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SHIRA SPRINGER I FAIR PLAY

Using sports to combat teen dating violence

Attorney General Maura Healey.Harrison Hill for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

Attorney General Maura Healey likes to talk sports. And not in a casual, cocktail party way. Not with her experience playing college and pro basketball. Not when the NFL devotes more time to Deflategate than actual crimes committed by players.

When Healey talks sports, she talks about harnessing the power of sports to combat domestic violence and sexual assault. Her vision: teach high school student-athletes across Massachusetts about teen dating violence, dangerous relationships, and respect for women. Healey sees young athletes as natural leaders who can influence their classmates’ attitudes and behaviors. Plus, it’s abundantly clear that meaningful change won’t happen from the top down.

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“There is example after example at the professional level and within the college ranks where bad things have happened, where people haven’t been held accountable and the right message about zero tolerance has not been sent,” says Healey. “They need to work on that. But in the meantime, I don’t think we should wait around for them to get their act together.”

Take that, Roger Goodell.

This fall, Healey plans to launch pilot programs in high schools across the state. The programs will focus on raising awareness about teen dating violence, recognizing warning signs, and providing advice about how to intervene.

Healey wants to “create something that we can model and take statewide and have it be in place, at least, in every high school in the state.” She aims to give more structure, more prominence, and more reach to efforts that are largely ad hoc now. Down the road, she hopes to hold a summit with school administrators, athletic directors, coaches, players, health professionals, and domestic violence and sexual assault educators, and exchange ideas for additional outreach.

When Healey talks sports in this context, she sounds like the right person at the right time with the right focus. She thinks big and brings the determination of a 5-foot-4-inch point guard to the table. With teen dating violence, Healey is on offense, and in her element. High school students give the attorney general an opportunity to be proactive, to come up with the best play and execute it. Once a point guard, always a point guard.

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Healey can change the culture around high school relationships. She can make a dent in some disturbing statistics. (According to loveisrespect.org, one in three adolescents in the United States falls victim to physical, sexual, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner. One in 10 high school students has been hit, slapped or physically injured by a boyfriend or girlfriend.) Healey can disrupt the chain reaction that too often leads from teen dating violence to adult domestic violence, suicide attempts, substance abuse, risky sexual behavior, and eating disorders. She can reach male and female athletes when they start dating and before they join college and professional teams where talent often trumps accountability. At least, that’s the idea.

By contrast, the NFL prefers playing defense, being reactive unless it involves adding another revenue stream. Don’t be fooled by revisions to the NFL’s personal conduct policy. The league and its teams remain more concerned about the on-field product and the bottom line. Their culture hasn’t changed. Need proof? The Dallas Cowboys can’t stop fawning over new addition Greg Hardy. The team’s defensive ends coach talks about the respect he has for Hardy, particularly his leadership skills and tough-minded play. Yes, the same Greg Hardy who was found guilty of assaulting and threatening to kill an ex-girlfriend.

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Healey talks plenty about Hardy, too.

“I want that 14-year-old football player to be a change agent and not be Greg Hardy,” she says. “Now is the opportunity to connect with that young person and say, ‘This is how we’re going to model. This is how we’re going to be.’ ”

But athletes will hear that message louder and clearer coming from a teammate. That’s more about teenagers than about sports. Still, convince high school athletes to buy in and it creates a fast track to wider change. Healey knows that.

From playing high school soccer, basketball, and tennis, captaining the Harvard women’s basketball team, competing for a European pro club, and twice trying out for the US Olympic squad, Healy gets team dynamics and sports culture. She credits sports with teaching her about hard work, discipline, commitment, perseverance, and resiliency, and propelling her to the attorney general’s office. So, it’s easy to understand why she sees high school teams as “ready-made incubators for something good.”

Also, Massachusetts high school athletes already must follow anti-drug and alcohol policies and the state’s anti-hazing law where violations trigger suspensions or more severe punishments. And anti-teen dating violence is a logical addition to that list. Or, as Healey says, “We condition their playing sports on a lot of things. Why wouldn’t we include in that don’t slap your girlfriend?”

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That question has an easy, obvious answer. But more often, teen dating violence poses much tougher questions. And Healey and her staff know they don’t have all the answers. So, Healey has contacted the experts — the groups already offering programs, the educators already talking to high school students, the people already on the heart-wrenching frontlines such as Mary Dunne and Malcolm Astley, who lost their daughter to breakup violence.

On July 3, 2011, Lauren Dunne Astley was murdered by her former boyfriend, Nathaniel Fujita, weeks after they graduated from Wayland High School. Astley, a talented singer and tennis player, and Fujita, a football star, had broken up that spring after dating for three years. Fujita struggled with the end of the relationship, lured Astley to his family’s home, then beat, strangled, and slashed the 18-year-old to death in the garage. Fujita was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Today, Astley’s parents work to prevent teen dating violence through a memorial fund named after their only child.

When asked if the programs Healey envision would have made a difference in her daughter’s situation, if Fujita would have dealt with the breakup differently, Dunne answers, “When you make [the issue] public and put everybody on alert and don’t allow people to be bystanders, you get a different set of behaviors. I couldn’t guarantee it, but I can’t believe that it wouldn’t have had some impact on him.”

And while Dunne, like Healey, sees influential high school leaders coming from inside and outside sports teams, she adds: “If everybody in a tight group, like an athletic group, has this kind of conversation and makes some kind of commitment to preventing it, the stakes are a little higher and you might be thinking twice.”

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Hearing that, it’s a good thing Healey didn’t wait for pro leagues and college programs to get their act together. Now, they can learn from the attorney general’s office and Massachusetts high schools.


Fair Play is a column that explores the challenges girls and women face in today’s sports world, as well as their athletic accomplishments. Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ShiraSpringer.