to the spotlight. Ray Rice was suspended “indefinitely” by the NFL after video showed him punching his then-girlfriend, then dragging her unconscious body. More recently, Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel has had a number of alleged incidents of violence with his ex-girlfriend.
“Those are guys that they (the high school players) look up to,” McMeekan said. “They’re making headlines for disrespectful treatment of women. It’s a great chance to open up the conversation. It gives the young men an opportunity to ask questions. It’s very powerful, and so beneficial.”
According to the Futures Without Violence website, one in three adolescent females in the United States is a victim of physical, emotional or verbal abuse from a partner.
“It happens on an everyday basis in a local level, including in Knox County, and it doesn’t get reported,” Hellman said. “We want to use that national attention to bring awareness at the local level.”