Dr. Howard Stevenson knows what it’s like to find a way out of high-stress situations. At a time where Black boys and young men are dying from homicide and suicide at high rates, he’s using his resources to help them learn healthy ways to cope with anger. That’s why he created Preventing Long-Term Anger and Aggression in Youth — the PLAAY Project

As a semi-professional soccer player, Stevenson experienced conflict on the field often — but instead of making matters worse, he learned to manage his emotions and safely exit the situation. 

Now a professor of urban education at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, Stevenson felt it was only right to teach the same coping skills to Black boys, who encounter racial and gender violence on a daily basis.

“If you think about traditional therapy, people have a lot of time to screen their thoughts and feelings, but when you’re in movement, it’s very hard for you to put everything under wraps. And so you’re more likely to show a lot about who you are in physical activity,” Stevenson told Word In Black in a video interview. 

PLAAY prepares Black male youth to cope with rejection and crisis situations through sports, which Stevenson says offers unique benefits. 

Building the habit of dealing with mental health matters and PLAAY gives Black males, who often lack access to care, an early start. According to the American Psychological Association, “only 26.4% of Black and Hispanic men ages 18 to 44 who experienced daily feelings of anxiety or depression were likely to have used mental health services.”  

Black boys as young as 10-years-old are viewed as older, less innocent, and are more likely to “be perceived as guilty and face police violence if accused of a crime.”

During the program, staff members — who are trained as athletic and emotional coaches — use the TEAM (Teaching Empowerment through Athletic Movement) method to help youth identify their anger while playing sports and change their response to the emotion. 

“We know a lot more about [how] physical activity can be a space of health benefit. It can improve — in terms of anger management — sort of being able to understand how your body’s working,” Stevenson says. 

Similar to his experience as a soccer player, Stevenson understands that conflict naturally occurs in all sports and creates opportunities for teaching and self-growth. 

For Black male youth, emotional regulation becomes increasingly important off the court when dealing with stereotypes and other forms of racial and gender oppression. 

Research shows that, compared to white students, teachers are more likely to label Black students’ behavior as “problematic.” Beginning as early as preschool, Black children are also more likely than white children to be expelled from school

Outside of the classroom, Black boys as young as 10-years-old are viewed as older, less innocent, and are more likely to “be perceived as guilty and face police violence if accused of a crime,” according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

This was the case for Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy who was fatally shot by officer Timothy Loehmann while playing with a toy gun in a Cleveland, Ohio park. 

After shooting Tamir less than two seconds upon arrival, an officer called in over the police radio: “Shots fired. Male down. Black male, maybe 20.”

“We know through a lot of data that the presumption of dangerousness and the presumption of criminality is thrown upon Black people — men and women — but also children,” Stevenson says. 

PLAAY helps Black boys and young men better understand racism and gender prejudice through group therapy, where they talk about their hopes and fears. The “CPR” sessions — which stands for Cultural Pride Reinforcement —  also seek to instill pride in them about who they are. 

The program provides training to adults and children in various organizations; including schools, community-based health agencies, recreation departments, community recreation centers, religious leadership programs, youth development programs, and mentoring programs. 

Mike Ramil, a former head football coach at Binghamton High School in Binghamton, New York, says when he first enrolled students in the program, they’d push back a little, saying “‘I’m in here because I’m angry and you guys won’t stop me from being angry.’” 

Ramil says stopping youth — most of them Black — from being angry is not the goal. As a half-Asian man who’s been assaulted by the police, he says he understands the stress of racial discrimination.  

“PLAAY is recognizing that you are angry. That it’s OK to be angry. That it’s OK to not to want to be a victim of society. It’s OK not to be a victim of racism. It is OK not to be a victim of whoever’s trying to victimize you,” he says. 

Ramil, now a football coach at Thompson High School in Alabaster, Alabama, says “what you do with that anger is the key.”

He says the program teaches youth how to “accept the fact that you’re angry, but don’t do things that are going to lead to you possibly getting suspended from school, possibly getting kicked out of the game, possibly being put in jail, and sadly, possibly being killed.”

If you can learn to control yourself through sports and continue to play successfully, then you can take that out into your life.

Mike Ramil, football coach at thompson high school

PLAAY taught coaches at Ramil’s former school to empower their players with alternative responses to anger. He says PLAAY was fitting for football because naturally, the sport offers teaching moments. 

“If you can learn to deal with anger issues on the field if you can learn to deal with people calling you names or doing cheap shots if you can learn to do it on the field, then why can’t you look to do in society? Why can’t you learn to do that in your classroom?… If you can understand that you cursing [or] calling that person a name just cost you something, then you sure can do that out in society. And so PLAAY is an idea that if you can learn to control yourself through sports and continue to play successfully, then you can take that out into your life,” Ramil says. 

The coach has seen success in the program. Several of his high school players have gone on to become PLAAY mentors for middle schoolers. 

Stevenson, who says Ramil is considered a “local hero” for how he’s intervened to save students from dangerous situations, credits the effectiveness of PLAAY to the adults who facilitate it. 

“The programs usually are only as good as the adults who are willing to love and care for the kids. If the adults are not, it’s not a good way to go. So they have to be in touch with their own sense of threat around what the children will be bringing up in the context of PLAAY,” he says. “So if a fight breaks out, they have to see it as a part of a larger dynamic, not just as an infraction.”