Meet the star athlete getting fellow players to take a stand against sexual assault.
Shocked by the Steubenville assaults, Jerome Baker decided that it's time for athletes to publicly commit to ending gender-based violence.
In December 2012, when the sexual assaults in Steubenville, Ohio, made national headlines, the impact hit high schooler Jerome Baker close to home.
As a star football player in his hometown of Cleveland — just two hours away from Steubenville — he noticed people started to act differently around him. And not in a good way.
When he'd tell people that he was a football player (just like the young men who assaulted the young woman in Steubenville), he felt like they immediately saw him as a perpetrator. He didn't like it, and he wanted to do something about it.
And it wasn't just that he wanted to set himself apart. (There's a reason the #NotAllMen meme isn't useful when it comes to conversations about sexism. They derail the conversation by taking the focus off the prejudice the women experience and onto men.) Baker wanted to take responsibility and do something bigger to address the issue of gender-based violence.
What he did is an amazing example of how a single person can spark a meaningful cultural shift to help end sexual violence.
After Baker talked with his neighbor and mentor Tyrone White (lovingly called "Coach Ty" by his students), founder of anti-sexual violence group Whoaman, the two decided to reached out to the top 31 high school football players in the area, asking them to take a public pledge to end violence against women and girls. Part of the invitation read:
"In the pledge we will promise to treat women and girls with respect and speak up if we witness or hear of assaults — to stand as a protector and speak out against perpetrators.
Let's be the voice that prevents assaults like what happened two years ago involving members of Steubenville's football team. Let's use our status as athletes to encourage change and promote behavior that respects women and girls and does not bring harm to them."
Here's the awesome part: Almost all the top players agreed to take the pledge. Better yet, when the day came for the group to take the pledge on camera, Baker was surprised to see that 50 athletes had come to participate.
Turns out that they'd heard about it from their friends and decided to join. Baker didn't stop there. He knew that how we talk about women, girls, and sex matters. And as one of the top high school players in the country, he decided to use his platform to influence other male student athletes.
He urged them to speak up when a teammate says something that contributes to a culture of disrespecting women, like slut-shaming or making rape jokes. No easy task in the face of high school machoism and peer pressure. And yet — Baker made an impact. A student from a different high school came to him, discouraged by the taunting he'd get when he spoke out again sexist speech. Baker was able to lift his spirits enough to keep on.
Now a player at Ohio State University, Baker is continuing his anti-violence work on his college campus.
He recently asked the head coach Urban Meyer to allow team members to take the pledge. While the coach has declined for now (for unknown reasons), Baker's still hopeful for change.
An initiative like this is more important than ever.
A recent survey of college campuses found that over 27% of women and more than 30% of transgender and gender-nonconforming folk reported being sexually assaulted at school. We have a long way to go — and we need to start doing the work before people take a step on campus.
Work like Baker's is part of a winning movement to end sexual violence by attacking it at its roots. It's time to put a stop to rape ... before it happens.
Baker's high school had little to no sex or anti-sexual assault education. With 40% of women reporting victimization before the age of 18, Baker's pre-college efforts show how it's better to start anti-rape training sooner rather than later.
Sexual assault is not an individual issue. Almost 47% of rapes and 82% of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows. This is something that communities have to address collectively. That's why Baker's leadership is so important. In the wise words of Coach Ty, that Baker shared in an interview with SB Nation:
"People are going to follow you no matter what. If you're doing the right thing, they're going to follow you. If you're doing the wrong thing, they're going to follow you, too. It's just a matter of which one you want to do."