They're footballers. Fraternity men. Big, burly guys like ex-quarterback Don McPherson, who's hoping to lead a new generation of men into a violence-free end zone.
Several New York Dragons football players limp into the room with what Don McPherson calls the midseason walk, meaning they have weeks of scrapes and bruises that haven't yet had a chance to heal. They reach out to shake Don's hand and the contrast is dramatic. The Dragons—members of a professional arena (indoor) football team—have their injuries, their baggy clothes, and their faint hopes for a future in the National Football League, while the 37-year-old Don has already had his dash in the NFL, his injuries have long since healed, and his crisp khaki pants, lapis-blue shirt, and easy smile make him look like a corporate executive on retreat. Still, Don will be mining the similarities between himself and these men in his presentation—not just their shared experience in football but also their shared history as men in a country where sexual violence runs rampant. A country in which, experts estimate, a woman is battered by a man—usually an intimate partner—every 15 seconds, raped every two minutes, and murdered by a spouse or boyfriend every six hours.
"Let's look at the semantics of sexism," Don begins, writing on a whiteboard. The Dragons lean forward intently, as if he's a coach outlining strategy for an upcoming game. Then he stands back and reads these words aloud.
Jack beats Jill.
Jill was beaten by Jack.
Jill was beaten.
Jill is a battered woman.
"What's happened here?" Don asks, pointing his marker at the last line. After a few seconds, one of the players speaks up. "Jack's missing?" Don nods. "Jack is out of the picture and Jill is stigmatized. That shows that even our language about sexual violence blames women for the things that men do."
The Dragons pay rapt attention for the next two hours, not only because this is a startling concept but because Don cuts a heroic figure. As a quarterback at Syracuse University, he was first in the NCAA in passing and led Syracuse to an undefeated season in 1987. He won more than 18 national collegiate-player-of-the-year honors, then played for the Philadelphia Eagles and Houston Oilers before retiring in 1994.