Joe Ehrmann played 13 years of professional football, the first eight with the Baltimore Colts and the final three in the United States Football League. He wrote one book about how sports can transform lives and was the subject of another. He coached and was active in the ministry and in numerous social and charitable causes.
He finally started to think about slowing down, but a meeting with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in the aftermath of former Ravens running back Ray Rice's 2014 domestic violence incident convinced him that there was plenty more work for him to do. After the meeting with Goodell, he picked up the phone and called Jody Redman, a former athlete with extensive experience as an administrator, teacher and coach, and the InSideOut Initiative was born.
The initiative, which was backed by the NFL Foundation, focuses on developing character in student-athletes over a win-at-all-costs mentality. It started modestly and succeeded as a statewide initiative in a couple of NFL cities and it has grown significantly. Ehrmann, though, considers Baltimore the initiative's "ground zero" in a plan to help urban schools.
"We're looking at a specific model based on an urban school district," Ehrmann said after a 2½-hour kickoff event at the Ravens' Under Armour Performance Center. "We're going to measure and evaluate this and what we learn here, hopefully we're going to replicate throughout urban centers across the country. The Ravens are a primary partner. This is Ravens driven."
Ehrmann and Redman, the co-founders of the InSideOut Initiative, explained their vision Wednesday to administrators and principals of Baltimore City public high schools. Not only did school officials listen to a tutorial on the initiative and participate in dialogue about the importance of sports and proper leadership, they also received a tour of the Ravens' training facility.
The Ravens, whose team president Dick Cass hosted Wednesday's event, made a significant financial investment over several years to bring the initiative to Baltimore city public high schools. Baltimore-based Under Armour has also partnered with InSideOut and pledged to provide on-field sports uniforms for every school that participates in the initiative.
"We've done a lot of work in providing facilities for high school athletes and equipment and uniforms, but we really thought that this program was an opportunity to bring value to the programs in a sense of teaching the student-athletes why sports is so important and why your participation in sports can build and develop character," Cass said. "We thought this program was a great program. They've rolled it out around the country, to a lot of other jurisdictions. We wanted to have it here in Baltimore, but you need funds to do this program. We're providing the funds for what we think is a very, very important program."
The stated goal of the InSideOut Initiative is to transform the "win-at-all-costs" sports culture and to instead promote sports as a human growth experience that helps develop and shape the educational, social and emotional well-being of each student-athlete.
The three-year partnership features three phases. The first phase is defining the value and purpose of education-based athletics, aligning school leadership with the initiative and establishing expectations and strategies. The second phase revolves around the development of athletic administrators and coaches to prepare them to implement the InSideOut process in their respective schools. The final phase focuses on fostering character and leadership in student-athletes.
"The goal is to win, but the purpose is always about the human growth and development of the [student-athlete]," Redman said.
Redman, the associate director of the Minnesota State High School League, created a curriculum called "Why We Play," which serves as the basis for the initiative. Ehrmann has been speaking about such matters for years.
"There's a tremendous crisis in urban America – the achievement gap, lack of graduation," Ehrmann said. "Education is social capital. If you don't have education, you don't get to participate in America today. Sports really needs to be an education-based tool."
Ehrmann met with Cass and Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti last year to talk about the model he hoped to bring to Baltimore. From there, he and Cass discussed the plan with Dr. Sonja Brookins Santelises, the CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools. After getting her support, Ehrmann furthered the discussions with other school officials.
Many of those officials were in attendance Wednesday. Sean Conley, the chief academic officer of Baltimore City public schools, grew up as a big Pittsburgh Steelers fan, but he applauded the Ravens and the InSideOut Initiative and spoke of how sports can bring student-athletes together. Baltimore City public schools coordinator of athletics Tiffany Byrd smiled throughout the event and expressed how much the initiative could benefit the public schools and athletic programs.
"We have coaches who care, but we have to give coaches the tools that they need," Byrd said.
That process will continue in mid-August when the InSideOut Initiative and Under Armour host a training session for Baltimore City athletic directors. Then, orientation teams will work with every participating institution in implementing the initiative at their respective schools.
"If it aligns with North Avenue, and if it aligns with the principals, now you have sustainability there. You have accountability," Ehrmann said. "I've done coaches training forever. The guys that get it, you move them up a notch. But the guys that don't get it, they either don't come or they slip back in their own way. This has accountability, a structure to it. We're going to raise a high model here.
"There's a lot of alignment that needs to take place. There was a $130 million deficit here a year ago. The problem across the country is when you start dealing with educational budgets, if you don't see sports as an educational tool, you're going to cut that. It's critical that we reclaim its transformative power."
Ehrmann and Redman would ultimately like the initiative to reach student-athletes and coaches at the youth level. However, they view high schools, and Baltimore in particular, as the perfect place to start and the Ravens have vowed to help them in any way they can along the way.
"It's incredibly rewarding. It kind of seems like the culmination of my life's work," Ehrmann said. "I've been a one-hit wonder in a lot of places but to go in and speak and motivate and inspire, if you don't have some kind of systematic approach to it, there's no sustainability to it. This work has longtime sustainability. The thing about creating change, you have to embrace failure. We're willing to. The multiplication of this has huge, huge implications in so many lives."