Friday, September 16, 2011

Football and Comprehensive Sex Ed: It isn't Just About the Players on the Field

Just like most South Carolinians, I’m enjoying the late summer/ early fall: the day doesn’t greet me with an oppressive blanket of heat and humidity, roadside stands are cornucopias of fresh local fruits and vegetables, and “football” is the word on everyone’s lips. My daily commute takes me past two high schools, and before school started back up I would drive past morning practice.

Five mornings a week, I was reminded of our closing keynote speaker at Summer Institute, Dr. Steve Perry. Part of his speech compared comprehensive health education in schools to youth football. He challenged everyone in the room with this question: If we can get a young man to be convinced that, in August’s baking heat, strapping on over a dozen pounds of additional weight and running around outside to the point of exhaustion is good for him, why can’t we do the same thing with reproductive health? What are we doing as a state, as an organization, as educators and as individuals to make sexually responsible behaviors as attractive as playing football?

This has been my rallying cry since Summer Institute. If someone can convince middle schoolers and high schoolers that waking up early in the summer, putting on umpteen layers of additional clothing, running around, throwing a ball, tackling teammates and getting the wind knocked out of them is a good thing and worth repeating if only for the chance to get to play on a few Friday nights in the fall, then I can convince the same middle schoolers and high schoolers that delaying sex until they are ready and using protection when they make a fully informed choice to have sex is an equally good idea. I can do this! I can change the world!

Reality, of course, is much more nuanced. The number of students who play football is much smaller than the number of students affected by comprehensive health education. However, just because a student doesn’t play football doesn’t mean that he or she can’t support their team and in some way encourage the culture that puts football on a pedestal. As Oprah would say, this was my “a-ha” moment.

Football culture (and comprehensive health education) isn’t just about the players on the field. It’s the coaches who are motivating the players to do one more lap. It’s the parents who wake their sons up at 6 a.m. on those August mornings. It’s the schools who invest in football uniforms, stadiums, and coaching staff. It’s the fans in the stands. It’s the local businesses who want to put their logos on programs. It’s the local media who will put a reporter on the sidelines. It’s the slim chance that playing football well in high school may lead to playing football in college and the even slimmer chance that playing football in college may lead to playing football professionally.

So it is with comprehensive, evidence based health education. While the immediate focus may be on two dozen middle or high schoolers in a classroom, we need to focus on the culture that determines what happens in that classroom. It’s the teachers who want to deliver accurate information. It’s the school administrators who budget for trainings and supplies for those teachers. It’s the Comprehensive Health Education Committees comprised of members voting to institute evidence based curriculums. It’s parents who are grateful when their child brings home homework with the questions “When did you fall in love? What was it like when you were dating in high school?”. It’s a culture that doesn’t glorify or normalize teen pregnancy. It’s the very large chance that not getting pregnant in high school or college will lead to a better future.

- Stewart Davis, MPH, is a Training and Technical Assistance Associate at the SC Campaign. Contact Stewart at

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