Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera has a simple directive for his players starting on day one: "Be a man."
Rivera has certainly earned his "man card." He was the son of an Army officer and played linebacker for Mike Ditka on the 1985 Chicago Bears as part of Buddy Ryan's ferocious "46" defense. He returned to the Super Bowl with the Bears as defensive coordinator in February 2007 and has been coaching the Panthers since 2011.
Rivera's definition of "manhood" goes far beyond toughness on the football field. As a husband and father, he has a keen sense of priorities.
"The greatest gift you can give children is to love and respect their mother," Rivera told Playbook, citing a similar quote from the late John Wooden. Rivera spoke to Playbook after he and CBS sportscaster James Brown led a seminar in Charlotte, N.C., sponsored by A Call to Men designed to teach high school coaches how they can help prevent domestic violence by helping players grow into men who are responsible citizens.
Wooden's words of wisdom were brought into the conversation by defensive tackle Chris Canty, who also participated in the seminar two days after signing with the Baltimore Ravens.
— Chris Canty (@ChrisCanty99) March 14, 2013
"We are more than coaches," Rivera said. "We're mentors and teachers and instructors."
And what is Rivera's message to those high school coaches -- and to his players?
"The biggest theme is about changing the culture. The one thing we try to develop is a family atmosphere -- that can carry over to your everyday life," he said. "We have to present the right kind of picture in the way the way we interact with spouses and children. And we have to be available to listen and help instruct these players. Here, we're changing the attitude of what a real man is like."
Beyond the basics of winning and losing, coaches today face different challenges than they did when Rivera and his Chicago teammates were terrorizing NFL quarterbacks.
"The money has changed things. Free agency has changed things. When you started with a team, you finished with a team. There weren't as many trades," Rivera said. "Today, with players moving constantly, coaches have to work harder to build a bond."
Rivera and the Panthers experienced the fallout from the horrors of domestic violence firsthand when they played against the Chiefs at Kansas City on Dec. 2 last season, the day after Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher murdered his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, before killing himself. Perkins was the mother of Belcher's 3-month-old daughter. The Panthers did not initially know if they were going to be playing after the news broke, and Rivera vividly remembers the shock of that "eye-opening experience."
"For me, it put this issue to the forefront," he said. "When I had to tell our players what happened, you could feel the room become deflated."
Both Rivera and Ted Bunch, who is a co-founder of A Call to Men, said the NFL has been working with its players when it comes to preventing domestic violence -- starting with rookies -- for several years.
A Call to Men aims to show coaches "the importance of teaching the respect for manhood, respectful behavior toward women and valuing women and girls" and that's done partly by ensuing that coaches treat young players with dignity, Bunch said.
One common issue among football players at all levels, Bunch said, is the use of anger as their "default emotion." "We're teaching them other emotions rather than anger," he said. "When they take that helmet off, we want that aggressive put in its place and other emotions to surface."
Bunch stressed to Playbook that domestic violence is something that is not exclusive to football players.
"As tragic as it is, what concerns me is that there are three women killed every day in the U.S. and we don't give them notice," Bunch said. "If [Perkins] wasn't connected to Jovan, she still would have been dead. It's still a secret in our society. Our mission is to create a world where all men and boys are loving and respectful and all women and girls are valued and safe."
The seminar in Charlotte, "A Call to Coaches: Your Voice Counts," was sponsored by the Verizon Foundation as part of the Your Voice Counts campaign, which is conducted in partnership with No More and Mariska Hargitay's Joyful Heart Foundation. It will be offered again in Baltimore on April 16. For more information, visit the A Call to Men website.