A pro football player is tackling sexual and domestic violence issues thanks to his unique platform — and a personal quest to be a good man.
As a student at North Carolina State University, James Smith-Williams heard an advocate named Brenda Tracy speak about surviving a gang rape by college football players. She shared a message that deeply resonated with him.
“Her biggest takeaway was, ‘If you’re a good man, what are you doing to be a good man?’” Smith-Williams told TODAY. “That really stuck with me.”
Since then, the 25-year-old defensive end for the Washington Commanders has committed himself to raising awareness of sexual and domestic violence issues — and supporting survivors.
He founded the Champions program of Tracy's nonprofit Set The Expectation to create a network of athletes who raise money and awareness for nonprofits that support survivors of sexual and interpersonal violence.
During October’s Domestic Violence Awareness Month and beyond, he’s supporting the Purple Leash Project, an initiative by Purina and the nonprofit RedRover to help domestic violence shelters become pet-friendly.
Smith-Williams said he was dismayed to learn that only around 15% of domestic violence shelters currently allow pets.
“About half of the people who are in domestic violence situations delay leaving because of their pet. They have nowhere to go with their pet,” he said. “Pets are family too.”
In a 2021 survey by the nonprofit Urban Resource Institute and the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 97% of survivors reported pets are an important factor in deciding whether or not to seek shelter — and half would not consider leaving without their pets.
Over a third reported their abuser had threatened to harm or kill their pet.
“Ensuring that people who have pets and who are in these situations have a place to go, I just think that is so important,” Smith-Williams said.
On Dec. 4 for the NFL’s My Cause My Cleats, in which players wear customized cleats to support their favorite causes during week 13 of the season, Smith-Williams plans to wear cleats designed by Purina in honor of the Purple Leash Project, and then donate them to an auction to benefit the cause.
A few weeks ago, he also helped upgrade the pet amenities at a domestic violence shelter that received a Purple Leash Project grant.
“It was a really fun day,” he said. “I got to play with some pups and build some doghouses.”
Smith-Williams also loves playing with his rescue dog, Luna. He adopted her as a senior in college.
“She’s been through so many transitions with me. She’s been that one constant,” he said. “I’ll come home and her tail is wagging and she’s excited to see me. That unconditional love that you get from a pet that you’re not going to find anywhere else…I just love her so much.”
Because Smith-Williams understands the powerful connection shared between people and pets, he plans to continue advocating for causes like the Purple Leash Project. He said his fellow athletes are supportive of his advocacy work with sexual and domestic violence.
“They can all start empathizing with, ‘I would want my daughter treated well, and my mother treated well,’” he said. “Everyone is super supportive. As long as I have the ability to help out, I definitely will.”
If you or someone you love is in danger, please contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or visit: TheHotline.org.
To search by zip code for domestic violence shelters that offer accommodations for pets, visit: SafeHavensForPets.org.
This article was originally published on TODAY.com