After 17 years as a sportscaster, Baribeau went from analyzing players to lifting them up through their struggles
BY CATHERINE YANG August 4, 2020
LINK TO ORIGINAL ARTICLE
Last year, Rachel Baribeau stood in the TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis for a college football game between the University of Minnesota and Maryland, and together with the coaches and players of both teams, shared a message about mental health with the audience of 30,000 people. She knew that somewhere in that audience, at least one person was helped. At least one person saw that if these people could get up there and speak about their mental health, they could talk about it too. At least one person was exposed to resources he or she didn’t know to look for, and the information might have saved a life.
For 17 years, Baribeau has been a sportscaster, known for breaking barriers. She was the first female sports reporter to participate in a professional football training camp, the first female host on SiriusXM ESPNU, and a Heisman Trophy voter.
But in the last few years, she has started an impactful movement that reaches far beyond sports, called I’m Changing the Narrative (previously Changing the Narrative). When she embarked on her effort to help athletes turn their stories around for the better, she thought she would be sportscasting forever and do speaking events on the side. But for the last four years, the movement has continued to grow and change and save lives, and Baribeau has seen its tremendous impact.
“Never in my wildest dreams would I imagine it would have gotten to where it is today,” Baribeau said. “As it grew, I was having a conflict of the soul. I spent 17 years analyzing players, and it was time to motivate and lift up players, and do this a thousand percent—take the leap of faith and go for it.”
When she stood with 30,000 people all there to attend a game dedicating to raising mental health awareness, Baribeau felt a part of something so big that she finally took that leap.
“Once that happened, once I helped host that game with those teams, that’s when I knew, that’s when I wrote my retirement letter,” Baribeau said. “It’s been a scary, beautiful, wonderful, amazing leap of faith, and I’m so glad I did it.”
You Were Not Born for You
In 2016, athletes were making headlines for all the wrong reasons. Baribeau remembers stories about domestic violence, sexual violence, cheating, scandals, and, during one radio show, she broke down and cried during the commercial break.
Baribeau had devoted her career to covering sports because she loves the people; she grew up around sports, with two brothers who were involved in everything from baseball to BMX bike racing. And now there was something “badly broken” about the culture, and Baribeau cared too much to stay silent. She decided she would create a curriculum for college athletes, and what she came up with is nothing like what you might imagine a standard, surface-level character education program would look like.
“It started with purpose, passion, platform: Who are you away from the field? You were not born just to play football, or to just run track. You were not born to be just a swimmer. If that’s all you think you were born for, what a shame, right?” Baribeau said. Then she introduced the idea “that there’s a king or queen or royalty inside all of us.”
“We say people who are kings and queens, people who are royal, do hard things,” she said. “You’re the person who runs toward trouble instead of away from trouble. It’s going to cost some skin off your back, but we are the people who help people, especially when you’re down in a ditch. The world has plenty of followers. We need leaders, we need kings and queens who are peacemakers and who are full of love and grace and forgiveness.”
It began with a way to help male athletes turn their stories into positive ones. These were young men who had reached excellence in athletics but somehow had never heard they could do so in other areas of their life. Coaches would marvel at how the players responded; they would comment on how Baribeau didn’t talk down to the players but instead told them they were born for greatness and could be so much more. People were moved to tears in the face of her story, and students would wait an hour after the talk to tell Baribeau how much she had opened their eyes.
She tells them about how a few years ago, she’d met NFL player Kevin Turner, who had been diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), yet had an outlook on life Baribeau could only admire. His life was full of meaning, and he lived intentionally.
“I was very self-centered, fame-driven, I wanted my name in lights, I wanted all the stuff that came with fame,” Baribeau said. “Then I met this man, Kevin Turner … who really taught me this lesson.”
In 2014, Baribeau and a group of people summited Mount Kilimanjaro to raise money for ALS cure research. It was one of the most impactful, meaningful things she had ever done, and Baribeau said she realized how wonderful but empty fame could be. “And I began to live, to really, really live when I figured out the secret to life, and that is: It’s not about you.”
She also shares with these students the reason she felt struck in the gut when she heard the stories of abuse: She’d lived it. It was a memory she’d pushed down and hid, but in trying to change the narrative, Baribeau started to share it.
“I talked about the night somebody who claimed to love me dragged me from one end of the house to the other by my hair, and that there were three other men in the house that night and not one person came to help me,” she said. “And I ask them, I say, there were no kings in the house that night. If you were in the house that night, would you have helped me?”
Soon Baribeau branched out and did talks for female students, then created an on-demand curriculum for high school that she is working to spread across the country and is now developing content for younger grades. As she spoke, the topics grew, encompassing interpersonal relationships and dating, self-love, and mental health.
“Here’s the reality of it,” she said. “So many people are walking around, of any age, and they’re not in healthy relationships with themselves and with other people; they don’t know how to do it. They’ve never been taught. So many of our kids are not getting healthy relationships at home, so they’re getting their cues from social media, music, magazines, media as a whole, or God forbid, the porn culture. So I’m teaching them to have healthy relationships with themselves, then with others.”
Mental health has always been a part of Baribeau’s talks, because most of these athletes grow up with the message that “masculinity means toughen up, shut up, put some dirt on it, keep moving,” and as a result, they never learn how to process their trauma, and the suicide rates are staggering. But since last year, Baribeau is putting more focus on this topic, determined to make this movement one of “destroying the stigma around mental health.”
Dark Night of the Soul
A year ago, Baribeau found herself in a situation where her mental health was so low she contemplated taking her life, an event she calls the “dark night of my soul.”
“In May of last year, I lost my mother to cancer. She died in my arms, after a 10-month cancer battle,” Baribeau said. “And my boyfriend and I had broken up just before; we were not healthy. So I was going through a physical heartbreak, grief, loss of my best friend, and then I had helped to take care of my mother and had not worked the 10 months she battled cancer, barely worked, so because of that, I was bankrupt and almost lost my house.”
“I was dealing with a lot,” she said. “And I did not understand how dangerous isolation was.”
People were checking on Baribeau, but she isolated herself instead of reaching out in her time of need. She would tell everyone she was well, that she was holding on, and in the meantime slip into a dangerous place. To compound it, Baribeau, a night owl, was hosting an early morning SiriusXM show at 5 a.m. and getting no sleep.
“So I was tossing and turning at 3 a.m. and I began to hear voices telling me that I was a loser, that I couldn’t keep anything, and that I was a failure, and I would be better off if I just killed myself. The voices were getting very strong, and after the voices, there were ideations,” Baribeau said.
Somehow, she made it through to do her next show, but when her producer asked if she was OK because Baribeau kept sniffling, she lied.
“I said, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve just got allergies,’” she said. “And I battled with it for days, whether or not to talk about it. There were two voices in my head, the good voice and the bad voice. The bad voice said, ‘You can’t talk about this, you’ll be seen as defective. No one will ever book you again. You’re broken.’ Just every nasty thing. But the other voice said, ‘My girl, you’re a warrior. You survived for a reason. Go tell other people they’re not broken, not defective. And warn them of what to do.’”
She didn’t know at the time that she was supposed to have a list of people she could call, including a suicide hotline, and that isolation was clinically proven to make things worse. She would pay it forward by raising awareness. Baribeau realized that if she was asking all these athletes she mentored to be true to who they were, she had to be too. She posted a video about her experience, and it went viral—inspiring other athletes to come forward and make videos of their own stories.
“It blew the impact out of the water,” Baribeau said. People who had been in a similar place reached out to Baribeau not just to thank her, but to say that she inspired them to seek help. Athletes in the grips of their own “dark nights” reached out instead of acting on their dark thoughts, and were able to get help and are now thriving. “I am not a mental health professional, I’m the person who normalizes going to get mental health [help] if you need it.”
Last year, she was invited to speak to the first responders of the El Paso shooting, and to border patrol officers, and various corporations. Baribeau is now working on another on-demand program called “The Blueprint” for adults from all walks of life.
“Our world is hurting right now; I do feel like there are winds of change that are coming, but I do think most of the things that ail us in the world, most, not all, are heart and soul issues,” Baribeau said.
In the movement, Baribeau talks about dropping off something called “funky junk.”
“It’s all your trauma, your anger, your pain, your grief, all this stuff that weighs you down and so many of us are carrying every day,” she said.
“Think about what a law enforcement officer sees on a daily basis; the death, the sadness, the car wrecks, the murders, the abuse, the depravity of life. That is a lot,” she said. “We begin like we do with athletes of how to process that, and normalize getting mental help, and talking about those ideas of you’ve never been seen as so strong as when you seek help.”
Baribeau’s talks go beyond the setting of being an athlete or a law enforcement officer.
“I call my training soul training,” she said. “Every one of us has the opportunity to be better, it’s an everyday thing for me. It is my offering to the world to try to get in every possible space we can get in, and really change somebody’s life, and it ends up saving somebody’s life.”
“If we talk about these things, all these different attributes of being a human being, they’re going to go home and love their wife better, love their husband better, love their partner better, their children,” she said. “Every part of their life will be better.”
Baribeau is wholeheartedly genuine (“I subscribe to the theory of radical vulnerability”), so when she tells her story, people really listen.
“If you get radically vulnerable with somebody, if you show them, ‘Here’s my good, my bad, my happy, my sad. I’m a warrior, I’m not weak, not broken, not defective.’ It draws people in and it invites people to do the same in their own world,” she said.
When she was younger, though, she would be told she was too sensitive, to toughen up, to act a certain way.
“In my early 20s, I didn’t love myself. I let people walk in and out of my life, I couldn’t look myself in the mirror because I was ashamed—I’m not talking about my face or my eyebrows or my hair, I’m talking about my soul,” Baribeau said. “I wasn’t proud of the person that was staring back at me … I was trying to fill holes in my soul with things of the world, with people and substances and all these things that were never going to fix it. And then I had this metamorphosis and realized there is nobody else in the world who can do what I do—there is nobody else in all of the world.”
It’s something she brings up in the talks, especially with female students: They’re not “too” anything—they’re a miracle.
“It is this innate belief that when you love yourself, truly see yourself as a queen, you naturally create boundaries and standards with which you’ll let people treat you,” Baribeau said. “Whatever you believe, whatever Creator that you think created the Andes and Kilimanjaro and all the wonders in the world thought the world needs one of this person too, and there’s not another person out there who can do what you do … when you do that, discover how amazing you are and drop off this funky junk, forgive people, forgive yourself, you start to straighten up and walk in all your glory.”
Everything Baribeau speaks about is from her own life.
“It’s just what I’ve lived,” she said. “It’s my life and real stories, and I’ve applied it and made it something we can all learn from, myself included.” Sometimes she’ll catch herself saying something to her fiance and think, would a queen do that? “And it allows me to go back and apologize to him.”
“Here’s the deal, and I say this in my movement, being a king or queen or being a royal doesn’t mean you’re perfect. It just means you know better, so you’re going to do better,” she said. “If you hurt somebody, if you let somebody down, you’re going to fix it. Go fix it. Life is short and it’s precious.”
With Baribeau’s mom dying and the recent pandemic, Baribeau says she has been thinking a lot about her own mortality.
“What would happen to the movement if I die?” she said. From the beginning of the movement, Baribeau has been what she calls a “lifer.” She tells the schools and the students that if they’ll allow it, she’ll be in their life for as long as they want, and she always responds to their messages.
“If you need girl talk relationships, guy talk relationships, you need advice, you need somebody just to listen to you, I’m there,” she said. “So many people reach out, and I’ve gotten pictures of a newborn from the delivery room, I’ve been to one of my kings’ weddings, and keep in touch with so many of my kings and queens across the country.”
“Last week, one of my kings, he wants to restart his grandmother’s orphanage in Zimbabwe, so I’m helping him with that, mentoring him through that and how to raise money, and what do we do,” she said.
She added that had she not been able to see and touch people’s lives, and see from the beginning that this effort was working, she wouldn’t have gone on so long.
“I would have quit this a long time ago if I didn’t know that it landed, that it affected other people,” she said. “When I do my talks, generally afterwards there’s 20, 30, 40 players that stay after to talk, to cry, to hug me, just to say whatever—to tell me their whole life story or just tell me thank you, or how it impacted them or how they’re going to go about their day, or what they’re going to do or who they’re going to forgive.”
It’s tough, Baribeau admits, because she is sensitive and empathetic by nature and feels “the world’s hurt, and I feel it deeply.” But she surrounds herself with people who love her and are good to her, goes to therapy, relies on her faith, and is driven by “the desire to spread this message to the ends of the earth.”
Baribeau has also made the offer to each school to mentor students in public speaking, and hopes to start up a speakers bureau later this year.
“I will teach them the tangible skill, then I’ll help them take their story and blend it with the tenets of I’m Changing the Narrative,” Baribeau said. “That way if I die tomorrow, if I die next year, in this way the movement will live on.”