Derick Roberson can still remember when he saw his mother being beaten by his stepfather, and the Texas hospital where she stayed for several days afterward. He remembers another time when a boyfriend threatened to kill her, which caused her to jump out of a moving truck to save herself.
"It's amazing she survived," Roberson, who grew up in Houston, said. "She had a fractured skull and lost a lot of skin. I think her ear actually came off. I didn't recognize her."
Today, Roberson is married and the father of two teenage daughters. He's also the head football coach and athletic coordinator at Skyline High School in Dallas, one of the biggest football programs in Texas. His job isn't all "Friday Night Lights" charm, however. Part of his work centers on trying to ensure that players who carry domestic violence experiences with them, like he did, don't repeat the behavior.
"I knew it was wrong and it wasn't in my character," Roberson said. "But it's always been part of who I am."
Before the roughly 60 members of Skyline's varsity football team begin their season this fall, for the first time they were required to attend a two-hour workshop, or what Roberson is calling a "huddle," concerning domestic violence. The session took place on Monday, with a number of players acting as discussion leaders, in addition to domestic violence experts who joined the session to help. Roberson is one of the first high school football coaches to require his players to talk about the issue before they put on their jerseys and hit the field.
"It surprised me how open the players were," said Malik Webb, a 17-year-old senior at Skyline and a wide receiver on Roberson's team. "I didn't think anyone was going to participate, but more than enough people did."
Law enforcement, the NFL, the NCAA, teams and other governing organizations have been widely criticized for their handling of athlete abuse toward women. The leagues in particular, having long promoted aggression on the field, now struggle with how to police it when players are off of it.
While the domestic-violence arrest rates for the NFL are lower than the national average, those arrests make up a higher percentage of all violent crimes in the NFL, according to analysis by ESPN's FiveThirtyEight.com. All told, domestic violence accounts for 48 percent of arrests for violent crimes among NFL players, compared to an estimated 21 percent nationally. The NFL's relative arrest rate for domestic violence is 55.4 percent, according to the site—still lower than the national average but "extremely high relative to expectations."
Whether justified or not, football players, particularly adolescent ones, have not been heralded for their willingness to discuss issues of anger management, dating violence, or attitudes toward their romantic partners. Roberson hopes that's something that will change, particularly if coaches mandate it as part of on- and off-field culture.
Roberson said he seldom talked about his problems at home when he was a high school football player, nor in college at Texas Tech, where he graduated in 1994. Since then, he has coached high school football in Texas, and says that more than 100 of his students have gone on to play at the collegiate level, including Michael Morgan, a linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks.
"A lot of times, they don't want to say things in front of their peers," Roberson said. "But when I met with four of my captains, I was shocked by their responses and how candid they were. They weren't afraid to talk and share their experiences. The hope is that with them as leaders in the seminar, the rest of the team may be able to speak more freely about the topics. A lot of times, kids just don't want to talk about those things."
While the statistics are notoriously tricky to measure accurately, dating violence is a growing issue among high schoolers in the U.S. From 2013 to 2014, the National Domestic Violence Hotline saw a 53 percent increase in inquiries from females between the ages of 13 and 24 who identified themselves as victims of an abusive partner. That same period, the hotline received reports from male victims at its highest volume in the past five years.
With the increasing dollars and intensity of competition in professional and collegiate football trickling down to the high school game, so have many elements — power, aggression, intensity — of the culture of domestic violence, players, coaches, and experts said. The trend is particularly troubling considering that many of the ingredients that create physical and emotional abusers are planted during an athlete's younger, developmental years—along with, critics contend, outsized feelings of entitlement and power.
"There are these megastars who make millions who are in the news," Roberson said. "They show videos with Ray Rice in the elevator with his fiancee. Kids see that stuff. I think as a high school coach, you want to show that this is an issue. They're picking out their role models here."
The idea for this year's huddle came about, he said, when administrators at the school were approached by domestic violence advocates to educate players. Roberson, drawing on his own personal experience and willingness to talk to players about the issue, said that "it was easy to say yes" to carve out time during practice.
"A lot of people would say they don't have the time to deal with it," he said. "But I want to grow kids. What's wrong with taking a few hours in the first day of practice to do this?"
Historically, some domestic violence education campaigns have been deemed by critics to be too small of a step—that they're thinly veiled public relations attempts rather than meaningful attempts at delving into deeper issues facing younger athletes.
Results of these campaigns are inherently hard to measure, said Brian Pinero, the chief programs officer for the National Domestic Violence Hotline and one of the experts who attended the Skyline huddle. The program is meant to create a sense of trust between players and their coaches, and the hotline will continue to monitor its effects over the short and long term. Because the cost to the school was minimal and covered by the nonprofit, Pinero said, it was easy to get administrators on board. There are plans to expand the program to other schools.
"If you start with the best and they're willing to be vulnerable, it's a great target to start with," Pinero said of the Skyline football team. He added, "When the coach shared his story, the room stopped. If the coach was going there, the players knew they had to talk."
During the seminar, players asked general questions about dating, what to do if they heard about domestic violence but hadn't seen it themselves, and what to do if a woman becomes physically violent toward others. National Domestic Violence Hotline organizers brought videos in the event the discussion stalled, but found that they didn't need them.
"You need to establish relationships with the players," Roberson said. "Where they can open up to you and walk up to you as a coach with respect and admiration and listen to you when things get heated. The guys have to know you love them. And I want them to understand there's nothing wrong with a guy telling another that he loves him. He has his best interest at heart. They don't like to open up, especially a guy being asked about his feelings and he just thinks he's the big man on campus."
Parents, too, said they feel befuddled, particularly when navigating communication tools, like social media, that weren't around when they were students.
"Today, it's a bit different for these kids," Frank Webb, Malik's father, said. "I think this type of forum for these kids is a great thing for them. And the parents who might not realize what's going on in their heads."
Frank, who also played high school football, said that he's tried to talk to his son about the more publicized cases involving athletes, knowing that he sees many of them as role models.
"We talk about, 'What made Ray Rice make that decision?'" he said. "Did anyone ask what he was thinking? Why did he do that? I'm trying to instill in him how to make wise decisions."
Skyline began football practices this week. Roberson said that the workshop is only a small piece of what can be done to change the culture surrounding the hyper-aggression that often comes with the sport.
"My goal is to remind them that we don't hit women," he said. "We don't disrespect them emotionally or physically. Without them, we wouldn't be here. I want to reinforce the old school mentality of being a scholar and a gentleman. And we can win championships, too."
(To read more about youth sports visit here.)