University of Colorado wide receiver Derek McCoy carries the ball against San Diego State during a 2002 game in Boulder.

(AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

A former University of Colorado Boulder football star and NFL veteran is challenging boys and men to stand up to violence against women.

Derek McCoy tells Colorado Matters that domestic violence has been part of the culture of football "for a long time, and still is." He doesn't think everyone is able to make the switch between being violent on the field and respectful off of it, "which is where I see domestic violence and violence in general come from."

McCoy played wide receiver for the CU Buffs from 2001-2003, then spent a short time with several NFL teams. His appeal comes as players in the league have been suspended for incidents of domestic violence.

Through McCoy's True Man program, in partnership with the Denver Broncos, he talks with middle and high school boys about masculine culture and gender-based insults. McCoy will speak about this work on Sunday at the Dairy Arts Center in Boulder, as part of a series of events about rape culture and sexual assault.

Interview Highlights:

On the biggest problem he's trying to solve:

"I truly believe the scope of the problem is the way that we're socialized to view masculinity and then practice masculinity... I think it's true in all sectors for masculinity. When we hear the tech giants having these same issues and Hollywood having the same issues, the same issues exist in the military culture and the police culture... The same things I heard through childhood are the same things I heard at CU and the NFL. It's the typical stereotypical male conditioning."

On the challenge for football players to be violent on the field, but not off of it:

"There's some training happening in the NFL right now with actors and actresses and helping players to have sort of this processing of who they are on the field, versus off the field. So, for me... I'm not a violent guy. I could go on the field and perform this art of football at a high level and then come back off the field and come back to reality... The way I see it, football's not going away anytime soon, so if we train these guys to process and change who they are on the field and off the field, it's possible, because the majority of us are able to do that."

On why language is important to change the culture:

"If we're not aggressive towards females or demonstrating this strong attraction towards femininity, we get called 'gay', we, pardon my language, we get called 'a pussy' and these things are devaluing to femininity obviously. They feminize gay people and they really control our identity. And when we're taught to suppress our emotions, where do those emotions go? They get buried inside of us and they turn into anger, aggression, violence towards self and violence towards others."

On how to put the spotlight on athletes modeling good behavior:

"There's a tendency in this country to highlight the mass shooter and bring their name up and there's a tendency to bring up the domestically-abusive athlete and that gets brought to the surface a lot more than guys like Isaac Bruce [who I admire]... If we can make that a compelling headline, some way get creative, and start to embrace the positivity in our society, I think that would be something that could shift the way that we view each other and the way we view ourselves, because if folks realize that, you know, who I am is more like Isaac Bruce than Ray Rice and that's the majority of football players, then I think more football players would gravitate that way."

Full Transcript:

Ryan Warner: This is Colorado Matters from CPR News. I'm Ryan Warner. Let's start with a former CU football star, Derek McCoy who's challenging boys and men to prevent violence against women. He works with the Broncos on this and his appeal comes as several stars in the NFL have been suspended for incidents of domestic violence. McCoy will speak this weekend in Boulder, part of a series of events about rape culture and sexual assault and, Derek, welcome to the program. 

Derek McCoy: Thank you for having me, Ryan.

RW: In your work, you're really mindful of language used on the field or in locker rooms, language about women and gay people and the kinds of terms you encourage kids to avoid may come up in this conversation, so I want listeners to know that's a possibility.

DM: Absolutely.

RW: But when we talk about recent allegations or convictions for domestic violence and sexual assault, there are just too many players unfortunately to name them all. I think Ray Rice and Ezekiel Elliott are perhaps the two highest-profile. After you left CU in 2003, you played on several NFL teams and I want to know if you saw that kind of behavior or you knew that it happened amongst your teammates?

DM: It's something that I was aware of. I come from a home where my father was actually abusive towards my mom. So I know how common it is. Fortunately, though, I didn't witness this kind of behavior when I was in the NFL. I really didn't even witness too much language around devaluing femininity, but it goes deeper than that just into the character that people sort of develop along the way and the views that we socialize about females and those that we place in a lesser value in our society. They get internalized by people and how people behave beyond closed doors might not necessarily mirror how they behave in a locker room or out in public.

RW: So even though you didn't witness it firsthand, that doesn't mean you're suggesting at all that it's not an issue. What do you think the scope of the problem is?

DM: I truly believe the scope of the problem is the way that we're socialized to view masculinity and then practice masculinity.

RW: And do you think that that is even more true in a sport like football?

DM: Honestly, I think it's true in all sectors for masculinity. When we hear the tech giants having these same issues and Hollywood having the same issues, the same issues exist in the military culture and the police culture, as well, but it's been sort of a taboo topic and it's sort of like don't break bro code and talk about these things and really bring to light what we've kept kind of hidden for so many years.

RW: “Don't break bro code,” you say. 

DM: Mm-hmm.

RW: You have said in previous interviews that when you left football, you had angst towards the culture of the game. Can you tell me what that means, what that angst was?

DM: Well, the angst was sort of this whole win-it-all culture, but also this sort of you have to fit a certain mold in order to be a kind of guy that gets boosted up to the active roster in the NFL. I was good enough as a football player. There was no doubt about that, in my mind, and ask some veterans that I played with. But when it came down to it, I didn't necessarily fit the mold of the kind of guy that they might want to hire. Unfortunately, I'm probably more like Colin Kaepernick, who is a person that gets weeded out pretty efficiently when you don't fall in line and live up to this sort of stereotypical way of presenting yourself.

RW: And do you think that's about masculinity? Was that about masculinity for you? 

DM: To me, it was about I was, you know, as a young person, we always get preached team play and team first. That's the message in high school, that's the message in college, and then when I was on my path to the NFL, I remember my father telling me, D, you need to maybe be a little bit more selfish. And I was kinda like, well, that contradicts all of the paths that I've taken to success. I've been a team player and I've emphasized, you know, I play a role and when I got to the NFL, I realized, like, wow, I, I am less selfish than a lot of people that they would prefer on their rosters. 

RW: Interesting. Football is obviously a violent sport. Is it realistic to ask people to be violent on the field, you know, going all out for a few hours, then asking them to be completely non-violent off the field, sort of switching things?

DM: I was just talking with Alisha Sweeney in the meeting room over there before I came in here--

RW: She's another host here at Colorado Public Radio.

DM: Yeah, and kinda started this conversation and really, I really think it, we as athletes, are performance artists in a sense and we can, there's some training happening in the NFL right now with actors and actresses and helping players to have sort of this processing of who they are on the field, versus off the field. So, for me, it was like I could, I could go on the field and I'm not a violent guy. I could go on the field and perform this art of football at a high level and then come back off the field and come back to reality. So if that's something that we're trained in, because the way I see it, football's not going away anytime soon, so if we train these guys to process and change who they are on the field and off the field, it's possible, because the majority of us are able to do that.

RW: So the NFL is working with Hollywood, or with actors to achieve more of a differentiation between who someone is on the field and off the field. Do they do this with domestic violence in mind?

DM: They do. They actually do seminars where they do scenarios relating to off-the-field issues and domestic violence being one of them. Not every NFL market does this kind of work. Baltimore is one of the NFL markets that actually does this program. I'd love to see the work that the Broncos are doing with us at Project PAVE and what the Baltimore Ravens are doing, I'd love to see the other NFL markets adopt these initiatives. 

RW: Project PAVE is the organization that you are with now, educating kids to try to prevent domestic violence and we'll talk more about that work in just a little bit, but I'm really curious how you got into it? So you mentioned that your father was abusive. Was that an impetus? Or did it come later?

DM: That was an impetus. After I stopped playing football, pursuing professional football in 2006, roughly, I realized at that point I was good enough at football, but I was doing football because it was easiest for me. I was really hiding behind being a football player. So when I decided to stop playing, I had to confront something that I was afraid of, which was speaking in public. So I started substitute teaching in Mapleton Public Schools. I really liked it, coaching, as well. 

RW: These are the schools just north of Denver. I think these are schools you attended actually as a kid.

DM: Yes, sir, in Thornton, Thornton, Colorado. And as I was teaching, they asked me to do full-time over at Global Leadership Academy and this lady from Project PAVE named Eneri Rodriguez who is actual the associate director of Women's Studies at Metro State University now--

RW: And who does this work trying to prevent domestic violence. 

DM: Yes, sir. She came in representing Project PAVE and gave this one-week workshop for a group of eighth-grade boys I was working with and I was blown away. I was like, whoa, where was this when I was in high school?

RW: Blown away by what in particular?

DM: Well, it was addressing relationship violence, teen dating violence, talking about all the dynamics that play into that. It talked about gender stereotypes and how that plays a role in relationship violence and really just having a platform for young people to reflect and set standards and boundaries in their relationships. 

RW: When you heard her talk about gender violence and the language around it, did it transport you to some of what you heard in the NFL? And, frankly, at CU?

DM: Not necessarily anything I heard at, I mean, the same things I heard through childhood are the same things I heard at CU and the NFL. It's the typical stereotypical male conditioning. So, that to me, spans outside of sports and when I saw this, I was like, wow, this is something that I think everybody should be exposed to as a young person and then I wanted to get involved with Project PAVE. A job came opened and then a few years after working at Project PAVE, the Denver Broncos came to us on the heels of Ray Rice punching his now-wife on the elevator. And they said, you know what, we want to do something about this. Is there any type of programming you could collaborate with us on? And I raised my hand, I'm like, I'm an ex-football player, would love to work with your middle school football program, The Future is Football program. 

RW: There was a lot of criticism about how the NFL handled the Rice case, because his punishment was, I think, less than it would've been if he'd like worn the wrong socks with his uniform. So I wonder when the Broncos approached you, did you have some skepticism that they were really committed to this idea of working with young people to prevent violence against women?

DM: Absolutely. Initially, when we were in the first meeting with them, it was full skepticism and we basically said, we know that, how the NFL has handled these issues in the past, fortunately we have this technology now that you catch it on camera and you can't really deny that, but this has been something that's been happening in male culture for years and years and years. 

RW: The Rice incident was caught on camera in this elevator in Atlantic City. 

DM: Yeah, but most of the incidents in the past were not caught on camera, so they were able to brush those under the rug and the same thing in the police culture and the military culture. Not caught on camera, so, you know, the public doesn't really do much. So when the public has eyes on it, it's like, alright, we need to do something and we just wanted to make sure they weren't trying to check a box with us, that they wanted to do some ongoing work. So we started off, did one year with their Future is Football program, met with ten teams, five workshops each, so we wanted to go deeper than just a one-time, check-the-box workshop. So they invited us to do two more years and then after that, they've invited us now to do three more years starting this spring.

RW: So I'd like you to take us into what these trainings, these classes sound like. You're working with young athletes and you are trying to change the kind of macho culture that you say has created a really unhealthy environment in professional sports and beyond. What does that sound like? 

DM: So, really we start off by trying to, doing everything we can to create a safe space so that these young guys and their coaches will feel comfortable speaking up about uncomfortable topics.

RW: Like what?

DM: Like the way that we learn how to be masculine. There's a documentary called The Mask You Live In that's on Netflix and in that documentary, they have an activity where a gentleman takes some boys through a mask activity and it talks about how we're taught to show certain things to the world, how we're taught to express certain things and other things we're taught to keep to our self. So we do this mask activity with them and it really gives us a sharp reflection around what we're taught as guys to do and not to do.

RW: Give me an example of what guys are taught to do.

DM: So, for me, when it comes to relationship violence and sexual assault culture, what we're taught to do is to suppress our emotions, to feminize our emotions, to deny those emotions and then on the flip side, we're also taught to be aggressive towards females. If we're not aggressive towards females or demonstrating this strong attraction towards femininity, we get called “gay”, we, pardon my language, we get called “a pussy” and these things are devaluing to femininity obviously. They feminize gay people and they really control our identity. And when we're taught to suppress our emotions, where do those emotions go? They get buried inside of us and they turn into anger, aggression, violence towards self and violence towards others.

RW: You're saying that violence is a result of shoving down inside ourselves something that is authentic but that, among men, is not valued.

DM: Absolutely. I have conversations about how it's pretty stereotypical across the board, across the globe for us to strengthen our minds and to keep our bodies healthy by doing exercise and healthy dieting, but when it comes to emotions for guys, that's a part of our self that we're taught shouldn't be there, that's alien, and it is a part of ourselves that we can strengthen to become a whole and complete individual.

RW: How do young people react to this message and how do you know you're making a difference and not just getting a sort of nod in the room and then they go back to the dominant culture?

DM: So there is, you know, I'm not gonna have a full shift in the paradigm by doing these workshops, but there is deep engagement. We do activities. We really like to emphasize dialogue, so I'm not coming in there and just talking at these young people, I'm digging out their experiences and their perceptions.

RW: What have they said that surprised you?

DM: What they've-- I mean, I've had guys come up afterwards and say you don't realize what kind of impact you're having on us. When they give the feedback on the surveys, they say, I wish there was more sessions, it was nice to be able to talk about our emotions, and just being our truth self. It was refreshing to be our true self. So this is something that these young guys are really inclined and sort of like they're relieved when we start having these conversations. The challenge comes with coaches who are more ingrained in this stereotypical way of being masculine, but--

RW: Yeah, I wonder if they worry that, I don't know, boys might start to feel shamed or demonized or that, you know, masculinity is under attack.

DM: I wouldn't say that masculinity is under attack at all with this. It's really that we're trying to support masculinity, so that we don't kill ourselves, so that we don't beat our intimate partners, so that we're not doing mass shootings, so that we're learning how to be peaceful with ourselves and others in this world because ultimately, there's a way to do that. And the majority of the coaches who we work with, who these are high school coaches meeting with their future high school players, so they're middle-schoolers at the time, but the majority of the coaches are like, yeah, this makes sense and they start to adopt it. There's some coaches that are really old-school, you can't teach an old dog new tricks kinda thing, who give a lot of pushback, but those are the minority of coaches. 

RW: You're listening to Colorado Matters. I'm Ryan Warner and my guest is Derek McCoy. He played wide receiver for CU, then was on several NFL teams, and now he's part of Project PAVE, which educates kids, many of them young athletes, to prevent domestic violence. And he does this work in part with the Denver Broncos. It's likely, statistically, that very few of the young people you are educating will reach the NFL. How do you bring the change that you're seeking to the league, do you think?

DM: It starts off by demonstrating that it's effective at these levels. And then as more traction is gained, I hope to move up the ladder --

RW: You want to do these workshops with grown adults playing--

DM: Absolutely. I mean, I hadn't-- when I left the NFL, I hadn't had these kind of workshops and I was still kind of stuck in this sort of idea that I was just a football player and didn't really know how to embrace my whole self. So it's been a process for me and I'm still growing. I still have a lot of work to do myself. 

RW: We've been talking a lot about how this culture builds in the NFL but it also happens in college. When you were at CU, in fact, there was a recruiting scandal. The school eventually settled with two female students who said they were raped by football recruits and a female player, Katie Hnida, said she was raped by a teammate. You were at the school around that time--

DM: No, I was, Katie Hnida is one of my teammates, so I actually know Katie. 

RW: And so you were well-aware of what was going on at that point?

DM: I wouldn't say I was well-aware of what was going on. Outside of the practices and games that we were a part of, I didn't know what Katie, I didn't hang out with Katie in a personal capacity. She was a nice, young lady, a good teammate. I do think that Gary Barnett, the head coach at the time, got thrown under the bus for false reasons at the time. He was basically shamed for answering a question I think a little bit too passionately on ESPN and they asked her-- asked him, you know, how was she as a kicker in the midst of all this sexual assault allegations, and he said, she was a terrible kicker. She wasn't a great kicker, but she was a great person. And he got fired basically for the comments he made about her kicking. Gary Barnett was actually the kind of coach that he didn't, he asked that no hazing took place. He talked about the percentage of players on the team that were likely to be gay and really was a humanizing kind of coach. I took a lot of what I do as a professional from Gary Barnett and I think he did a phenomenal job while he was there.

RW: And yet, there were problems, deep-seated problems at the time. 

DM: That I think go beyond any one individual. 

RW: Just recently, there was another incident, a former CU assistant football coach was accused of domestic violence and the head coach, athletic director, and administrator were punished for how they handled that situation.

DM: Yeah.

RW: From your perspective, do you think that, more recently, that was a sign of progress or proof that not enough has changed?

DM: I think that it's proof that not enough has changed, that these kind of initiatives that we're doing with Project PAVE need to happen at all levels and to me, it's quite similar to the Jerry Sandusky case at Penn State where people realized, oh, this is happening, okay, we don't want our university to be known for this, so, as opposed to doing what's right in the moment, they try and, you know, go through different channels and maybe they don't go to the direct channel they should right away and they end up looking like they're trying to hide these issues.

RW: I keep thinking about how college football and NFL players so often become icons. You know, people wear their jerseys, see them in commercials. The culture of tough masculinity is so ingrained. How can you see to it that the good players are looked up to, the ones that model good behavior, I suppose, and to chip away against that culture of extreme masculinity?

DM: Well, I think it does start with media, in general. There's a tendency in this country to highlight the mass shooter and bring their name up and there's a tendency to bring up the domestically-abusive athlete and highlight them and that gets brought to the surface a lot more than guys like Isaac Bruce who I was with in St. Louis who, when I was struggling, because I wasn't getting any reps in St. Louis at the time, I came and I sat with them. And he said, hey, what's up, real McCoy? And I shrugged and put my head down and I was like, I used to be real McCoy and he looked me in the eye and made sure I caught eye contact and he said, “You'll always be real McCoy.” And that man, in that instant, was that light that I needed to say, hey, there's more to you than just football and these are the kind of men that I got exposed through and continue to get exposed through in football and that's the majority, not the minority. So if we can highlight the sort of positive social norms.

RW: Yeah, I don't, I'm not sure how you would do that, right? A good guy does something good is not always a compelling headline.

DM: It's not, but if we can, if we can make that a compelling headline, some way get creative, and start to embrace the positivity in our society, I think that would be something that could shift the way that we view each other and the way we view ourselves, because if folks realize that, you know, who I am is more like Isaac Bruce than Ray Rice and that's the majority of football players, then I think more football players would gravitate that way. 

RW: Isaac Bruce, the former wide receiver. Thank you for being with us. 

DM: Thank you.

RW: That's Derek McCoy. He played wide receiver for CU, then was on several NFL teams, and he'll talk Sunday about gender-based violence. It's part of a series at the Dairy Art Center in Boulder. It's running alongside a play about sexual violence. Pesha Rudnick is artistic director at Local Theater Company, which is putting it on.

Pesha Rudnick: Our production uses humor to explore this issue. It's a really funny play and people constantly give me a strange look on their face when I say, yeah, we're doing a comedy about assault and assault culture. But our playwright is so skillful at using humor so that we can see ourselves in the normalization of rape culture and ultimately change ourselves. 

RW: This play is called Rape of the Sabine Women, who are part of a tribe abducted during the founding of the Roman Empire, but it's set in modern times. 

PR: Our play takes place in a contemporary high school with seventeen-year-olds, you know, studying art history and discovering how deep our history and how deep the culture of assault kind of runs in our civilization. 

RW: Rudnick says since the play opened a couple of weeks ago, she's been approached by people in the audience telling her they're part of the statistics of sexual assault.

PR: It's just been a revealing experience for us to realize that, you know, when we're in an audience of a hundred people and one in six has been raped, we are among both perpetrators and victims of assault constantly. 

RW: The Rape of the Sabine Women by Grace B. Matthias runs through November 19th at the Dairy Art Center in Boulder. This is Colorado Matters from CPR News.