'Ensuring that people who have pets and who are in these situations have a place to go, I just think that is so important,' the 25-year-old said.
James Smith-Williams was a student at North Carolina State University when he heard the message that shaped who he is today. It came from an advocate named Brenda Tracy who spoke about surviving a gang rape by college football players. "Her biggest takeaway was, 'If you're a good man, what are you doing to be a good man?'" the pro football player told TODAY. "That really stuck with me." From that day, the 25-year-old defensive end for the Washington Commanders has been on a mission to support survivors of sexual and domestic violence and raise awareness of these issues.
Tracy's message resonated so deeply with Smith-Williams that he founded the Champions program of her nonprofit Set The Expectation to build a "global network of current and former athletes dedicated to using the power of their platforms to champion community agencies and groups who serve families and survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence." Now, in recognition of October being Domestic Violence Awareness Month, he has joined the Purple Leash Project, an initiative by Purina and the nonprofit RedRover to help domestic violence shelters become pet-friendly.
Smith-Williams explained that he was taken aback to learn that currently, only around 15% of domestic violence shelters allow individuals to bring in their 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." A 2021 survey by the nonprofit Urban Resource Institute and the National Domestic Violence Hotline found that 97% of survivors consider pets an important factor in deciding whether or not to seek shelter. Half of them reported they would not consider leaving without their pets. Meanwhile, more than a third revealed 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. For the NFL's 'My Cause My Cleats' on December 4, when players wear customized cleats to support their favorite causes, the young player plans to wear cleats designed by Purina in honor of the Purple Leash Project, and later donate them to an auction to benefit the cause. Since joining the Purple Leash Project, Smith-Williams has already helped upgrade the pet amenities at a domestic violence shelter that received a grant from the initiative.
"It was a really fun day," he said. "I got to play with some pups and build some doghouses." The cause is very close to Smith-Williams' heart as he himself is a dog dad to his rescue dog, Luna, whom he adopted 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." He revealed that 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 explained. "Everyone is super supportive. As long as I have the ability to help out, I definitely will."
If you are being subjected to domestic abuse or know of anyone else who is, please visit The National Domestic Violence Hotline website, call 1-800-799-7233 or text LOVEIS to 22522.