Part life coach, part domestic violence speaker, Rachel Baribeau spoke to the WSU football team Monday about how to treat women, be good citizens, embrace their own vulnerability and maximize their platforms.
General Jim Mattis spoke to the Washington State football team about leadership in 2016, a few months before he was appointed Secretary of Defense.
Eric Thomas, a motivational speaker and minister from Detroit, also has shared his story about going from homelessness to graduating from college with the Cougars’ football team.
But speaker who stood before the WSU football team in Pullman on Monday was different from anyone they’d hosted before.
For one, Rachel Baribeau is a woman, and for another, she addressed the team about moving beyond the masculine stereotypes surrounding football players, challenging them to connect with one another and contribute to society in meaningful ways.
Baribeau is a sportscaster on SiriusXM Radio who, since 2016, has moonlighted as a motivational speaker on the college football circuit. Part life coach, part domestic violence speaker, Baribeau speaks to college football teams about how to treat women, be good citizens, embrace their own vulnerability and maximize their platforms.
The death of WSU quarterback Tyler Hilinski in January has struck a national conversation about the importance of encouraging young men to express their emotions, and Baribeau’s trip to WSU was prompted, in part by a former high school teammate of Hilinski’s, who was touched by Baribeau’s message when she spoke at his school last fall.
Tatum Slack, a junior cornerback at the University of Buffalo, played with Hilinski at Upland (Calif.) High School and was deeply moved by Baribeau’s talk in Buffalo last August. After Hilinski’s death, Slack contacted Baribeau and suggested that she speak to the grieving Cougars.
“She came and talked to our team and had a very powerful message, and I was just inspired by her. She gives off a very loving vibe, I felt it would be good for them,” Slack said. “Being in that situation, as a football player, you’re in the locker room with the dude every single day and that can take a toll on somebody. As far as mental health, as college football players, we’re not taught to be emotional and stuff like that.”
Baribeau knew WSU coach Mike Leach from his brief stint as a radio host on SiriusXM. So she reached out to him offering to speak to the Cougars, and Leach enthusiastically accepted, making WSU the 24th stop on Baribeau’s “Changing the Narrative” tour of college football programs.
“Rachel’s got a very positive, ‘achieve your full potential, be a king of life’ message illustrating how important everybody is and can be if they focus and achieve,” Leach said. “The room listened carefully and I think it made some people think and brought some perspective.”
Baribeau conceived her “Changing the Narrative” curriculum after the torrid summer of 2016 when college football was plagued by a rash of sexual assault or domestic violence cases involving players at numerous Division I programs throughout the country.
“Society is fostering a place where women are not respected, where we are disposable,” Baribeau said. “I just saw a problem and I said, “I’m going to do something about it.’”
Now, Baribeau goes from one college football facility to another sharing her domestic violence experience, and talking about how men should treat women and how football players can use their platforms to make an impact on their communities and effect positive change.
She uses the catchphrase, “Be a King,” which, Baribeau tells players, means to “be a king in every area of your life. Not just the football field. Be a king with your word, effort, time, character and certainly in the way you respect, protect and cherish women.”
Part of that involves teaching men to get in touch with their feelings.
“I really feel like the music, popular culture and movies are giving young men the message that they don’t have to be involved, that there’s something wrong with sharing your feelings and they don’t have to tell people when they’re hurting,” Baribeau said.
Baribeau tries to be a big sister to the college football players she speaks to, and her approachable nature makes the guys want to open up to her.
“Every day we’re surrounded by men,” Slack said. “So just having a strong woman come up and talk to you, and to be able to talk to her, is helpful. I feel some men are more able to express themselves and be emotional when talking to women instead of men.”
The Cougars were no different.
On Monday, the WSU football team paid rapt attention during Baribeau’s presentation in which she shared her experiences on different subjects, including an anecdote about how the ALS diagnosis of her friend, former Philadelphia Eagles fullback Kevin Turner, changed her life.
That resonated with the Cougars because of their ties to WSU and New Orleans Saints great Steve Gleason, who was diagnosed with ALS in 2011.
“I do think she was very helpful, just in getting guys to talk,” said senior WSU defensive lineman Nick Begg. “And I also thought it was good what she said about respect for women. You hear all the time in the news about domestic violence cases. To have a woman preach to you that you’re good, and you’re better than that, puts confidence in you to go out and be that guy.”
Baribeau stayed for a couple of hours after her talk, and about 30 different WSU players came up to hug her and chat about life.
Two in particular struck a chord with Baribeau when they revealed they’d experienced homelessness during periods of their lives.
“One said, nobody really knew, and that he’d been able to hide it, and he didn’t want to hide it anymore and wanted to talk about it and not be ashamed of it,” Baribeau said. “The other said that at some points he didn’t know where he’d get his next meal. Those stories stay with you.”
Baribeau will return to WSU in August to announce the winner of the “Changing the Narrative Award,” which she devised and cleared with the NCAA in January.
The whole team will vote on the winner – a young man who exemplifies the “Changing the Narrative” tenets of thoughtfulness, service and communication, and who treats women well and gives maximum effort.
When the winner leaves school, he’ll be eligible for an endowment to help him start his own foundation.
“I want to teach them what it feels like to serve,” Baribeau said. “I told them, ‘Even if you don’t win the award, I’ll help you start your foundation.’”
She’s also offered to train any players who want to go to high schools to share their story and teach high school athletes Baribeau’s Changing the Narrative values.
“I’ll teach them the art of public speaking and hold their hand so they can go into high schools and help guide the next generation,” Baribeau said. “My hope is to shepherd and guide these guys, not to just give them fish, but to teach them to fish.”
Stefanie Loh | Seattle Times Staff Reporter