Mentoring Manhood

The Willamette men’s basketball team nurtures a culture of healthy masculinity, a commitment that is making a difference in the locker room and beyond

 

As a sociology professor who specializes in the study of gender and sexuality, Jade Aguilar knew what sort of students she could expect to see in her classes.

Women, mostly. Or nonbinary students — individuals who don’t fit neatly into the categories of male or female and sought out her class as a chance to explore complex gender issues.

“Or even if I do get men to take the class, there is a reluctance to engage,” says Aguilar, a professor at Willamette in Salem, Oregon. “There’s a fear of saying the wrong thing and a discomfort around feeling that things are all your fault.

So a few years ago, when she was teaching Sociology 121: Gender in Society, she was intrigued by a couple of men who not only enrolled in the course but also brought a willingness to talk about their perspectives and listen to others. And when Aguilar shared with her class the documentary “Tough Guise: Violence, Media and the Crisis in Masculinity,” which argues that depictions of men in media and popular culture encourage male violent and aggressive behavior, the men in her class surprised her again.

“Oh, yeah, we saw that already,” they told Aguilar. “Our coach showed it to us.”

Their coach? The men’s basketball coach, Aguilar learned, was devoted to nurturing a culture of healthy masculinity on his team — and making a difference in how his players grew not only as athletes, but also as human beings. “Having that exposure through their team in a safe, male-centered way made them more willing to engage in these conversations,” Aguilar says.

Soon, in pockets throughout campus, Aguilar wasn’t the only one noticing: Something is happening on the Willamette men’s basketball team.

 
 

The prevalence of sexual violence on college campuses is well-documented. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1 in 5 women will experience sexual assault while in college, an environment where new surroundings and freedoms, access to drugs and alcohol, and social pressures can combine to put college students, particularly women, at risk.

Efforts to prevent sexual violence on college campuses are widespread, from guest speakers and curriculum presented by on-campus prevention specialists to flyers around campus that remind students about sexual consent and how to call for help.

Yet while colleges and universities have been awakened to the urgent need to prevent sexual violence on campus, less widespread are efforts to reverse the cultural norms that contribute to it. Advocates for healthy masculinity say immersive, meaningful, culture-shifting education — the type of training that invites men to embrace aspects of their emotional framework they might have considered off-limits as a man — can adjust paradigms and breed healthy attitudes and relationships.

“Most men don’t live up to — all men don’t live up to — what masculinity dictates: that we be tough and strong and impervious to pain and have lots of sex and be emotionally detached from intimate relationships,” says Don McPherson, an advocate for healthy masculinity. McPherson, a former All-America quarterback at Syracuse who went on to play in the NFL and was later director of the Mentors in Violence Prevention program at Northeastern’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society, recently published a book, “You Throw Like a Girl: The Blind Spot of Masculinity.” It examines how the traditionally narrow definition of masculinity impacts women.

“We need to teach our boys to use the full array of humanity — be loving, caring, sensitive,” McPherson continues. “If you’re not taught to use them, you’ll ignore them.”

These are the types of lessons Willamette men’s basketball coach Kip Ioane has worked for more than six years to bring to his team. His program, called Teams of Men, immerses the men in thoughtful discussions about how they interact with women and one another, and it has sprouted tentacles that are influencing the culture within Willamette athletics, elsewhere on campus and even across the country.

It also has convinced campus sexual violence prevention advocates that athletics can be an ideal incubator for meaningful conversations about healthy masculinity.

“Coaches are in a unique position to act as both role models and authority figures who can offer accountability to their students,” says Andrea Hugmeyer, director of the Willamette Gender Resource and Advocacy Center. “They have the ability to convey a value system and adapt their leadership in meaningful ways — not just in their sport, but on campus.

“The duration of a relationship between a student-athlete and a coach,” Hugmeyer continues, “really lends itself to athletics being able to leverage that power for good.”

“We need to teach our boys to use the full array of humanity — be-loving, caring, sensitive. If you're not taught to use them, you'll ignore them.”
Don McPherson | Author and former NFL player
 
 

Nearly seven years ago, in May 2013, the Willamette community was jarred when comments posted on a campus fraternity’s Facebook page were made public, revealing the crude and misogynistic language the fraternity members used with one another in private online discussions.

One comment suggested a female university administrator should be kicked in the genitalia for her questions about initiation week activities. Another said “woman’s rights are the biggest joke in the US.”

Within days, the university suspended Willamette’s Sigma Chi chapter and announced plans to form a sexual assault task force to review and assess how the university responds to reports of sexual violence. In the weeks afterward, as students railed against the fraternity’s sexually explicit and derogatory language and what it implied about overall campus attitudes toward women, the men’s basketball coach was troubled.

Ioane, a former Bearcat men’s basketball player himself, had been head coach of the team for four years at that point and was on the coaching staff for eight before taking the helm. No basketball players were involved in the Sigma Chi incident, but it was a wakeup call for Ioane.

“What kept me up at night was I hadn’t really done anything to prevent it from being my guys,” Ioane says. “It really was just like the luck of the draw, the flip of the coin, that it wasn’t my players.”

His mother was a principal at a Montessori school; his father, a teacher and coach. He had grown up with the idea that his career should impact lives. “I had always been raised that there’s a bigger purpose of the job,” Ioane says. “I told myself, ‘You’re not doing that bigger purpose. Film and practice help, but you’ve done nothing to fulfill this promise to the recruits that you’re building men.’”

Carli Rohner first met Ioane at about that time. Rohner, now the campus advocate coordinator for the Oregon attorney general’s Sexual Assault Task Force, then worked in residential life at Willamette on programs to reduce sexual and relationship violence on campus. She recalls being impressed by how Ioane approached her with humility and turned to her as an expert who could give him guidance.

“He has this interest in always learning. He thinks, ‘We don’t have all the answers. Let’s find them,’” Rohner says.

Ioane’s vision for Teams of Men was clear long before the mechanics were in place. “I want it to be meaningful to the men on the team,” Ioane told Rohner, “and I want it to grow throughout the years.”

Rohner believed Ioane wanted to implement a program that could build a unique and meaningful culture for his players and impact them well beyond their playing years.

“It’s a characteristic that is true of a lot of coaches,” Rohner says. “They know what they want to do, and so they create a game plan, and they get going. And that’s what he did.”

 
 
“I had always been raised that there’s a bigger purpose of the job. I told myself, ‘You’re not doing that bigger purpose. Film and practice help, but you’ve done nothing to fulfill this promise to the recruits that you’re building men”
Kip Ioane | Willamette men’s basketball coach
 
 
“If you understand masculinity as a way in which you can’t show emotion or you can’t cry or you can’t hug your friend who’s going through something, that actually means you’re going to lead a more isolated life.”
Jade Aguilar | Willamette vice president of equity, diversity and inclusion

This fall on a Thursday afternoon in November — one hour before practice and two days before hosting cross-town opponent Corban — members of the Willamette men’s basketball team took seats in a classroom in the athletics building.

On the screen before them was an image of a tearful Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers, crying after a loss to the Raptors in the second round of the 2019 NBA playoffs. The Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns had posted the photo after the two sparred during the 76ers’ Oct. 30 win over the Timberwolves, along with the caption: “All Bark & No Bite.”

The NBA players had continued their skirmish on Twitter. “I ain’t no b----. Raised around lions,” Towns tweeted. Embiid shot back: “That tough guy act ain’t cutting it …. you know what you are.. you know what you’ve always been >>> A P----.”

Ioane pointed to the screen. “Why is this up here?” he asked.

These two men, the players pointed out, are marquee players in the NBA and, by extension, revered by young men around the country. Yet when their on-court fight turned into a Twitter war of words, their exchanges weren’t just profane. From the outset, they attacked each other’s masculinity.

“They reverted to language associated with femininity as a negative thing,” Ioane said. “Yes, you have to be resilient. But that’s not just a male thing. Women have to be just as resilient as men, if not more so.”

Ioane’s Teams of Men program is constantly evolving, and this Twitter snapshot, from a moment in pop culture that occurred less than two weeks before Ioane used it, is an example of why he keeps updating it. His plan is to constantly freshen the content to keep it current and more meaningful for the young men on his teams.

Beyond the regular refinements, the program has a few constants: Throughout the year, the team has 15 to 20 “touch points,” as Ioane calls them — guest speakers, documentary viewings or less formal get-togethers like this one, where they talk about an article they read and discuss current pop culture flashpoints that deal with perceptions of masculinity.

Because the program is embedded into the four-year experience on the basketball team, Ioane has built it to look different for freshmen than it does for sophomores, juniors and seniors. Each year begins with a survey of current attitudes on toughness and masculinity. Freshmen are immersed in readings Ioane expects all players to be familiar with, while sophomores focus their experience on the types of campus resources available on preventing sexual and relationship violence. Juniors become more involved in community outreach and awareness.

And each senior ends his college playing years with a capstone project that includes a presentation about how to build a healthy masculine identity. It is often delivered to a young group of athletes, such as students from the team member’s former high school.

Willamette men’s basketball teammates also sign the Set the Expectation pledge, launched two years ago by sexual violence prevention advocate and rape survivor Brenda Tracy and aimed at male college and high school athletes. It clarifies that participating as a student-athlete is a privilege, not a right, and includes this statement: “I understand that harmful behavior such as rape, sexual assault, physical violence, domestic/dating violence, stalking, bullying, hazing, and taking or sharing photos and videos of a sexually explicit/violent nature is NEVER okay and will not be tolerated.”

At the beginning of each season, players sign the pledge, formally stating they understand that if they are accused of committing an act of violence, they will lose their spot on the team. Ioane has had to follow through with that consequence one time for an accused player, and he remains committed to the standard it creates for his team.

Data suggests false accusations of sexual assault are rare — anywhere from 2% to 8% of all allegations.

“Nobody practices for that moment when your player comes and tell you, ‘Coach, I’ve been accused of sexual assault,’” Ioane says. “But they know — as soon as you’re accused, you’re gone.

“I’m a coach. I play the numbers,” Ioane says. “And if the numbers say that 95.5% of these accusations are true, that’s what we do. It isn’t like my player is going to be immediately thrown in prison. He isn’t playing basketball, and playing basketball is a privilege. I’m willing to wear the 5% of the time when I’m maybe wrong.

Holding up his team as an example for the campus places them in a challenging spot, Ioane acknowledges. But it also clarifies his expectations for them, as a team and as men.

“I can’t promise it’s a bulletproof effect,” Ioane says. “But I can sleep because I know I did everything possible to inform their decisions.”

 
 

Already, the impact of Teams of Men is being felt beyond Willamette men’s basketball. Ioane and Jordan Jenkins, a graduate student and forward on the team, presented at the 2019 NCAA Inclusion Forum in April. Several athletics administrators approached them with questions, hoping to duplicate their success.

Hugmeyer, of Willamette’s Gender Resource and Advocacy Center, says she sees the ideals beginning to spread elsewhere on campus.

“There are players on Kip’s teams that are involved in fraternities on campus, and some of the upperclassmen are in leadership positions in their fraternity,” Hugmeyer says. “I hear from them, ‘Hey, you’ve come and talked to our team about this. Could you talk to our fraternity?’”

Aguilar, the sociology professor who first learned about Teams of Men when some basketball players took her class, is now the Willamette vice president of equity, diversity and inclusion. Her position was created after the university studied how it responds to reports of sexual violence.

She appreciates how Teams of Men and programs like it give men permission to embrace a part of themselves they can feel pressured to repress.

“There’s this growth area where the men themselves change and develop in a positive way for their lives,” Aguilar says. “If you understand masculinity as a way in which you can’t show emotion or you can’t cry or you can’t hug your friend who’s going through something, that actually means you’re going to lead a more isolated life.”

 
 

Yet changing a culture isn’t as simple as establishing rules and providing training. The process requires organic growth and buy-in from all involved.

Just ask Isaac Parker, who recently wrapped up his first year as Willamette’s football coach.

Parker and Ioane attended Willamette at the same time, and Parker, too, was a student-athlete, playing football for the Bearcats. Last year, when Parker began considering what kind of team he would build, he consulted with Ioane.

“Football players have a lot of stereotypes, in terms of how they’ve acted and behaved and treated women,” Parker says. “I want us to be refreshingly different than the stereotype, and I also want our students-athletes to realize that college and football shouldn’t be the pinnacle of your life. I want my players to take what they can from this experience and have every season of life be the best season.”

The team’s first indication that Parker had a new culture in mind arrived in the spring, when the coach adjusted the practice schedule so his team could attend a Sexual Assault Awareness and Action Month event. “You could tell that was culture shock for the team,” Parker says. “Some players would flinch when you talk about bystander awareness and rape. They get uncomfortable.”

The team was resistant and a little surprised. And they had a question for Parker: Was this an initiative the university was directing him to do, or was it his choice? “I told them it was something I wanted to do for our team,” Parker says, “and they got behind it.”

In October, the football players wore purple ribbon stickers on their helmets to recognize victims of domestic and sexual violence. Like the men’s basketball team, they also signed the Set the Expectation pledge.

Parker sees the pledge, in particular, as an ideal way to have an important conversation about the standard a coach wants to establish. “Don’t live near the line, much less cross that line,” Parker says. “That’s where I want my players to live anyway. Let’s be mindful and thoughtful about how you’re living in your community.”

As Parker introduced the concept of healthy masculinity on his team this year, he had one key advocate: Jenkins. The wide receiver had spent four years on the men’s basketball roster, but as he wrapped up the second year of his master’s degree in business administration, he turned his attention to football, a sport he hadn’t played since high school.

At his first college football practice, though, Jenkins realized how Teams of Men had immersed his basketball team in a unique culture. Football practice was, in a word, quiet.

In basketball, Ioane had mandated interaction, encouraging words, greetings. Jenkins spent the first few minutes of football practice high-fiving teammates — and then realized he was the only one doing it.

“You guys don’t really high-five each other, do you?” Jenkins asked.

Not really, the teammate replied.

These interactions — a human contact with a high-five or a slap on the back, an informal greeting — can be difficult for men who haven’t been given permission to have them, Ioane says.

“It’s about being vulnerable with each other,” he says. “Sometimes it feels awkward to be excited. They want to be stoic. You’ve got to fit in the man box.”

Jenkins recalls talking to the men’s basketball team on his campus visit and getting the sense that the team had embraced what Teams of Men taught them.

“I was going down the bench, having conversations and learning the pillars of what the basketball program was about,” Jenkins says. “They lived what the coach was preaching. It wasn’t just talk. It was a living, breathing thing that they were totally immersed in.”

Immersing a roster the size of football’s in a team culture at odds with how the sport is treated

in society will be challenging, but Parker says he and his team are just getting started.

“What we did this year was a baby step that’s going to continue to grow,” Parker says. “Kip’s got multiple years of a program, and for us we just wanted to make sure we did something to identify that this is important. We can grow it from there.”

“Football players have a lot of stereotypes, in terms of how they’ve acted and behaved and treated women. I want us to be refreshingly different than the stereotype. ... I want my players to take what they can from this experience and have every season of life be the best season.”
Isaac Parker | Willamette football coach
 
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