Rachel Baribeau remembers the summer of 2016, and she wasn’t happy with the image of her favorite sport.
The Baylor football scandal, which featured multiple player arrests and involved sexual abuse and domestic violence, had embroiled all of college football. The radio host on SiriusXM’s ESPNU channel remembers breaking down in tears after one of her shows.
“It was just bad. Bad, bad, bad,” Baribeau told Sporting News as she drove to the University of Minnesota on Saturday. “I was just thinking, ‘What’s going on with this game?’ That was my impetus, and I knew that there were really good guys playing and really good coaches coaching college football. People were painting with a broad brush. I felt like the story wasn’t being told correctly.”
That’s how “Changing the Narrative” — Baribeau’s initiative that has her speak to student-athletes on issues such as domestic violence, mental health, masculinity and maximizing their platforms — was born. The initiative reached its two-year milestone Tuesday.
Baribeau has traveled to 33 schools since 2016 to speak to student-athletes. She gives every player wristbands with that mantra, and has stayed in regular contact with more than 500 student-athletes, whom she calls “kings” and “queens.”
What is a ‘king’?
“A ‘king’ is somebody who can go to sleep at night, and they know they made all the right decisions and did all he had to do in order to better everybody around him,” Minnesota junior defensive lineman Winston Delattiboudere told SN.
Delattiboudere received Baribeau’s Changing the Narrative Award on Sunday. Minnesota’s entire team voted on who it thought embodied all those traits, and Delattiboudere voted for his roommate, Antonio Shenault. Baribeau then came back in the room and honored Delattiboudere, much to his surprise.
Why did he win the award? Delattiboudere is a Baltimore native majoring in sociology of law, criminology and deviance. He has a unique viewpoint, too. He watched the riots unfold in Baltimore in 2015. He watched with teammates as protesters marched in the streets of Minneapolis after the shooting death of Philando Castile.
A few months after Minnesota players organized a team walkout ahead of the 2016 Holiday Bowl in response to 10 players being suspended in connection with a sexual assault investigation, Baribeau spoke on campus at the request of newly hired coach P.J. Fleck. Delattiboudere heard her message and used it to seek change within himself. Last summer, he visited a Boys Totem Town with teammate Thomas Barber in St. Paul, Minn. When Baribeau returned, he knew her motives were genuine.
“She talks about being more than a football player and being more than an athlete,” he said. “Growing up, just because we have this aspiration of being a football player we look at ourselves as only a football player. It’s about so much more than a game. If you carry yourself in a positive life and put in a positive direction, you’ll affect so many more lives than your own.”
Baribeau doesn’t just consider herself a broadcaster. She also considers herself an activist, and she uses her own experiences with domestic violence to help others. Her efforts aren’t one limited to one topic, however.
“This isn’t just respect, protect, cherish women,” Baribeau said. “This isn’t just what are your dreams beyond football. This is, ‘Who are you when you look at the mirror at night? Are you proud of the man that stares back at you?’ If not, let’s fix it.”
‘Changing the Narrative’ takes next step
Baribeau keeps in contact with those more than 500 players through texts and phone calls. She has those players write in journals, inspiring them with her story about climbing Mount Kilimanjaro to raise money for ALS in honor of Kevin Turner, who died in 2016.
She started the Changing the Narrative Award, which she has also given to Southern Illinois’ Withney Simon and UAB’s Craig Kanyangarara. Simon wants to help children in his native Haiti, and Kanyangarara intends to open an orphanage in Zimbabwe. Delattiboudere plans on using it in the juvenile justice system.
Baribeau is working with the NCAA to reward those players who have been honored with the Changing the Narrative Award, a $3,000 grant that can be used to either start or donate to a nonprofit business. She has also volunteered to teach public speaking to any athlete who reaches out. In turn, those athletes are starting to speak at their community schools.
“Who is a 16-year-old going to listen to, a star football player or me?” Baribeau said. “It’s the star football player, so this is something that just hits on so many levels. Since I’ve been doing this, I’ve always been looking to take the next step.”
Baribeau’s work is far from finished. She has placed more emphasis on mental health since Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski committed suicide last Jan. 16. Baribeau considers herself a mother/aunt/sisterlike figure for the athletes, something Delattiboudere also took to heart.
“Being able to open up and say, ‘I’m not OK,’ that’s something a lot of football players are missing right now,” Delattiboudere said. “Being able to tell that older person that you’re going through some things is important. As a freshman, I bottled up a lot of those emotions and I didn’t want to talk. I don’t want any of the freshmen or any other teammate to feel like they can’t open up and talk to me.”
Baribeau is one of those friends now, and she intends on making many more. She talked about the direct messages, including one in which a player sent her a sonogram of his baby. That made her cry, too, but happy tears.
It’s a much different narrative now.
“I can’t put into words how satisfying it is. I crisscrossed the country, sometimes to my own detriment, but they keep me going. But it comes down to this a lot of times,” Baribeau said before a pause. “Call somebody by who they were created to be, then watch them rise up to it.”
By Bill Bender