Alexis Jones, who has spoken to some 200 college football programs about sexual assault and violence against women, says she has encountered no other coach who embraces the issues of sexual assault and sex education more proactively, more honestly, than UW’s Chris Petersen.

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Over the past few years, Alexis Jones has traveled the country to speak to some 200 college football programs about sexual assault and violence against women.

“I’ve spoken at the biggest and baddest programs out there,” she said, “and there is such a discrepancy with coaches who understand that it’s not enough to just win anymore. The good ones know that, hey, part of my job title now means ushering young men into adulthood.”

Of all the coaches Jones has encountered none, she says, has embraced the issues of sexual assault and sex education more proactively, more honestly, than Washington’s Chris Petersen.

Huskies coach Chris Petersen and ProtectHER founder Alexis Jones at the UW football facility. (Courtesy of/Alexis Jones)
Huskies coach Chris Petersen and ProtectHER founder Alexis Jones at the UW football facility. (Courtesy of/Alexis Jones)

“He deserves all the credit for leading the way,” Jones said.

An author and activist (and a former contestant on the TV show “Survivor”), Jones spent 251 days on the road last year sharing her message. Her goal: to show young male athletes players how to respect women, and to challenge them to redefine the meaning of manhood.

Petersen was one of the first coaches to invite her onto campus to speak to his team. That was in July 2015. By the end of her presentation, a line of UW players had formed to take selfies with her.

“She was phenomenal,” Petersen said.

As the #MeToo movement has brought sexual harassment and sexual assault deep into national consciousness, Jones is hopeful that college athletes can use their platform on campuses to help stop the “pandemic.” According to a 2015 study from the Association of American Universities, 23 percent of female undergraduates reported experiencing some form of unwanted sexual contact.

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Jones, 34, grew up in football-crazed Texas with four older brothers, and she believes she can relate to college athletes like a big sister. Her presentations are candid, and often R rated, but not accusatory.

“I’m not shaming them or telling them what they’re doing wrong,” she said. “I’m telling them: You’re superheroes and we need superheroes right now.”

Petersen liked the parallels he found in her presentation and aspects of the “Built for Life” themes he teaches the Huskies, particularly how they define what a “real man” is.

“We all know it’s a male problem,” he said. “Most of the time it needs to be a guy going, ‘Listen, guys, wake up! This is our world and this is our problem.’ So to me, you have to be such a unique female to come in and talk to all our guys and say, ‘Hey, this is how it needs to be.’ And to have the credibility and the charisma and the connection (she had) to a bunch of the guys, that is very hard to do.”

In addition to Jones, Brenda Tracy, a rape survivor and leading advocate against sexual violence, last year was invited to speak to the UW football team. The Huskies were among the many teams who have signed Tracy’s “Set the Expectation” pledge to fight the culture surrounding sexual violence.

As demand for Jones’ presentation grew, she and her team developed a curriculum that could be scaled and shown on more campuses, from high school to college. Throughout the process, Petersen kept in touch with her for updates on the curriculum’s progress. (“He and his staff probably called once a month,” she said. “More than any other school.”)

The result is ProtectHER, a program designed to “empower” young male athletes to respect women. It includes a 52-minute documentary and a series of short follow-up videos, at a cost of about $30 per athlete.

Petersen and UW were the first to purchase the curriculum, and it’s available to all 20 teams in the UW athletic department.

“Talk is cheap, right?” Jones said. “But the caliber of human being that Coach Pete is, is the guy is not just saying this is important. He’s saying, ‘I’m here, I’m first in line — and here’s my credit card.’”

Last August, the NCAA passed legislation requiring coaches and administrators to complete education each year in sexual violence prevention. It’s a positive step, but also an ambiguous one, Jones said.

“I shake my head at that — that (the NCAA) would even have to mandate it,” Petersen said. “Then I just feel like people are checking boxes and putting it out there like, ‘Hey, look at what we did.’ That’s not what this is about.”

As part of “Built for Life,” Petersen regularly gives presentations to his team (or brings in guest speakers) about topics outside of football — from race and racism; to career-building; personal finances; or other current events. Sex education and respecting women have long been important themes for him.

“You think about kids and how parents who have these awkward conversations with their kids growing up, the sex-ed talk,” he said. “And then they might have (a sex-ed class) in high school where you threaten them: ‘You’d better be smart!’ And then they go to college and no one talks to them (about it). It’s just a free-for-all. It’s been like that forever.

“So it’s like, time out: This is when we really need to talk to them and be in their face every day. So, yeah, if you have a curriculum and you have a program where people can come in and our guys can connect to, where it’s more than just me threatening them. It needs to be more than that. It needs to be: ‘This is how we conduct ourselves, because it’s good, it’s right and we need to make a difference.’ And that’s what Alexis and her program is all about.”

Jones is optimistic. Even at a time when she says “it’s depressing to turn on the news,” and when “people are exhausted and overwhelmed and shouting about the problem,” she remains hopeful that change is coming to campuses, and beyond. She feels it in the many locker rooms she’s visited; she hears it from young male athletes who reach out on social media wanting to learn more about her program; and she sees it from a coach who has made an investment, and who wants to keep the conversation going.

“Coach Pete,” she said, “gets dibs for being first. … He’s using his power and his voice and his position to be an agent of change. We need to celebrate that.”