Maine athletes step up to stop domestic violence

Growing up in a small New Hampshire farming community, aspiring athlete Spencer Wood thought he had a head start and a blueprint for where he wanted to go. Through older connections, he had the opportunity to hang out with football players at a nearby college.

Not until several years later, when he was a lineman at the University of Maine, did he learn that one of the players he knew bullied and physically abused a woman. The knowledge sickened him and served as a spark that molded his life and engaged him in a way he never foresaw.

“I gave this guy so much credit,” Wood said. “I wanted to follow in his footsteps. When I found out what he had done, he was no one that I ever wanted to be like or even associate with. I wanted to be someone that people looked up to, not just because of my athletic ability, but because of how I conducted myself and the kind of person I was.”

As if fated, Wood had access to the perfect vehicle for the kind of work he wanted to do — the Maine-Orono campus’s Male Athletes Against Violence (MAAV) program. The program is comprised entirely of upperclass male Black Bears’ athletes whose mission is to challenge traditional roles of masculinity and to educate students and people that sexual abuse and violence against women is very much a man’s issue.

“It certainly breaks the stereotype,” said program director Sandra Caron, a professor of Family Relations and Human Sexuality. “If you only hear about an issue from one group, it can minimize the message. Giving men a voice in the discussion helps get the message out. It’s nice to have something to counter the stereotype of male athletes as being part of the problem.”

One in five college women will experience some form of sexual assault, according to a 2007 report commissioned by the National Institute of Justice — The Campus Sexual Assault Study. That same report estimated that only 13 percent of college rape victims reported the crime to campus or local law enforcement. Just two percent of the victims of what it called “incapacitated” sexual assault — where alcohol or drugs were used, voluntarily or involuntarily — reported it to authorities.

“We need men to step out and say, this is not right, this is not acceptable,” Caron said. “I wanted to create an environment where men can get involved and speak up and do something and not remain silent. Silence has been the problem for a long time.”

Caron, a Maine alumnus, began MAAV in 2004 as an offshoot of other peer education programs in which she’s been involved since 1989. She is inspired by the work of Jackson Katz and Tony Porter, men at the forefront of movements to end violence against women through education and changing behaviors.

Peer education, she believes, is a powerful tool. Having some of the most visible people on campus as advocates for change and mingling with classmates further increases the impact.

“The thing you really want them to do is to be at that party,” Caron said. “If a teammate has a certain attitude about women and expresses it, you want them at that party. I’m not, you’re not, but they are. They can not only interrupt a situation, but certainly say something and try to educate someone about attitudes and behaviors.”

Caron found supporters in football coach Jack Cosgrove, as well as other Black Bears’ coaches. MAAV typically has 10 men in the program each year. This year, there are nine, with reps from football, ice hockey, basketball, baseball and swim teams. Players are often recruited into the program by current members, who gauge their interest and commitment and pass along recommendations to Caron.

“Spencer heard me say something one time,” fifth-year senior football player Chase Hoyt said. “He sat me down and opened my eyes. He told me I didn’t have to settle things violently or by being angry. It caused me to question my attitude toward things. Spencer challenged me: the next time you hear somebody say something about a woman or something inappropriate, challenge them. The first time I did, it was empowering.”

Hoyt succeeded Wood as student coordinator of the program and Caron’s assistant. He is in his third year with the program. Wood, now 25, was in the program from 2011-15.

“I’m 6-3 and 270 pounds,” Wood said, “and I’ve never worried about getting home late at night or getting sexually assaulted or somebody putting something in my drink and taking advantage of me. Women deal with that all the time. But male athletes kind of have blinders on, just because of their upbringing. My job is to try to pull everybody out of that meathead phase.”

The group doesn’t limit its work to campus. Members go to local schools, where they read to kids and talk to them about respecting women and alternatives to violent behavior.

“I don’t see why a program like this isn’t on campuses all over the country,” Wood said. “It really molded my life into what it is now and what I hope for it to be.”

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Above: Spencer Wood leads the "Walk a Mile in Her Shoes" event in Maine in April 2015 to highlight violence prevention. (Courtesy Maine Male Athletes Against Violence)
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