Evolution Q&A: Joe Ehrmann helps NFL with personal conduct issues

By Bill Bradley, contributing editor

*In the NFL's efforts to improve personal conduct among players the league has enlisted a former player, Joe Ehrmann. *

*After retiring as defensive tackle for 10 seasons (1973-82) in the NFL and three in the USFL (1983-85), the Syracuse product was inspired to become a minister and dive into what he calls social justices. He has created the "Coach For America" program. He has also become a motivational speaker. *

He has focused his work in the past decade on helping men sort out issues involving masculinity. Among other topics, he is passionate about men treating women with respect and how that issue affects society.

He has gained notoriety in the past month after he appeared in a video (above) that all NFL players and personnel will see as part of league-wide program. Earlier this week, Ehrmann talked to NFL Evolution about his work as a minister, how he is helping the NFL with personal conduct policies and what influence he hopes to have on players.

You have done so many things since your retirement as player. What is on your business card?

I don't have a business card. It's too confusing [laughing].

What made you go into the seminary and become a minister?

In my sixth year (in the NFL) when I was playing, my brother got diagnosed with cancer in July and died in December in the course of the season. I had these tremendous questions about an all-good, all-powerful God in the midst of so much suffering and evil in the world. I had a lot of questions about that. So I went to seminary in my off-seasons. Then when I finished seminary and retired from football, my wife and I moved to ... Baltimore. I started working on social justice issues -- racism, poverty, education, equality -- those kind of issues.

What led you to motivational speaking?

I had a book written about my coaching called "Season of Life" by Jeffrey Marx. That came out in 2004. That's been a New York Times bestseller. It continues to sell like crazy. Anyhow, it gave me a national platform. That whole thing was about using sports in helping boys to become men. Ever since then, I've been speaking and training on a national level on a lot of different kinds of issues.

You've already had a very full post-football career. What has kept you going in so many directions?

When my brother died, I read a book: "Man's Search for Meaning" by Viktor Frankl. It's a classic and Frankl was a concentration camp survivor. In that book, he said the greatest of all human freedoms is the ability to choose how you are going to respond to whatever life deals you. No matter what life deals you, you can find meaning in it and you can add value to other people. When my brother died, we ended up building a Ronald McDonald House in Baltimore that's dedicated to him. We've had over 40,000 people walk in through those doors. That just showed me that I could leverage my own life. I've just taken my own life, found meaning in it and figured out how to help other people find meaning in what their life has dealt them.

How would you explain the Coach For America program?

The purpose of that is to inform, initiate and inspire individual, communal and societal change through sports and coaching. Historically, sports have always been a metaphor for social change in this country. When you talk about civil rights, when you talk about women's rights, when you talk about human rights, think of the role that sports and athletes have played in bringing some of those issues into mainstream political and social consciousness. Think of the millions of people who have gotten off boats for this country that have integrated into American culture through sports. Every ethnic group that has ever been ghettoized, sports has created a pathway out. Yet, somehow, in the last 10-15 years, we've moved into this win-at-all-costs kind of mentality. That serves no one. America has lost its ball in the weeds in many respects when it comes to the role and purpose of sports -- particularly interscholastic sports. I wrote the book on that and I've been living on that for 12 years or so.

What led you back to the NFL and, specifically to be part of its campaign against domestic violence?

I've actually been doing a lot of player-conduct workshops in the NFL. I've been doing that for the last seven to eight years. Much of what I do is around at the core of what I say is the greatest crises in America -- the crisis of masculinity. The crisis of what does it mean to be a man. I can take just about every psychosocial problem we have and take it back into the core issue of masculinity. The thing that moves most men from the sports page to front page or the criminal page usually has to do with the false concept of masculinity. When men feel devalued or disrespected, out comes this angst and rage. So in order to correct that, you have to redefine masculinity.

Violence is not inherent to being a man. It's part of our cultural conditionings. Every man has to self-define. You can't let the culture, you can't let the way you nurture it define you. You have to define yourself as a man -- what you're going to stand for, who you're going to stand with and what you're going to stand against in life. This male violence toward women that has gotten so ignited by Ray Rice, that's a male crime of violence. It's a male crime of violence and it has to do with power and control. Women can't end male violence to women. All they can do is reduce their risk. It's not going to end until we have a generation of men who have the clarity and the moral courage to call out other men. I've been working on that for three decades almost.

What do players say when you discuss these issues with them?

They're incredibly receptive. I've never left an NFL locker room when I haven't been filled with hope. The vast majority are made up of young men trying to figure out how they deal with the responsibility and the privilege and the platform that they have. The vast majority are terrific young men, eager to learn, eager to grow. The problem is you have two or three that get in trouble and they taint the whole team and taint the league.

When did the NFL talk to you about expanding your role to be involved their efforts to address personal conduct among players?

After the initial two-game suspension of Ray Rice, there was all the blowback on the NFL and (Commissioner) Roger Goodell. He invited seven or eight people up to the (NFL headquarters). Most of them were some of the leading heads of organizations that deal with domestic violence. I was part of that in trying to help him understand what a more just penalty might be and what the NFL might do going forward.

The video of your monologue about personal conduct has received a very positive response. Whose idea was that?

That was actually a proposal I had put into the NFL a while ago. I was hoping to create a national dating abuse month where every (high school) coach the week before the homecoming dance talked to their players. Once the Ray Rice situation hit, that concept got moved to the front burner. It hasn't been released yet -- only the parts the public has seen -- but that video is just a small part of a 40-minute training video that will go to high school and college coaches around the country. It's me explaining why coaches need to utilize the platform that they have to help boys become men and teach about respect and sexual assault and those kind of issues. We also filmed (Texas A&M coach) Kevin Sumlin speaking to his players. And we also filmed also a wonderful high school coach in Minnesota. This is so that coaches can not only understand why they have a responsibility, but to use that the coaching platform to help boys become men and help issues related to false masculinity. This also helps to see other coaches actually doing it. The goal was to help coaches utilize that platform to start making a difference in the world.

How will you be helping NFL deal with personal conduct issues?

I've been part of the rollout. We have some other things planned. ... This is not a program. This is not a project. This is a long-term commitment. This has to be long term. It has to be sustainable. It has to be committed that we raise up one generation of men with the courage and clarity to address these issues. The NFL has been given the mantle of leadership. ... The difference between the first Ray Rice video and the second Ray Rice video -- what it really highlighted is how uniformed and uneducated all of America is when it comes to these issues. The NFL has that mantle of leadership. Boy, they have the influence and the platform to make a huge difference here. It won't be a short-term fix.

Have you talked to any NFL teams so far?

I've been with the Ravens, the Seahawks and the Saints. I have the Bears coming up and some of the teams, too.

What's the reaction after players and personnel see this program?

It has more to do with the core issues of masculinity, but they're incredibly receptive.

What do coaches say to you after these discussions?

I do a number of workshops with coaches as well in the NFL. Again, they're very receptive.

Why is getting this message out and getting others to understand these issues so important to you?

I've been working on these issues for 30 years. I believe in the inherent value status of every human being. I believe that every human being should have the equal opportunity to be everything there are capable of becoming. That's been foundational to my life's work. This is one more manifestation of false masculinity. If we ever address this issue of masculinity, we could deal with so many of America's problems, from girls with babies, boys with guns, immorality in boardrooms, the beating that women take. Much of that emanates from a false concept of masculinity.

Where do you see yourself and the NFL's personal conduct program a year or even five years from now?

I'm hoping three, four or five years from now, we'll start seeing some tremendous results in the NFL and around the country when it comes to these statistics. I hope to be a fading voice in the next four or five years. We will have raised up so many leaders on these issues that I will have worked myself out of a job.

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