A few years ago, John Blasco was a high school basketball coach in Juneau, Alaska, building a program from scratch at a brand-new high school.
Then he took on another challenge: talking to the teenage boys on his team every week about respect, domestic violence, and sexual assault, part of a fight against Alaska's epidemic of violence against women.
A Juneau domestic violence shelter asked Blasco and other local coaches to start using a program called Coaching Boys Into Men, which teaches high school coaches to have weekly conversations with their teams about how to treat women and avoid aggression.
Alaska has the nation's highest rates of rape and domestic violence. Women are more likely to be killed by men in Alaska than in any other state in the US. And more than half of all women in a statewide survey said they have experienced some form of violence from their intimate partners in their lifetime.
"I was intimidated to do this with my players" at first, Blasco says. "I don't currently have any of my own kids, so I've never had those conversations before." But he continued with the program, now in its fourth year.
Coaching Boys Into Men, originally developed in 2001, now exists nationwide. The materials can be ordered online; even the group that created it, Futures Without Violence, isn't sure of everywhere that it's being used. But a White House task force on college sexual assault recently singled it out as a "particularly promising" approach.
"We kind of view working with sports and coaches as a twofer," said Kiersten Stewart, director of public policy at Futures Without Violence, the advocacy group that developed the program. "There's a culture where there has been a history of violence against women, and a culture that sometimes — I don't want to say always — reinforces that."
And working with athletes is a special opportunity, she said: "Athletes, particularly male athletes, in many schools hold certain status, and they have extra power as norm setters," Stewart said. "When you've reached the football team or the baseball team, you've had a bigger impact."
How Coaching Boys Into Men works
Coaches who participate in the program get 12 lessons, meant to be spread out in weekly 15-minute briefings over the course of the season, as well as a playbook with additional tips on how to best implement the program. Discussions start early in the season with basic concepts about respect and personal responsibility and gradually work their way into more difficult, complex areas.
Take week three: that's when coaches are supposed to discuss insulting language. They'll point out that saying someone "plays like a girl" is insulting to girls. Then it gets into more difficult territory: How would you feel if someone pressured you to send them a nude photo? How do you determine sexual consent? Why is it disrespectful to brag about your sexual experiences? (Those sexual experiences, it implies, are all with women — the program assumes its target audience of teen boys are all heterosexual.)
The playbook, which deals heavily in sports analogies ("Make a defensive play!" "Design your offense!") also includes scenarios coaches are likely to encounter, such as overhearing locker room talk or innuendos about girls in school. And it refers them to other resources if they start to feel out of their depth. It suggests coaches point out that most women don't welcome catcalls, and nobody invites such harassment with how they dress.
Basic stuff, maybe, but not necessarily topics that normally come up in practice.
"It's hard for them to open up, but as the season goes on and they understand why you're trying to do this and what you're trying to address, they open up more," Blasco says. "They talk to each other outside of those short lessons more than they did before."
Blasco says his team members have stepped up to cut off locker room gossip from other boys. Although he doesn't mention it in an interview, he's taken his team to the state tournament twice in the four years he's used the program. The players have also won statewide acclaim, including from Alaska's governor, for their work on preventing violence against women.
What the research says about the program's effectiveness
Because the teenagers appeared to have learned something about abuse, it's unlikely that having a coach who cared about them in the first place was the sole factor, the researchers wrote. The program itself probably made a difference.
But some of the findings were less heartening. Just 60 percent of the coaches who originally agreed to participate stuck to the program enough for researchers to say it could have its full effect. And while participants got better about recognizing abuse and were more willing to stop it, they didn't score any better on an 11-item test that asks questions like whether victims who don't say "no" forcefully enough bear responsibility for their rape. It might be easier to change behavior than to change mindsets.
Still, Coaching Boys Into Men has been singled out as a promising approach, in part for its focus on men. The next frontier is college campuses, Stewart says. The Obama administration's "It's On Us" campaign is focusing on bystanders — particularly men — to help stop college sexual assault, and Stewart says she hopes that college teams and coaches would be open to a new version of the program. (Disclosure: SB Nation, also owned by Vox's parent company Vox Media, is participating in the White House's initiative to stop sexual assault.)
But the research on domestic violence and sexual assault suggests working with high school students makes a difference.
"The attitudes and behaviors of the men who choose to do this often were formed long before they got to college," she says.