Sunday, March 25, 2018

Jones: Jameis Winston's pep talk to kids sends wrong message (w/video)

This is a story about a well-intended photo op that had some good in it and some bad. It involves Tampa Bay's most famous face, one of its most struggling schools, and perhaps a blind spot when it comes to how little boys and girls view the world and how the world views them.

Over the course of about 40 minutes, Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston delivered a good message — a heartfelt, you-can-do-anything message to young kids who probably can't imagine that even being close to true. For many, it might have been the first time anyone ever told them such things.

But there was a piece of his message that was off. Way off.

This is a story of how words matter. This is a story of how attitudes matter.

Here's what went down:

Winston could have been anywhere Wednesday. It's his offseason. He could have been on a beach or on his couch playing video games.

Instead, he decided to give back to his community, to go speak to school kids at Melrose Elementary in St. Petersburg. That's admirable.

He was trying to corral and engage a bunch of fidgety third- through fifth-graders, and even the most experienced of parents and teachers will tell you that is no easy task. He was giving the students his three rules of life: God, school and the idea that "I can do anything I put my mind to."

"We've been working so hard with our students giving them hopes and dreams and helping them raise their expectations,'' said Bonnie Volland, a speech language pathologist at Melrose. "In the beginning, it was so good because he was talking about, 'You can do it!' and really giving our students a positive message."

Things went wrong when a few students appeared to be bored.

"All my young boys, stand up. The ladies, sit down," Winston said. "But all my boys, stand up. We strong, right? We strong! We strong, right? All my boys, tell me one time: I can do anything I put my mind to. Now a lot of boys aren't supposed to be soft-spoken. You know what I'm saying? One day y'all are going to have a very deep voice like this (in deep voice). One day, you'll have a very, very deep voice.

"But the ladies, they're supposed to be silent, polite, gentle. My men, my men (are) supposed to be strong. I want y'all to tell me what the third rule of life is: I can do anything I put my mind to. Scream it!"


Did Winston really say girls are supposed to be silent?

Maybe Winston didn't mean it the wrong way, but he has his own past and there are far too many male athletes with attitudes about girls and women that evoke too, too troubling visions that simply can't be ignored.

The antennas of several adults went up in the room. We heard from a few who were bothered by it, but didn't want to talk publicly. The principal said it was a really good day for Melrose and perhaps, overall, she is right.

While the moment might not have been malicious, it was damaging. It was hurtful.

No little girl should ever be told that she is supposed to be silent. No little girl should ever be made to feel subservient.

At a time in this country when women are still fighting the battle to be equal to men, to be paid like men, to be respected like men, the last thing a little girl should ever be told is to be silent. At a time when little girls, including the ones at Melrose Elementary, are struggling with their identity and roles in this world, they should never get the message that they are to be quiet.

By anyone, but especially by someone held up as a hero and a leader in the community.

Sadly, not only did the little girls in that room hear what Winston said, so did the little boys.

For them to walk away with the impression that this famous person, this larger-than-life athlete, this charismatic authority figure thinks that girls are to be quiet and polite while the boys stand up and take charge and be strong is not only wrong, but heartbreaking.

"One of the girls turned around and looked at me and said, 'I'm strong too,' " Volland said.

Is this an overreaction to one sentence or even that one word in an otherwise extremely positive speech? Absolutely not.

Maybe in today's political climate some want to rationalize that we're being too touchy, too uptight. So go to our website. Watch the video. Decide for yourself. But what we cannot know is how the children in that room took Winston's message.

It wasn't until several hours after the speech that Winston was asked about and reflected on what he had said.

"I was making an effort to interact with a young male in the audience who didn't seem to be paying attention, and I didn't want to single him out so I asked all the boys to stand up," Winston said. "During my talk, I used a poor word choice that may have overshadowed that positive message for some."

This isn't about upbringing. This isn't about culture. This isn't about what some people think the Bible says. This isn't about the fact that Winston just turned 23 years old. This was an ugly stereotype that has done so much harm for far too long.

Simply put, it was wrong to suggest that little girls should be viewed as different than little boys, but worse, should behave different than little boys.

Let's also address the elephant in the room: Winston's past at Florida State in a sexual assault accusation. Fairly or unfairly, that is a part of Winston's story and that means he must be even more careful when talking about how boys and girls are treated and viewed and should act.

But even without what might or might not have happened at FSU, Winston was irresponsible to say what he said. If Evan Longoria or Steven Stamkos or Gerald McCoy said the same thing, they, too, should be criticized for, at best, a poor choice of words and, at worst, an archaic view of the sexes.

What happened Wednesday does not, in itself, make Winston a bad guy. But, perhaps, he does need to ask himself if his words really do represent his feelings. He needs to ask whether he simply misspoke or is hard-wired to believe boys are the stronger, more assertive gender.

Maybe this should be a lesson to all of us about how we think. And how we speak.

Especially when little boys and girls are watching and listening.

Times staff writers Greg Auman and Colleen Wright and Times photographer Dirk Shadd contributed to this column. Contact Tom Jones at [email protected]

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