Fort McCoy News May 8, 2015

Speaker highlights need to change cultures, climates

Public Affairs Staff

Activist, educator, feminist, and former college football star Don McPherson highlighted ways to rethink society's perception of women, what it means to be a man, and the importance of healthy relationships as the guest speaker for Fort McCoy's observance of Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month April 21 in building 60.

In 1987, McPherson quarterbacked the Syracuse University football program to an undefeated season, set 22 school records, and won many national awards. He also played professional football in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles and Houston Oilers, as well as a few years in the Canadian Football League.

Don McPherson talks to those gathered for the Fort McCoy observance of Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month in building 60.

McPherson was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2008, and Syracuse University retired his No. 9 jersey in 2013. He's also supported numerous school- and community-based programs for more than 30 years.

"When I was a student-athlete, we were told we were role models, so I got (more) involved in social issues at that time," McPherson said. "That has grown to what I am doing today."

Early on, McPherson spoke to youth about drunken driving, alcohol and substance abuse, bullying, leadership, and mentoring. In 1995, his focus shifted more to the issue of men's violence against women. In all the subjects he's covered, he said the best thing to do is to start with a good conversation.

"I was talking to students who were too young to drink and too young to drive," McPherson said. "I realize now that what I was doing was using prevention language and scare tactics. … We used that prevention language and scare tactics because we were afraid of the (real) conversation."

McPherson said that when people have conversations about subjects no one wants to talk about, it can change the culture and climate in which people are immersed.

"We have to learn to have conversations about issues that we've all been raised not to talk about," McPherson said. "When we've been raised not to talk (about those issues), we don't see the things that could lead to problems before it's too late and something happens."

Such conversations, including those about violence and sexual assault, should oocur all the time and not just when something happens. "What moves us forward and makes us better at anything is spending quality time preparing to make good decisions, especially in the heat of the moment," McPherson said.

That conversation preparation also is important when addressing today's youth about relationships.

"When it comes to social issues, especially when talking about relationships and how to navigate relationships, we (as a society) don't really talk about it," McPherson said. "We don't talk about what a loving relationship is like. We don't talk about what a respectful relationship is like.

"Our kids are getting bombarded more and more about disrespectful relationships and sexual behavior," he said. "And we as an adult culture are not talking enough about that. We're asking kids to make good decisions around difficult issues with very little information. … We need to have those conversations, and it requires a little more courage (from parents)."

Changing historical thinking about violence and sexual assault takes everyone's involvement.

"Historically, (these issues) have been referred to as women's issues," McPherson said. "So my question to men is; what does this allow the men to do? (Men) will think this isn't their responsibility, and they just won't talk about it. And the reality is when we do talk to (men) about this, it's only when something bad happens."

McPherson said he understands there are many cases of violence and sexual assault by men against men, women against men, and women against women. But, overall, most cases involve men against women.

"The reality of all of these categories in violence against women is that they are actually men's issues," he said. "They are men's issues because 90 percent of violence committed against women is committed by men."

Curbing violence against women starts with the culture and the language used in society.

"In order for it to end, we as men have to confront sexism (and related issues) in every single place that it exists," McPherson said. "It has to be confronted in our language, our laws, our economy, and how we interact every day."

McPherson presented examples of violence and assault against women and others in the sports world from the past few years on college campuses that were highlighted by national media. One case focused on two former University of North Carolina students who were raped on campus. Their cases were ignored, which led to a campaign to file a Title IX complaint against the university. The two students won the case and later worked on creating a documentary called "The Hunting Ground."

"The film is out now, and it is going to shake up college campuses around those very issues," McPherson said.

McPherson also asked the dozens of members in the audience to define "what it means to be a man." He drew a square on a dry-erase board to represent the "box of masculinity." Inside the box, he wrote words provided by the audience, including "provider" and "protector."

Everything provided by the audience, he said, was the traditional way of defining about what it means to be a man. However, he noted, there really shouldn't be a definition.

"Being protectors and providers are just jobs when it comes to being a man," McPherson said. "Being a man means stepping outside 'the box' and expanding your possibilities. As a society, we need to allow men to be outside the box."

For the future, McPherson encouraged everyone to look at life differently. He asked everyone to redefine their traditional thinking about men and women and find ways to make issues such as violence and sexual assault things of the past.

"The conversation about culture and climate is only going to get more intense," he said. "We need to do more to foster change."

The event was sponsored by the Army Community Service Sexual Harassment/Assault Response & Prevention (SHARP) program. For more information about the Fort McCoy SHARP program, contact Jamie Cram at 608-388-8989 or by email at

For more information about McPherson, visit his website at