CARBONDALE, Ill. — Sports radio personality Rachel Baribeau — feet constantly moving — jokes, cajoles, cries, laughs and rants in front of 100 football players at least twice her size.
Find your purpose! Fulfill it. Be the good guys you were made to be! Treat all women with respect and be the kings your queens need you to be.
Baribeau suddenly stops, pauses and locks eyes with some of the men who are riveted by the powerhouse in front of them.
“On a night, many moons ago,” she said, voice softening, “I needed a king.”
Baribeau tells the players she was in a house with six couples; things got ugly.
“I was dating somebody,” Baribeau said, and he got angry.
“He dragged me from one end of the house to the other by my hair. I screamed bloody murder and no one came to help. Three men, and none of them were kings.”
“If you were in the house that night, would you have helped me?”
Baribeau lets that sink in. After a few seconds, two guys in the front rows answer quietly: “I would’ve helped you.”
“Thank you,” she says, tears in her eyes.
Two years ago — sickened by story after story about college athletes and rape, cheating and doping — Baribeau came up with an audacious plan:
She would change the narrative about college sports.
A narrative that includes a 2016 lawsuit charging a UT basketball player and four UT football players with rape; a narrative that includes three former Vanderbilt football players being convicted in a 2013 gang rape of an unconscious female student on campus. (A fourth player is awaiting trial.)
Baribeau, 38, a Nashvillian for three years, wanted to take back the headlines and change America’s perception of college football players. And she would do it by challenging those players, one campus at a time.
A host on Sirius XM’s ESPNU radio channel, Baribeau has spoken to 23 college football teams. She has stayed in touch with hundreds of athletes and handed out thousands of “Change the Narrative” rubber wristbands.
In many cases, it’s her story of being a victim (she calls herself a “victor”) of domestic violence that really connects with players.
“She wasn’t shy at all about revealing pieces of herself. That started to get through,” said Craig Kanyangarara, 25, a linebacker at University of Alabama-Birmingham.
“She was authentic.”
Darrell James, a senior wide receiver at Southern Illinois University, agreed.
“When she mentioned her life and domestic violence, I didn’t expect it,” James said. “For someone who’s been through that in her life, she’s strong.”
Baribeau uses frank language to confront players and challenge them to be better men. No more “hit it and quit it,” she tells the guys.
But treatment of women is just a part of her speech.
She starts out making fun of herself by showing a video of her working out with an arena football team. Turns out Baribeau isn’t a very good wide receiver; she drops or misses about a dozen passes.
Turning serious, Baribeau also speaks of:
► Finding true passion and purpose because football is only a platform;
► Serving others, at any cost (Baribeau once climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa to help raise money for ALS research);
► Confronting others, in appropriate ways, when bad behavior, degradation or bullying is happening;
► Forgiving those — deadbeat dads, abusers and others — who have wronged them.
Dubious at first, most players respond enthusiastically to her message.
More than half of them stick around afterward for quick hellos or pictures or hugs.
And at least a dozen or two spend several minutes each with Baribeau sharing stories of growing up with neglect, poverty or abuse.
Her presentation often turns into a three-hour visit, which Baribeau finds exhilarating – and emotionally draining. She often finds herself taking in their pain, unable to shake it for days.
“I sometimes sit in my rental car after with my head against the steering wheel,” she said.
Baribeau charges a few thousand bucks for each presentation, in part to cover costs and in part to build a pot of money – with the NCAA’s blessing – to help athletes start their own foundations.
Such is the case with Bradley Bozeman, 23, who just finished his college career as a center at Alabama.
Bozeman said he always wanted to do some motivational speaking. And he got inspired and focused after hearing Baribeau’s talk.
“She helped open that up for me,” he said. “She helped me start an anti-bullying campaign. It was really cool to me.”
Baribeau said she loves when athletes share with her, months after meeting her, that they have changed their behavior. She is even happier when players like Bozeman want to pay it forward.
“I’m constantly amazed that God lets me do this work, that I got chosen to have this platform,” she said. “It’s life changing.”
By Brad Schmitt, USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee