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Ohio State LB Jerome Baker wants to change how athletes talk about sexual violence

Spurred by an incident in Steubenville, the Ohio native used his local celebrity as a highly touted recruit to talk to other athletes about sexual assault.

OSU Athletics

In Aug. 2013, an explosive rape case involving two football players from Steubenville High School in Ohio made national news, pushing football players from northeast Ohio to the fore of a national conversation about sexual assault.

In Cleveland, a two-hour drive from Steubenville, standout high school linebacker Jerome Baker was bothered by the way people in his home state began to look at football players as if they were all perpetrators.

"It really bothered me that I played Steubenville," he says. "When [the story] went national, I remember watching on TV and seeing the road that leads down to the stadium. I remember thinking, I rode down that road. I was in that town."

Baker also felt judged by strangers, just for being a high school player.

"You were looked at strangely," he said, describing how he felt as a football player. "People just looked at you as violent people. I really didn't like that whole outlook on us."

He wanted to do something about it, but didn't quite know what. And then a neighbor asked him for help moving a mattress, and it gave him an idea.

* * *

By the summer of 2014, the 6'1, 215 pound Baker was heading into his senior year at Benedictine High School in Cleveland. Ranked within the top 100 of the nation's recruits on every major service, he was being heavily recruited and had received offers from almost every top football program.

At Benedictine, a Roman Catholic all-boys school, Baker had limited-to-no resources when it came to sex education and sexual assault training. While a call to the school for this story went un-returned, the current student handbook, available online, has no mention of sexual assault education aside from general guidelines on punishment of student conduct violations. As is the case in every state, the variation in philosophies on the matter from religious institutions to private schools to the public school system meant that each player in Baker's area had wildly different access to sexual assault education.

Baker, still plagued by thoughts that he needed to somehow use his influence as an athlete and team leader to help change the perceived culture of high school football players, struggled with how to go about it.

While helping neighbor Tyrone White move some furniture, the two began talking. White, founder of an anti-sexual violence group called Whoaman, offered some advice.

"He said, 'People are going to follow you no matter what. If you're doing the right thing, they're going to follow you. If you're doing the wrong thing, they're going to follow you, too. It's just a matter of which one you want to do,'" remembers Baker. "That stuck with me."

The two came up with an idea to have high school football players across northeast Ohio take a public pledge to end violence against women and girls. They started with a list of the top 31 high school football players in the area, a group that was featured in an unrelated yearly series on Cleveland.com. Baker wanted all of the players to take the pledge in person together, so he began to make some phone calls. He hoped that using the biggest high school football stars in the state as ambassadors would send a strong message to the community that what happened in Steubenville was not representative of football players in general. The response from his peers was beyond what Baker could've imagined.

* * *

The desire to make change runs in Baker's family. His father, Jerome Sr., works two jobs -- the first at the YWCA as a counselor for fostered or homeless young adults, the second at a transitional housing facility for older men. He also started his own non-profit organization, Men of Central, to help encourage inner city men to be more present in their sons' lives. Baker grew up exposed to Men of Central, often tagging along with his father while he worked.

"My dad always told me, be better than what he was," Baker says. "I didn't realize it, but I basically have been trying to do that my whole life."

His family was supportive of his pledge idea, but made it clear that he had to find a balance between the pledge, his schoolwork, family and football practice. Baker made phone calls before his daylong summer practices and sent text messages at night. He used downtime in between voluntary workouts to explain his mission to football players at other schools and spent the social time that being a 17-year-old in summer afforded him to gain the support of his friends.

To make sure he fulfilled the promise he made to his parents to maintain life balance, he enlisted the help of St. Edwards wide receiver Alex Stump -- another top recruit -- to help reach out, and the two sent letters to every high school football program in the area they could.

"In the pledge we will promise to treat women and girls with respect and speak up if we witness or hear of assaults - to stand as a protector and speak out against perpetrators," the letter read. "Let's be the voice that prevents assaults like what happened two years ago involving members of Steubenville's football team. Let's use our status as athletes to encourage change and promote behavior that respects women and girls and does not bring harm to them."

Before long, Baker had gained the support of almost every top high school player in the area.

When it was time to follow through on all those calls, Baker got more than just the 31 players he'd initially targeted. On Aug. 23, 2014, a group of 50 male high school students met to take the pledge. While he originally targeted football players, Baker was surprised at the appearance of other athletes who had heard of the pledge by word of mouth.

The pledge was given by Judge Dick Ambrose, a former Cleveland Browns player and now a municipal court judge in Cleveland. The program also included a portion that allowed witnesses to the pledge to stand up and share their own sexual assault stories. Baker was shocked when a close family member stood up.

"I was surprised," he said of the moment he watched a cousin reveal her own story for the first time. "I had never thought of my own family going through situations like that. I was in awe like everyone else was. It was my own family and I didn't even know."

It was then that Baker realized what an impact he could have on the issue of violence against women and girls, and he knew he couldn't stop at just a pledge.

* * *

That fall, Baker began encouraging high school students to rally at their own schools for the cause. He enlisted the help of Alex Sumislawski, a kicker/punter from Avon High School, and Kevin Gramajo, a cross country runner at John Marshall High School in Cleveland. All three students met through White, whom they affectionately call Coach Ty, and worked with Whoaman to make bystander education the focus of their efforts.

Baker, who by then had committed to Ohio State, capitalized on his fame as a top recruit to get through to his peers.

"Everyone knew I was being heavily recruited, and would ask if they could work out with me, " Baker says. "I would say, ‘OK, but we're going to talk about this while we work out.'"

While in the gym, Baker would talk about sexual assault and consent, encouraging his gym mates to join the movement.

"You go into a locker room where a bunch of guys are making jokes, and as soon as someone says, ‘Hey man, that's not funny,' you're labeled as weak," he said.

The group used peer discussions to talk about the obstacles teenagers face when trying to do the right thing. The challenge, the boys say, is that intervening isn't always the popular move, and they recognize that their status as athletes might give them an advantage over other students. But Gramajo learned that it's not always easy to stand up to the crowd.

"There were some people talking about one girl with a reputation and about how they were going to see if the whole soccer team could sleep with her," Gramajo says of an incident at his school.

When he spoke up and told them that they were being inappropriate, he was pelted with gay slurs and told to shut up. His work with Whoaman has given him the strength to brush that off, but he knows that it's an uphill battle to spread that message.

"It seems there's a culture where males feel like it's uncool to stand up and say something," he says. "You go into a locker room where a bunch of guys are making jokes, and as soon as someone says, ‘Hey man, that's not funny,' you're labeled as weak."

That fear can sometimes transcend high school.

"It's not just at the high school level," Sumislawski says of perceived rape culture. "It's all throughout our culture, in music, in pop culture. Girls are calling each other bitches and hos as compliments. We've created a culture where that's OK. It's not."

Both Gramajo and Sumislawski had personal experience with intervening on behalf of friends.

"I was at a party and there was drinking," recalls Sumislawski. "As we were leaving, we saw three guys who were going into a room with a girl who was drunk and clearly not able to make a decision for herself. I intervened with my friends and we took her out and brought her to my friend's house and made sure she fell asleep safe. When she woke up she thanked us and said she knew what was happening, she just couldn't do anything about it."

Sumislawski knows that what he did would not be an easy choice for someone acting without backup, but the outspoken activist hopes that their program and its growing support will make a difference.

"This is going to give them more confidence and authority to step up and say something," Sumislawski says of the group's efforts to educate high school students on how to intervene. "They all know it's wrong; they just need the confidence to be able to speak up."

He says that it's not just kids, but also parents who need to be responsible for educating their children about sex. He worries that The Talk is becoming less common, and parents are leaving it up to social interactions and school to handle sex education.

"Guys need to know how to treat women, and not based on what everyone else is doing," he says, sounding wise beyond his 18 years. "What everyone else is doing could be the complete wrong thing, and you need to be the difference. You need to be the one doing the right thing."

* * *

On Aug. 8, more than 100 high school athletes from all over Ohio met to take the pledge that Baker started just one year earlier. He and White traveled to Washington, D.C., this spring to rally support for U.S. Senate Bill 355, known as the "Teach Safe Relationships Act of 2015."

Whoaman has already expanded its reach to other major college football programs. This month, representatives from the organization traveled to the University of Florida, Florida State and the University of Alabama to have those teams take the pledge. As is the case with the high schools Baker dealt with when he began his efforts, each college football program has a different way of approaching the subject of sexual assault with their players. Baker says he plans to continue his work with sexual assault and violence issues while at Ohio State, but head coach Urban Meyer has yet to agree to allow his players to take the pledge, despite Whoaman's offer. It is unknown why Meyer declined the pledge, or if he has plans for other sexual assault training for his players.

Baker had a chance to bring his efforts full circle this winter when Trent Mays and Ma'lik Richmond, both defendants in the Steubenville rape case, attended Whoaman meetings after finishing their sentences in juvenile detention. Unfortunately, neither returned to continue working with the organization.

Baker says it was disappointing, but knows that his efforts and the help of his friends are making a difference.

"It basically brought awareness that that one incident doesn't define us," he says. "It was a little piece to show that's not us. That's not what we do."