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Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston said the wrong thing for the right reason

At an elementary school pep talk, he meant to motivate the boys, not diss the girls

I am not inclined to give Jameis Winston the benefit of the doubt – especially when he is talking about the role of women in society. The Florida State and Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback has, for years now, been fighting an accusation of sexual assault from his college days.

So when I read a front-page column by Tom Jones in Feb. 22’s Tampa Bay Times that Winston had sent the wrong message on gender roles during an appearance at a local elementary school, I was inclined to believe it. I have now read Winston’s comments, listened to the audio, and watched the video. I have changed my mind.

I now believe that Winston said the wrong thing – but for the right reason. He deserves more credit for what he was trying to do than blame for his clumsy execution.

It went down like this: On Feb. 22 Winston, wearing his red and pewter No. 3 Bucs jersey, appeared at Melrose Elementary School in St. Petersburg, Florida. Melrose is one of five city schools that have struggled so mightily in recent years that they have been branded “Failure Factories” by the Tampa Bay Times. That harsh title came from a series of investigative stories that earned the paper a Pulitzer Prize and focused a spotlight on the troubled schools.

Several reforms have been put in place, including the hiring of Nikita Reed as a principal who could turn Melrose around. I have worked with students at Melrose in the past and recently interviewed Reed at a public forum on ways to help the struggling schools and close the achievement gap between white and minority students.

I am certain that the appearance of the charismatic quarterback at Melrose was a welcome booster shot, one that might show the school in a favorable light. Winston encouraged the students – from the third to the fifth grades – to follow a three-part path to success in life: have faith in God, work hard in school, and believe that “I can do anything I put my mind to.”

Part cheerleader, part preacher, part motivational speaker, Winston led a call-and-response sequence in which students repeated that sentence: “I can do anything I put my mind to.”

What happened next has become controversial. Winston appeared discouraged by the response of some of the boys in the class, who seemed sleepy, bored, or were just not paying attention. He mimicked them holding their fists against their faces at their desks. “It’s like punching yourself,” he told them.

“All my young boys, stand up. The ladies, sit down. 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 [exaggerates]. One day you’ll have a very, very deep voice.”

And then this:

“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!”

To which columnist Jones responded: “Ugh. Did Winston really say girls are supposed to be silent?”

At least one girl in the class took it that way. She protested to a teacher, “I’m strong too.”

To be sure, I would have written a different script for the voluble quarterback. But I think I know what he was trying to do. His intent was noble.

When we talk of an achievement gap, the context is usually that distance between the performance on standardized tests between white and minority students. But there is another significant gap and it can be seen dramatically in the difference between the academic performance of boys and girls.

In study after study, article after article, we see evidence from preschool through professional schools that girls have been outpacing boys. This gender gap exists in many countries at every level of education and across racial, ethnic, and economic categories.

This comes from the website of the National Education Foundation (NEA): “In 2010, the college completion rate for men was just 27 percent — not much better than it was 40 years ago. But, for women, it was 36 percent, up from 14 percent in 1970.”

Thomas DiPrete, a sociologist from Columbia University, characterizes this as an “astonishing change over a very short period of history.”

When I graduated from Providence College in 1970, the student body was all-male. Now it is 58 percent female, and if admissions were based on academic achievement alone, the gap would be wider.

The seeds of this disparity are planted in elementary schools such as Melrose.

NEA puts it this way: “The road to success in college starts early — and girls have taken the lead from the very start. At every grade, from kindergarten on, girls have better social and behavioral skills than boys, and they earn better grades. But are the girls just plain smarter? No, not according to researchers. Girls and boys have very similar rates of intelligence. But girls do work harder — and their hard work pays off.”

The stakes seem particularly high in the African-American community, where a boy’s failure in school can have such predictable and dire long-term consequences, from unemployment to crime to incarceration.

Why the gap between boys and girls? There are many reasons. Washington Post columnist Bill Raspberry, who was African-American and an education activist, expressed the opinion that “Mothers love their sons, but raise their daughters.”

I believe that when Winston looked out at that group of students, he witnessed what so many of us have seen: a group of enthusiastic girls and some slacker boys. He was not trying to diss the girls. His invitation for them to sit down was a kind of compliment, not “sit down and be silent,” but more like, “Please sit down, girls, you are doing great. I need some time to focus on these boys. They need special attention.”

And they do. That is why the Poynter Institute in cooperation with the Tampa Bay Rays and other organizations created The Write Field, a literacy program for minority boys at the middle school level. That is why the city of St. Petersburg supports Men in the Making, a career and character-building program for minority youth, conducted with the help of African-American mentors, including officers from the St. Petersburg Police Department.

The Rev. Kenny Irby, a veteran sports photojournalist, has led both the Write Field and Men in the Making, and one of his mantras is “loud and proud.” Too often in academic settings, young men, and especially black boys, try to hide in plain sight. Because of their failures – real or perceived – they either hide from attention or act out.

Over five years, I helped create the curriculum for The Write Field, and spent a lot of time helping young men “find their voice.” This meant working with them, asking them questions, listening to them, reading with them, encouraging them to write down their thoughts and feelings. But that was never enough. They must learn to stand up on their feet and speak to what is on their minds, not whispering it, but projecting it, without a microphone, so that grandma and grandpa can hear it in the last row of the classroom or theater.

I believe that Jameis Winston had something similar in mind when he asked the girls to sit so he could work on the boys. At that moment, they needed him more.

“Male students are significantly more likely than female students to be less engaged with school, to have low skills and poor academic achievement, to leave school early and to be overall low achievers in reading, math and science,” according to a new report from the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD).

The report analyzes the scores of 15-year-old students on the Programme for International Student Assessment exam over time to determine why boys are more likely to fail to meet baseline requirements for proficiency in those three core subjects. Across more than 30 OECD countries in 2012, 14 percent of boys and 9 percent of girls did not meet baseline-level proficiency in any of the three core subjects, the report found.

Roy Peter Clark is senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists. He is the author of “Writing Tools” and many other books.