One of the ongoing conversations we have had throughout this blog is how norms in the community contribute to a climate where sexual violence takes place. What seems like a random or benign moment or comment says something about the attitudes, beliefs, and ways we treat others in our communities. These moments say something about the world we live in and how we live in it. One of those moments happened this week in one of the unlikeliest of places, while a professional athlete gave a speech to kids at an elementary school. Jameis Winston, the starting quarterback of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and a figure not without controversy after being investigated for committing sexual assault, while a student at Florida State University was at Melrose Elementary School in Saint Petersberg, Florida speaking to students.
The speech contained a lot of the standard truisms that athletes often say like setting goals, believing in yourself, not giving up, and making sure to do your best in school. At some point during that morning, a few of the young men became disengaged, and the speech went off the rails as Jameis sought to re-engage them. Winston said, "All my young boys, stand up. The ladies, sit down...but all my boys, stand up. We strong, right? We strong! We strong, right? All my boys, tell me one time. I can do anything I put my mind to. Now a lot of boys aren't supposed to be soft-spoken. You know what I'm saying? One day y'all are going to have a very deep voice like this (in a deep voice). One day you'll have a very, very deep voice."
So, I do not love this. After experiencing sports culture, I have heard a lot of speeches like this. This is giving boys a toolkit for manhood. This is instructing them about how young men are supposed to move and how they are supposed to talk. Moreover, he is telling them that if they are not strong or do not have deep voices that they are not men. It matters that the star quarterback of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is telling them that they are supposed to be strong. They already want to be strong, just like the man they watch on Sundays. They want to be strong like the man whose poster they have on their walls and ask for autographs from. I am a football fan, and I would have been engrossed with what the third-string quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons had to say, so I can see these kids being in awe of a star like Jameis Winston. If this was the only objectionable content in Winston's speech, I would not have been happy, but I would have chalked it up to a man being steeped in sports culture, an example of why we have work do to with boys, but not a really missed moment. We know young men everywhere are getting these messages. We know that Jameis has gotten them for years. I got these messages for years. Unfortunately, things went downhill from here. Winston finished addressing the boys and then began speaking to the girls saying, "[b]ut the ladies, they're supposed to be silent, polite, gentle. My men, my men (are) supposed to be strong. I want y'all to tell me what the third rule of life is: I can do anything I put my mind to. Scream it!"
Yea, Jameis Winston, who once was under investigation for sexually assaulting a woman in college told girls that they are supposed to sit down and be silent. There is no way to sugar coat this. This is a problem. I would have been fine if he had told all those kids that they are strong. All kids deserve to hear that it is important to fight for what they believe in. I would have been fine if he had told the boys and girls equally that they needed to believe in themselves and work to achieve their dreams. That is the way life should be. We should want the same for all our sons and daughters. Maybe Winston did not mean anything malicious here. The result is still damaging because when we tell boys to be assertive and girls to be silent what does that mean when those boys and girls grow up to be men and women? This is an example of how society often silences the voices of women. This is an example of how men and women are told how to behave based on little more than their gender.
So, there was a lot that was bad here, but it is an example of how beliefs and attitudes about what boys and girls are supposed to behave are systemic. No girl should ever be told that her voice is not as important as a male's. That is not equality. In fact, it is telling women that their voices, thoughts, dreams, and desires are not as important as men's. Women should never get that message, but men should not get that message either as it is just as damaging to us. Moreover, someone who is seen as a role model should not be teaching a message that at its best is misguided and at its worst an example of historical gender nonsense.
In the interest of being fair, it is important to say that Winston had a lot of choices about where he spent his off time. He chose to speak to those kids. He could have been relaxing on a beach, watching movies, shopping, hanging out with friends, or getting away from the grind of being an NFL quarterback. I get that argument. I get people coming to his defense because he chose to do the right thing by speaking to kids in his community. It is not like one gets a "get out of jail free" card because they made the choice to help others and not be selfish. Professional athletes going to a school to talk to kids is the right thing. With that said, it is important to say that making the choice to do the right thing does not excuse all potential results of that choice. One does not get a pass because they initially had good intentions. For example, I could choose to feed homeless people by making them sandwiches. If the sandwiches I made contained mayonnaise that was spoiled and I made a lot of homeless people sick that is a problem. The Department of Health might have something to say to me about my sandwiches, tainted mayonnaise, and lack of food safety practices despite my good intentions. Good intentions do not excuse ill effects. Having good intentions is never a pass for how one impacts others. Above all, Jameis Winston has to be all the more self-aware because of his history and his choices. But, that is the work that all of us have to do. That is what it means to be accountable and make a difference in the lives of young people. To his credit, Jameis Winston did admit later that his "poor word choice" overshadowed what could have been a positive message. Just as Jameis needs to be more aware of his actions the systems and institutions that he is engaged in need to be just as aware and just as accountable. Kids are not going to stop being taught destructive messages like this until those systems and institutions are held accountable too. We all need to work together to change these systems, institutions, beliefs, and attitudes with the goal of ending sexual violence.
Despite Jameis Winston's comments, a little girl in the audience turned around to one of the adults and said, "I'm strong too." The boys and girls in our lives are listening to our words and seeing our actions. Clearly, this young lady is questioning them like we all should. She heard something she questioned and responded to it. How will we respond when we have similar opportunities in our own lives?