After returning home from playing football at Shaw University, on the semi-pro circuit, and working out with NFL teams, defensive end Nagai Lee could see how young men in his rural community needed a mentorship program. Combining his love for football and a desire to mentor these young adults to avoid gangs, he came up with an idea to start a local semi-pro football team.

He knew he couldn’t accomplish his idea alone, so Lee pulled together a group of men whom he knew had the same vision for young adults in the area. He turned to his old friends and former high school football teammates Cam White, Charles Harden, Torrence Mourning, and Willie Smallwood. The other men agreed to become co-owners, along with Lee, and the Carolina Falcons semi-pro football team was born. The new football team is slated to begin its season in 2022.

Lee has personally experienced the benefits of participating in sports. He hopes this new football team will do the same for the local players. He’s not alone in the belief that sports can be a positive experience for youth. For years, researchers have been learning what helps young adult men, in particular, avoid joining gangs.

In a recent interview, mentorship program founder Nagei Lee stated this:

“Our goal is to give back to the community…and hopefully…to stop gang violence.”

Why do young people join gangs?

mentorship program
Nagei Lee with a previous semi-pro football team, the East Carolina Phantoms

A report by the Juvenile Justice Bulletin states that participation in sports can deter young people from joining a gang. This report explains the appeal of gangs for many young adults. Gangs are appealing to youth for several reasons, including that they:

  • Feel protected and protect themselves
  • Feel respected by others and the gang members
  • Can make money from illegal activities
  • Feel part of a family, especially if their home life is dysfunctional

Of course, there are many negative reasons why kids join gangs, such as peer pressure, fear of reprisal from the gang, or boredom. Finding a way to meet their needs for protection, family, and a sense of respect could help young adults avoid gangs. Many people suggest that sports could be part of the solution to this continuing problem.

Who is most at risk of gang membership?

Here is a list of some of the contributing factors that cause young adults to be at risk of joining a gang, including:

  • A history of gang membership in their families, such as siblings, parents, or cousins
  • Violence in their home
  • Growing up in an area with gang activity
  • Unstructured free time after school hours and on weekends
  • Little to no adult supervision at home
  • No positive role models at home
  • Lots of exposure to television, music, and movies that revere violence and gang-like solutions
  • Low personal self-esteem
  • Feelings of hopelessness about their future due to lack of education or lack of money, poor learning skills
  • Behaviorial conditions like oppositional defiant disorder(ODD) or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder(ADHD)

Can a sports mentorship program help decrease gang membership?

According to one study, recreational programs combined with other strategies can decrease gang activity. Researchers found that recreational programs like football provide youth with positive role models, nurturing relationships, life skills, safety, and meaningful experiences. They said these programs are tools that address youth gang membership. One gang member told researchers that sports help kids avoid gangs because “it (sports) takes energy. It would have to be something physical” to attract youth.

People suggest that because gang membership can be an unstable experience in these young people’s lives, sports give them a more family-oriented experience with regularity and positivity that gangs lack. But these researchers caution that recreational sports alone can’t solve the problem of gang membership and violence. Still, it’s a good place for communities to start, and that’s what Lee and his co-owners are doing.

Coaches become trusted mentors who become a key part of a young person’s support network.

How can you tell if a young adult is involved in a gang?

There are some telltale signs that a young adult you know might be participating in a gang. These include:

  • Sudden expensive clothing or items or they suddenly have a lot of money.
  • Clothing that looks different from what they usually wear. All one color or style, unique haircuts.
  • Tattoos or body markings indicate gangs.
  • Slang words or writings on their walls that indicate membership.
  • Using unique hand signs.
  • Hanging out with known gang members.
  • Pulling away from family, ignoring curfews, and changing attitudes towards their peers and adults around them.
  • Using or carrying drugs.
  • Carrying a weapon.

What should you do if you have concerns that someone you know is in a gang?

If you have a friend or family member you suspect is part of a gang, here are a few suggestions.

  • Talk to At-Risk Youth: Let them know about your concerns. They may deny it, but they may at least consider your concerns.
  • Share Informative Resources:  How to Break Free from Crime; this article addresses gang membership and how to get out of a gang.
  • Make Yourself Available: Reassure them you’re there for them.
  • Keep Reaching Out: Be there for them. They must know if they get out of the gang, they’ll still have a friend.

What’s going on with the Carolina Falcons football team today?

Right now, the team is holding tryouts to find local players. To show your support for this mentorship program, check out the Carolina Falcons Facebook site for more information.

Lee and the other co-owners have taken on a huge responsibility. They would greatly appreciate the public’s help to pay for the costs of uniforms and equipment the team needs. Check out the Carolina Falcons Go Fund Me page to contribute. They’re also hoping to get financial support through local sponsorships.

Final thoughts on the young man using football as a mentorship program

The Carolina Falcons semi-pro football team plans to kick off in the 2022 season. Let’s hope they succeed not only in providing the community with some excellent football entertainment but accomplish Lee’s goal of helping the young adults in the area avoid gangs. Lee and the other co-owners know they have a huge task ahead of them. But they’re willing to make a difference in as many lives as they can with this mentorship program. We wish them the best in their endeavors.