Written by: Bailey Reid and Daniel Brisebois
When you hear the words ‘locker room talk’ you probably have a distinct picture that comes to your mind. A lot of people will think of misogyny, toxic masculinity and negative cultures that can often be associated with competitive sports team cultures and in the case of some Post-Secondary Institutions, varsity athletics programs. It is important to recognize that these cultures do not necessarily exist within every institution or every team but it is certainly a prevalent issue that many Gender Based Violence Educators are looking to address within the athletics community.
There is a lot of emphasis placed on this conversation with many institutions currently grappling with how they can create GBV education and prevention programs that are targeted towards their varsity athletes. The reason why, we know that our Varsity Athletes have a lot of visibility, power, influence and hold a lot of social capital on our campus. With this, they have the opportunity to play a large role in changing campus cultures, educating peers, and helping to ensure that our campuses are built upon cultures of consent.
While working with varsity athletes and leveraging their leadership on campus can be a great way to increase involvement in conversations surrounding consent cultures or GBV education, it can also be a hard task to take on. How do you go about approaching the topic of gender and sexual violence to a group that are often told they’re part of the problem, rather than part of the solution? Many institutions have started trying to build education and prevention programs within their athletics departments that’s focus on pillars of peer-based learning and bystander intervention. Many of these programs being based on the framework of the Mentors in Violence Prevention program that was based out of Syracuse University.
To look at one specific Canadian Institution, Carleton University took up this challenge and partnered with JR LaRose, retired CFL champion to create an innovative new program, Champions for Change. This facilitated workshop flipped the usual the script and asked athletes, “What do you need to know about sexual violence, and how will you share that information?” The program pulls from design-based thinking methods, expertise from lived experience, and inspires athletes to truly be the co-creators of consent culture in their roles as leaders on campus.
The athletes at Carleton exceeded expectations, offering incredible feedback on the mandatory sexual violence programming that all athletes participate in every year. They asked to be in mixed gender groups and mixed teams. They also developed a public service announcement, including writing the script, for a major sports event in Ottawa, the Panda Game. Finally, over half the athletes that participated in the program signed up to co-facilitate future trainings on sexual violence to their peers, showing how the influencer model can work when it comes to athletes.
If you’re interested in addressing sexual violence on campus by targeting athletes, here are some tips to get started:
Ask your athletes how they want to be part of the solution. Athletes are often activists too, and likely already have some great ideas about how to move forward.
Make space for the conversation, even the difficult ones. If there’s been any history, particularly public histories, of sexual violence with athletes, it’s okay to talk about that. Listen to your students and work towards a solution, together.
Harness local leaders. If you have a professional athlete in your community who speaks out on important issues, invite them to come work with your athletes. You likely already have great resources on your campus that can team up with athletes from the community to create change.
You may also want to reflect on a few key questions before embarking on a program like Champions for Change, or Mentors in Violence Prevention. Consider:
Who has the capacity to lead the work? It can’t only come from an institution’s sexual violence prevention office. Who in your Department of Athletics can become a leader in the work?
How ready is your institution to have difficult conversations? If calls for change come from the student body, are you ready to hear that?
How can this work create legacy programming? Once athletes graduate, how does the programming or culture continue, rather than reverting to what it was?
Harnessing the influence of leaders on our campuses like varsity athletes is so important. Peer groups learn from one another and they play a large role in influencing the cultures that exist around us. By working to change these cultures to mirror the values of our institutions we can affect large scale positive change in not only our varsity athletics programs but the larger campus as a whole. With training, mentorship and education our athletes will hopefully one day be able to help redefine what we think of when we hear the words “locker room talk.” Hopefully one day this can be associated in a more positive manner where we instinctively think of the active conversations that athletes are having to create cultures of consent and end GBV on our campuses.
Suggested Citation: Brisebois, Dan., Reid, Bailey. (2021, February). Engaging Athletes in Gender-Based Violence Prevention. Courage to Act. www.couragetoact.ca/blog/athletics