P.J. Fleck invited Rachel Baribeau to speak to the Gophers football team in March, soon after the university hired him, in the wake of the team’s sexual assault scandal.
Baribeau is a longtime college football insider from her work as a TV sideline reporter and host on SiriusXM College Sports Nation. She’s also a domestic violence victim, after an incident years ago where a boyfriend dragged her by the hair.
En route to Minnesota, Baribeau wondered how she’d frame her message. She had read stories from last fall about the alleged sexual assault, the restraining orders, the university suspensions and the team’s boycott.
“I was very aware of what went on there,” Baribeau said. “And as a faithful woman, to be honest, I did a lot of praying before I went.”
The Gophers had cleaned their image under former coaches Jerry Kill and Tracy Claeys, ranking among the national leaders in fewest arrests while they coached together from 2011 to 2015. They overhauled the team’s poor academic standing from the Tim Brewster era and were far more competitive on the field.
But Claeys’ 15-month tenure as head coach took a major hit on Sept. 2, when several players were involved in an alleged sexual assault, only hours after the season’s first game.
Now, with Fleck in charge, the Gophers are trying to repair their image again, or “change the narrative” as Baribeau says.
Senior Steven Richardson said Baribeau preached “breaking away from the stereotype, sadly, that football players have toward women and relationships, treating them as a queen instead of just some other person.”
“Those issues need to be talked about in college football,” junior lineman Jared Weyler said.
The alleged sexual assault led to no arrests or criminal charges, but the university suspended 10 players in December after a school investigation. After multiple appeals, five players had their suspensions overturned, four were expelled and one received a one-year suspension.
Gophers players, furious that five additional teammates were suspended without hearing, staged a two-day boycott before going on to defeat Washington State in the Holiday Bowl. Returning players haven’t said much publicly about the scandal.
“I haven’t really seen it come up at all,” Richardson said. “With Coach Fleck coming in, we’ve just learned how to deal with it and push that as a last-year thing not a this-year thing.”
Fleck unveiled a “Gopher for Life” program, similar to the one he had at Western Michigan. The goals, he said, are “educating and developing the complete man — academically, athletically, socially and spiritually.”
Baribeau was one of several guest speakers. A police officer also came to explain what to do if players are pulled over — “where to put your hands on the steering wheel, what to do with people in the back seats,” Fleck said.
The Gophers also met with the university’s Aurora Center, which works with sexual assault victims. The Aurora Center used to hold sessions with the entire athletics department, explaining what constitutes sexual consent, but now those sessions are held at the team level.
While many of Fleck’s efforts have been publicized — through social media and interviews — the Gophers quietly held several educational sessions under Kill and Claeys, too. Among the speakers who addressed those teams were Adam Ritz and Sandra McDonald.
Ritz is a TV/radio host from Indianapolis who was convicted of sexual battery against his family’s baby sitter in 2004. McDonald is a sexual education authority who has worked with several NFL teams and spoke to the Gophers men’s basketball team in 2016, at coach Richard Pitino’s request.
Bob Coughlin, father of defensive end Carter Coughlin, worked with the staff last fall in planning a series of sessions. Claeys planned to unveil this “Go Program” the same week he was fired, according to people familiar with the plan.
Caroline Palmer, from the Minnesota Coalition against Sexual Assault, said Baribeau’s speech was a key step, letting players hear from a survivor.
“I’m encouraged that the program is taking it seriously,” she said. “When the messages come from the top down, there is an expectation. Players need to support each other and hold each other accountable.”
Baribeau has delivered a similar message at Baylor, Clemson, Alabama, Florida State and elsewhere. “Life and society will tell you to be a king on the football field and roar! ‘You’re strong, you’re amazing and everybody looks up to you!’ ” she said. “But I’m asking you to be a king in every area of your life, with the way you treat people, with the way you talk about women, even when they’re not in your presence.”
On March 3, Baribeau shared her story of being “dragged from one end of the house, back and forth, by my hair.” She remembers screaming for help. “I think the thing that broke my heart the most,” she said, “was that six other people were in the house and no one helped me.”
Baribeau said 50-60 players waited after her speech to greet her. Several, including quarterbacks Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft, lauded the speech on Twitter with the hashtag “changingthenarrative.”
At last Monday’s news conference, Fleck spoke proudly of the “Gopher for Life” program but issued caution, as well.
“Just because we do that, that does not promise perfection,” he said. “Our kids will make mistakes. I will make mistakes. Our program will make mistakes. But more importantly is how you respond to those mistakes.”