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Can honest dialogue and a college game help police and community overcome fears and distrust?

Law enforcement and community members in Columbus, Ohio, discuss issues that divide them before attending an Ohio State basketball game together. Jaron Murphy photo

Like many Americans, Sean Sheppard was distraught as he watched, again and yet again, videos circulating on news and social media of violent altercations between law enforcement officers and African-American men. Each death was followed by interviews with celebrities and politicians throwing up their hands, debating how they could have been prevented. “What do you mean, ‘I don’t know’?” a frustrated Sheppard would gasp.

But Sheppard had an idea. A former football player and track and field athlete at Georgetown who holds two degrees in psychology, Sheppard understood sports held a power to bring people together and influence social change. He started a program through his nonprofit organization, Embrace, which Sheppard formed to bring communities together to engage and solve problems. Called Game Changer, the program extends Embrace’s mission by bringing law enforcement officers and young black men together through sports to participate in the kind of sensitive dialogue Sheppard feels can start making a difference.

Most events have brought law enforcement members from the local San Diego area together with community members on the region’s college campuses. The goal: Change behavior first by changing perceptions, which can then change the outcome.

That perception shift starts with honest dialogue. Each Game Changer session begins with open discussions about the problems — of racial profiling, officers’ use of force, and the fears and distrust from both sides. Once their disputes are exposed, they break into groups to discuss solutions. The dialogue’s honesty can be brutal. There are often tears — of a son’s death in a police shooting; of an officer’s counseling visits because of his job’s mental burden. The discussions have been cathartic, Sheppard says, and therapeutic.

The group then heads to a college game together — sometimes to continue their discussion, and sometimes just to relax. Sheppard believes the game environment is what makes the program work. “Is there a better place for this type of discourse than a college campus?” Sheppard asks.

It’s where young people learn and develop the views that shape their future. It’s also where they’ve protested the very issues Game Changer addresses. “This gives them an opportunity to get involved beyond the protests,” Sheppard says.

Sheppard has run 34 Game Changer events in the last year, mostly in San Diego, with the help of grants from local law enforcement agencies. But it’s quickly growing, expanding throughout the Southern California region and even to an event at Ohio State. At each stop, the goal stays constant: Help each side realize they want the same thing. “To see that lightbulb go on,” Sheppard says, “is a beautiful thing to watch.”

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Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.

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