Pro Football Already Plays a Key Role in Domestic Violence Prevention

09/16/2014 08:58 am ET Updated Nov 16, 2014

For evidence of the kind of impact the National Football League (NFL) could have if it turned its considerable cultural power and resources toward the prevention of domestic and sexual violence, one need look no further than the experience of our neighbors to the north.

A growing number of teams in the Canadian Football League are already out doing the work.

For the past four years the Ending Violence Association of British Columbia (EVA BC), a well-respected women's organization, has been partnering with the B.C. Lions of the CFL, and the U.S.-based Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) program on a multi-tiered campaign entitled "Be More Than a Bystander." (BMTAB)

The BMTAB campaign is perhaps the most high-profile example of the "bystander approach" to prevention that MVP introduced to the domestic violence and sexual assault fields in the early 1990s. This now widely popular prevention strategy moves beyond a fixation on perpetrators and victims, and focuses on the role that everyone in a given peer culture can play in preventing incidents of harassment, abuse or violence.

The public service component of the campaign consists of TV, radio, billboard and social media spots that feature BC Lions players speaking directly to the camera and delivering an unequivocal message: men need to step up when they see their friends or teammates treating women -- or anyone -- with disrespect.

EVA BC reports that the messaging campaign has garnered over 100 million views in the past four years, an astounding number in a province of 4.6 million people. EVA BC Executive Director Tracy Porteous describes Be More Than A Bystander as "the most successful public awareness, crime prevention program I have ever seen in Canada."

In addition, a number of BC Lions players who went through a special MVP training have been delivering educational programs to high school students in large, all-school assemblies for the past three years. At the beginning of these events, the players introduce themselves and tell the students why they've decided to speak out about gender violence. Sometimes they share stories about abuse they or people close to them suffered or witnessed as children, adolescents or adults.

The players show a brief video that highlights some of the Lions' on-field exploits. The presentation then turns to their core message, which is that everyone -- men and women, boys and girls -- needs to work together to prevent abusive behavior, and promote healthy and respectful relationships.

It's a message that's meant for all the students, but it's especially aimed at the boys. It doesn't hurt that it's delivered by popular, successful men of racially diverse backgrounds who make it clear that it's a measure of a young man's strength, not his weakness, when he takes a stand in his peer culture and his school against sexism and the mistreatment of women.

To date, the Lions players have spoken to more than 45,000 students in these assemblies throughout BC, including First Nations communities in the northern part of the province.

The participation of the BC Lions in this initiative sends a powerful message to Lions fans - as well as to the team's current and future players, coaches and front office staff -- about the kind of leadership the team values on and off the field. Furthermore, by partnering with a prominent, multiracial women's organization that represents 240 domestic and sexual violence response programs throughout the province, the Lions also send the strong message that men can work with women as allies in the long-term struggle to reduce and end the violence that causes so much pain and suffering in families and in society as a whole.

As Porteous says, "There is immense power in men and women working together; I am astounded by the reach and access the BC Lions have with the kids, the public and influential people. I am happy to say that the Lions have shared this access with us. On our own we could never reach the demographic the Lions are reaching with our joint message."

Porteous says that as a result of the program, other corporations and sectors have stepped up. "Business, labor, municipal governments, other sports teams and universities, to name a few, have come forward, wanting to help, seeing that it is their role to become part of the solution." Furthermore, she adds, it's a win/win situation. "We get help delivering this important message, and these other entities get to be associated with both the celebrity of the BC Lions and an immensely popular program that brings them good will...and helps them to reach a much larger female demographic."

If the NFL or its member teams truly want to have this type of impact, they can easily do so. They don't have to reinvent the wheel. They can implement MVP training or those of other prevention education programs. They can adapt existing models of public engagement like Be More Than a Bystander, which has already spread to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, the Edmonton Eskimos and Calgary Stampeders of the CFL.

The time is right and the need is great. The NFL simply has to follow through on its stated commitment to "get it right" on this critical issue and use its unparalleled platform to do so.