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A Call to Athletes, Coaches, Trainers, Athletic Directors, and Sports Social Workers: Join Us to Say

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said “the time is always right to do the right thing.” Unfortunately, our country shamelessly and cowardly refused to do the right thing in the aftermath of mass shootings at schools, colleges, churches, temples, museums, nightclubs, concerts, street corners, and on and on. The argument has always been that in the aftermath of such tragedy and carnage, we must focus on sending our “thoughts and prayers” to the victims and survivors and that it is “inappropriate” to talk about guns or the politics of guns. We call B.S.! In reality, that hasn’t gotten us anywhere and we end up with yet another mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida that left 17 students and faculty dead and lives forever shattered. Under normal circumstances, the community grieves privately and tries to come to terms with the trauma they experienced while those in power talk briefly about what to do on the complex problem of gun violence. Then time passes and people move on. However, the young people in Florida have taken the position of saying that they intend to be the last school shooting and that we will not let this happen on our watch ever again. They are willing to be the mature leaders that we adults are not and we must follow their example to ensure that we combat the epidemic of gun violence in this country once and for all. This is a call for all of us, especially for all of us in the sports world. We are in a unique position to be part of the solution and join this movement against gun violence. We can do that on three levels: systemic, community, and cultural. We must use the example of athlete activists from the past to inspire us into action. Using our influential platform, we athletes, coaches, trainers, athletic directors, and sport social workers must take it upon us to do our part in saying #NeverAgain.

First, on the systemic level, there needs to be more urgency to pass common sense gun control legislation. At this crucial moment, this is our time to act. We need to strengthen the background check system in this country including private and internet sales of guns. We need to close the gun show loophole that allows for so many to buy a gun without a proper and thorough background check. We need to repeal the Dickey Amendment that was passed in 1996 that barred the Center for Disease Control from studying gun violence as a public health issue. Gun violence should be called for what it is, a public health emergency. We need to reinstate the Assault Weapons Ban that was first passed in 1994 and then repealed in 2004. There needs to be a ban on high capacity magazines because there is absolutely no reason why a civilian needs that kind of artillery. The age limit needs to be raised from 18 to 21 on purchasing an AR-15. A famous case of 18 year olds getting their hands on weapons to kill somebody was the July 25, 1993 death of James Jordan, Michael Jordan’s father. Those boys who killed him along with the young man in Florida weren’t old enough to purchase alcohol, but can purchase a gun. Where is the logic?

We need to follow the example of the state of Oregon who recently passed a bill that prohibited domestic violence offenders, including dating partners, from owning a gun. The federal Domestic Violence Offender Gun Ban which was passed in 1996 prohibits abusive spouses from obtaining a gun, but not dating partners, which needs to be addressed. A classic case of the link between gun violence and domestic violence was the 2012 murder suicide of Kansas City Chiefs player Javon Belcher, who shot and killed his girlfriend Cassandra Perkins in front of their three year old daughter, and later killed himself in the parking lot of the Chiefs stadium. It was legendary sports broadcaster Bob Costas who said that if he didn’t own as many guns as he did then both he and Cassandra would both be alive today. He was right. Javon owned eight guns and had a history of domestic violence and all statistics show that when guns are present in an abusive household there are deadly consequences.

We need to understand the link between guns and suicide. A recent case was the suicide of Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinksi who shot and killed himself. All the statistics show that people living with mental illness, depression, or anxiety, that have access to guns are more likely to use it on themselves than on others. We need to make it easier to access counseling and therapy and not guns. Finally, we need to stand up to the corporate gun lobby and to extremist groups like the NRA who are only in the business for money, not protecting any supposed constitutional amendment that is outdated. That requires a tremendous amount of power at the ballot box this November and getting money out of politics. This is all part and parcel to ending the epidemic of gun violence, but there is more that needs to be done.

Second, there are things we can all do in our communities to prevent gun violence. A major aspect is to educate the community about mental health and mental illness. Far too often, in the aftermath of a mass shooting, we shamefully scapegoat people living with mental illness as if they pose as serious threat to public safety. We use terms such as “crazy”, “insane”, “nut”, “wacked out”, or “the mentally ill”. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, people living with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violent crimes and not the perpetrators. As a result, there needs to be community based programs that are based on forming alliances with social workers, mental health professionals, law enforcement, and public health officials to adequately prevent gun violence. There needs to be community based education that focuses on combating the stigma of mental health and to break down the myths and present facts about gun violence.

Police should be trained in crisis intervention so that they can better respond to different populations such as people living with mental illness. Teachers, social workers, counselors, psychologists, police, athletes, coaches, athletic directors, and community members should be trained in Mental Health First Aid and Emotional CPR. Middle schools, high schools, and colleges have their student athletes go through physicals before they start their season to ensure that their physical health is maintained, but there are very few programs in place that specifically addresses the mental health concerns of athletes. One of the things that should seriously be considered is mandating that middle schools, high schools, and colleges have their student athletes going through a mental health screening as well as their standard physicals. In fact, one of the screening tools that needs to be implemented is the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) screening, which uncovers past childhood traumas with present physical and emotional problems. Every athletic department should have a social worker, counselor, and/or a psychologist in place for their teams. Coaches should regularly talk to their players about the importance of mental and emotional well being and to be educated on what mental illness is.

There also needs to a strong focus on bullying that occurs in schools. Bullying has deadly consequences and can begin with teasing and name calling and can lead to violence. A perfect case of that was the shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado on April 20, 1999. A major factor of that mass shooting was the culture of bullying that lead to the massacre. The jock culture that was rampant at Columbine made it as if the athletes were above and beyond and everyone else was at the end of the totem pole. That is not to blame the athlete culture for the massacre, but we need to create an environment where every student is valued and seen as worthy and that we need to breakdown the culture of cliques (jocks, geeks, preppies, skateboard kids, etc.) that segregate students from each other. This is part and parcel to ending the epidemic of gun violence, but there is much more work that needs to be done.

Third, we need to radically change our culture and our values when it comes to our attitudes towards guns. Let’s face it; America is a nation that loves guns. It shouldn’t be extreme to say that we value guns more than ourselves sometimes. Since 1968, the year the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated by guns, there have been over a million people killed by guns. Since that time our love for guns continued to grow. The sports world, Hollywood, video games, books, social media, and other forms of popular culture and mass media have historically glorified the use of guns as a symbol of strength, power, and dominance. What should also be addressed is that the overwhelming majority of the perpetrators of gun violence are men and boys. Our culture defines masculinity as being “tough”, “strong”, “and aggressive” without empathy, understanding, emotion, and vulnerability. When we grow up in this culture that lays out what are unrealistic expectations for men, we set ourselves up for failure and for violence.

Men are taught that the only way to settle conflicts are with violence and if you were a man who didn’t fit the traditional male paradigm and was taunted as a result, once you pick up a gun, you have immediate power. We need to have serious conversations about the link between toxic masculinity and gun violence that is often ignored from our discourse. We need to create and/or implement existing programs that work with men and boys on redefining what masculinity is. A great example is the Coaching Boys into Men Program that works with male middle school and high school athletes and coaches on healthy masculinity, healthy relationships, and respect for women and girls over the course of their seasons that is aimed at building a healthy culture. Famed anti-sexist and anti-violence educator and activist Dr. Jackson Katz’s MVP program (Mentors in Violence Prevention) is another great tool that combats gender based violence specifically as well as other kinds of male violence with student athletes and coaches. We need to change hearts and minds about the issue along with changing the laws. What good would it be if we passed strong gun control laws, as we should, and still have culture that loves guns over people and that gun violence is inevitable?

There was a time when the culture justified slavery until Harriet Tubman, Sojurner Truth, Frederick Douglas, and many others changed hearts and minds and began to create an anti-abolitionist movement that led to the 13th Amendment and the abolishment of slavery. There was a time when the culture said women weren’t allowed to vote until it was Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Alice Paul changed hearts and minds and then eventually the 19th Amendment was passed granting women the right to vote in 1920. There was time when the culture justified Jim Crow and Segregation, until Dr. King, Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Hank Aaron, Curt Flood, Arthur Ashe, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar changed hearts and minds that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 along with the breaking down of Jim Crow. There was time when women weren’t given the same opportunities as men to compete in sports, until Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Billie Jean King, Althea Gibson, Venus and Serena Williams, the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team, the U.S. Women’s Hockey Team, and the WNBA that came as a result of Title IX and creating more opportunities for women to be equal in sports. There was time when LGBTQ sisters and brothers were constantly demonized and forced to remain in the closet, until Harvey Milk, Ellen DeGeneres, Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Sheryl Swoopes, Brittany Griener, Billy Bean, Jason Collins, and Adam Rippon opened our hearts and minds and LGBTQ have fuller acceptance than ever before. The point being, that when there is a culture of what should be challenging, a culture of what is, there is room for radical social change. That is where we are at with the #NeverAgain Movement that is being led by the brave young people in Florida that we all need to join. This is part and parcel to combating the epidemic of gun violence, but there is much more that needs to be done.

Finally, gun violence is a multifaceted and complex issue that requires a multifaceted and complex response. The changes that need to be done on a systemic, community, and cultural level will only happen if we have the will to join the young people in Florida and demand those changes. All of us in the sports world have a unique platform that the politicians don’t have because people, sports fans or not, listen to our every word and like our every tweet or post. We all know that historically athletes have been at the forefront of social and cultural change when the time was right. This is the right time for us to take part in the movement to end gun violence. We have examples of athletes doing their part already in recent years. In 2015, the NBA in partnership with Everytown for Gun Safety recorded a series of PSA’s that featured victims/survivors of gun violence and their families with appearances by the likes of Steph Curry, Joakim Noah, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Paul that was directed by legendary director and activist Spike Lee. At 2016 ESPY’s, Lebron James, along with Carmelo, Chris Paul, and Dwayne Wade gave an opening speech calling on athletes to take a stand for social justice and combating gun violence in the wake of murders of Philando Castillo, Alton Sterling, and 5 Dallas police officers. We need to take a giant step forward to show that we are behind the young people in Florida every step of the way. We can walkout of school on March 14, attend the March for Our Lives on March 24, walkout on April 20 (the anniversary of Columbine), register to vote, campaign for candidates that will advocate for us, and vote in November. This is the time for all of us to say once and for all #NeverAgain!

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