Will Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan be Home for Christmas?

Athletics, politics, Sports

On August 4, 2022, what friends, family, and fans of Brittney Griner feared would happen, did indeed happen.  

The WNBA Phoenix Mercury All-Star and two-time Olympic gold medalist received a sentence of nine-and-a-half years in a Russian penal colony for alleged drug possession and smuggling. She pled guilty in July, after being held in jail in Russia since her arrest in February. Although Griner and her Russian legal representatives insisted she had unknowingly carried the cannabis oil officials found in her luggage, the judge decided she had done so intentionally and handed down the harsh prison sentence, along with a 1 million-ruble fine (about $16,700). 

It all went down as expected. While the sentence is harsh even by Russian standards, many weren’t surprised to find that a Black, openly queer American woman, regardless of her fame on the basketball court, received no leniency during a time of heightened tensions between Russia and the United States.  

President Joe Biden called the sentence “unacceptable.” His government officially declared Griner wrongfully detained in May, and appears to be working steadily, and increasingly publicly, for her release.  

Griner’s Russian defense team said the judge ignored evidence they presented that should have weighed in Griner’s favor. Additionally, the fact of her guilty plea should have led to a more lenient sentence. They have also filed an appeal.  

Griner was expressionless as the judge spoke her sentence. As she was led from the courtroom, she simply said, “I love my family.”  

A sentence that could be a solution 

But diplomatic experts stress that her sentence is the only hope that remains to Griner for returning home. Without it, negotiations with Russia for any potential prisoner swap could not proceed. It was also the only reasonable move strategically: Less than 1 percent of criminal defendants in Russia receive acquittals. And, in the Russian justice system, even an acquittal can later be overturned. The odds that an acquitted Griner could avoid rearrest in the country seemed small. 

The Russian government has confirmed its strong interest in a prisoner exchange that would free notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, currently serving out a 25-year sentence in the U.S. for conspiring to kill Americans. Russian officials have stated that they are working with their American counterparts behind the scenes to reach an agreement. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has publicly said that his government is prepared to offer a “substantial proposal,” and will “pursue” a prisoner swap. 

The most likely exchange involves Griner, ideally together with her fellow imprisoned American Paul Whelan.  

Paul Whelan’s ordeal 

Whelan, a former Marine and most recently an international advisor on security issues, was arrested in Russia on New Year’s Eve in 2018 on charges of espionage. He has consistently said he traveled to Russia simply to attend a friend’s wedding, and he and his family have strenuously denied the allegation of spying. After a brief, and completely closed-door trial, he was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison. He remains in a harsh Russian labor camp about an eight hours’ drive from Moscow, alongside murderers and thieves.  

Whelan has told media that at the very beginning of his detention, the Russians were telling him the plan was to use him in a prisoner swap. He heard two names consistently: Konstantin Yaroshenko, a pilot imprisoned in the U.S. after a conviction for drug smuggling, and Viktor Bout. In April 2022, a deal with the Americans led to Yaroshenko’s release in exchange for Trevor Reed, another American ex-Marine imprisoned in Russia.  

Political pawns 

It’s likely, according to many informed observers, that Griner’s severe sentence was also a calculated move by Russia to use her as yet another political pawn to secure Bout’s freedom. 

Now, after months of wondering why he wasn’t also freed in exchange for Yaroshenko, Whelan has to be hoping he’ll be released alongside Griner in exchange for Bout. 

Russian prisons and penal colonies are grim places. Prisoners often receive harsh, physically and emotionally abusive treatment from guards, and have access to only the most basic food and sanitary conditions. They typically work for long hours at forced labor. In the case of Griner, who speaks no Russian, the social and cultural isolation has been especially demoralizing. 

Holiday celebrations in 2022? 

By the first part of August, the U.S. had already been waiting weeks for a definitive answer from Russia after laying down Blinken’s “substantial proposal.” On August 11, Russia did publicly confirm its interest in a swap that would give them Bout for Griner and Whelan. 

Both prisoners’ loved ones have been working steadily toward their release and are trying to stay positive. 

Whelan family members have expressed that they are “cautiously optimistic,” his brother, David, said. But David Whelan also expressed a well-earned skepticism. He is afraid that any deal freeing Griner would again leave Paul Whelan behind, either due to “Russia’s bad faith” or to the chance of “the U.S.’s bad hand.”  

Here’s to hoping the U.S. this time has a good hand and plays it well. 

Mike Krzyzewski, “Coach K” – Uplifting Young Black Athletes 

Athletics, Sports

There are plenty of successful Black athletes who will tell you that one of the biggest and best influences on their lives and careers has been a 75-year-old White guy in North Carolina.  

A legend in sports 

Mike Krzyzewski (aka “Coach K”) has served as the head men’s basketball coach at Duke University since March 1980. After his more than four decades at the helm of one of the winningest teams in the NCAA, he is set to retire at the close of the 2021-22 season. Duke’s associate head coach Jon Scheyer, who played under Coach K from 2006 to 2010, is slated to step into those very big shoes.  

Coach K has led the Blue Devils to a history-making series of wins. He holds the record among NCAA Division I men’s basketball coaches for number of games won. Under his guidance, the team racked up five national championships in 1991, 1992, 2001, 2010, and 2015. His Blue Devils have also garnered 12 Final Four positions. For his many successes, Coach K was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2001. 

Oh, and he also coached three consecutive US men’s basketball teams to Olympic gold medals. 

Struggling and striving 

Born in Chicago in 1947 to Polish immigrants, Mike Krzyzewski played high school basketball for his hometown’s Catholic League, taking highest-scoring honors for two years. When he attended college at the United States Military Academy at West Point, he played for Bob Knight, another coaching legend of the game.  

Krzyzewski went on to serve as coach at the US Military Academy Prep School in Virginia, as well as other service teams, before being hired as Knight’s assistant coach at Indiana University. He was there for a single season but returned to the US Military Academy to coach in 1975. 

Then came Duke. Despite Krzyzewski’s talent and Knight’s glowing recommendation, his first couple of seasons there were far from stellar, with zero recruits in 1981. Over the following two seasons, his combined record looked mediocre at just 21 wins and 34 losses. 

Becoming “Coach K” 

With his 1983-84 team, though, everything changed. This is when Mike Krzyzewski became the Coach K so widely respected and beloved today. He’d brought his first Black player, Johnny Dawkins, onboard as a guard, and Dawkins’ play was stunning. That was the first in a consecutive string of 11 seasons in which the Blue Devils amassed 20 or more wins, along with tournament positions.  

Coach K and his team garnered those five Final Fours in a row—the second-longest winning streak of its kind—between 1988 and 1992. Duke won its first two national championships consecutively, too, in 1991 and ‘92.  

The ‘92 season was especially spectacular, with the Blue Devils going 34-2 and earning top ranking in the nation throughout the season. And the championships kept coming, with Coach K recording his 66th career NCAA tournament win in 2005, surpassing his mentor, Knight, in number of wins in 2011. 

Part of the solution 

The start of the COVID-19 pandemic and the simultaneous intensification of calls for racial justice through Black Lives Matter protests brought out the best in Coach K. Always credited as an inspirational leader and communicator who earned the loyalty of his players, he stepped up during a nationally charged moment in a way few White public figures of his stature and popularity did. 

Coach K told an interviewer in 2021 that he and his four assistant coaches—three of them Black American—got together daily during the pandemic to talk in-depth about racial justice. While he’d always considered himself supportive of this issue, these conversations ignited a new understanding and passion in the coach. He finally said to himself, “I’ve got to do something.”  

So he made a heartfelt video, asking assistant coach Nolan Smith to stand on the other side of the camera. He directly addressed Smith, as he had in their many conversations, and the viewer. 

“Black Lives Matter,” Coach K told the world. “We should be saying it every day.”  

In words that remain eloquent and inspiring to many—and infuriating to some—he continued, “We have chosen the easier wrong for four centuries.” And then, “It is time to choose the harder right.” This is not a “political” position, he has reiterated. It’s simply the right thing to do.  

After the video went viral in June 2020, Jeff Capel, a Black American former Coach K assistant coach and now Krzyzewski’s counterpart at the University of Pennsylvania, commented on how meaningful his former boss’ words were as wave after wave of young people of all backgrounds sought to bring about a better world. “He’s tried to learn, he’s tried to educate himself,” Capel said of Krzyzewski. 

Then in August 2020, Duke hosted an event registering students to vote, and Coach K was among the speakers. 

“I’m so damn proud of you,” he told his players and students, for their work toward racial and social justice. “I’ve listened to my players,” he said. “We can make a difference.”  

“Your generation is the generation that’s going to do it,” he continued. Growing up in the 1960s, he learned a lot of ways of thinking that were wrong, but he told the students, “I want to be on your team.” 

Legacy 

When Coach K announced his retirement, fans and journalists began speculating on who could continue his legacy. Many wanted to see a Black head coach in the role, such as Harvard coach Tommy Amaker and Johnny Dawkins, now head coach at the University of Central Florida. That Coach K’s handpicked final choice was Jon Scheyer, his only White assistant coach, stung a bit. But Scheyer has excellent skills and deserves a chance, especially since he has his mentor’s imprimatur.  

In the 1980s, when Krzyzewski was recruiting Dawkins and other Black players for Duke, the school was seen as elite and very “white.” The “cool” kids—and most who had struggled through racism and inequalities—preferred the University of North Carolina and the Tar Heels. Thanks to Coach K’s outreach, that line of thinking had taken a turn for the better by the late 1990s. It helped that he added Black former Duke players, like Dawkins, to his assistant coaching staff.  

But for many, Coach K’s lasting legacy is his founding of the Emily Krzyzewski Center at Duke. Named for his mother, this nonprofit hosts programs that boost the scholastic, leadership, and long-term professional possibilities for talented but underserved students.  

His father, who was only able to attend two years of high school, and his mother, who only completed the eighth grade and worked nights scrubbing floors at the Chicago Athletic Club, instilled in him an unbreakable work ethic and a quest for knowledge. It was his mother who encouraged him to pursue higher education at West Point.  

Now, some 2,000 students pass through the doors of the Emily K Center every year, a testament to Coach K’s commitment to paying his parents’ dedication forward to a new generation of kids.  

“You Want Our Talent, But Not Our Humanity” – The Start of Another NFL Season

Athletics, Race

The start of the football season began with an embrace of unity. What followed? An outpouring of boos from the socially distant crowd at Arrowhead stadium.

American sports are at a crossroads. In times of fear and uncertainty, we often look to athletics to provide joy, inspiration, and clarity. But social justice will no longer afford our national pastimes the ability to obscure our collective lens. Indeed, only the past few months without sports—those empty fields, dark courts, and silent stadiums—have given us the opportunity to focus our national attention on something far more important: police brutality against Black men in America. 

Being a Black athlete has never been easy. There is far too much pressure to keep your head down and to, “just play.” Yet never have we needed more from our most prominent Black icons. Recently, professional athletes, recognizing their reach and the power of symbols, have raised awareness of long-burning issues. Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali are smiling down from above because they know all too well playing sports in a society that reveres you as an idol but does not embrace you as a human is not tenable.

As a Black boy growing up in Washington D.C., I was nine years old when I pleaded with my parents for season tickets to see my favorite football team. My home team, Washington Football, had at one time bucked the status quo by fielding Doug Williams, the first Black Superbowl-winning MVP quarterback. I marveled at what the players had achieved on the field, however, as a child I did not see beyond. 

As a Black man, I still marvel at the athletic achievement, but I know now the more important achievements are cultural. Fifty-two years ago, Black Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists during the Olympic Games in Mexico City as the “Star-Spangled Banner” began playing—a silent protest of the appalling treatment of Blacks back home in the United States. Many years later, where Tommie Smith and John Carlos once stood in protest, Colin Kaepernick and Lebron James have knelt, using their influence to start national conversations. From fists heard around the world to kneeling under the flag the debate continues as Americans are fiercely divided on whether kneeling is dishonorable or appropriate, muting the original reason for the public display—police violence towards Black men. 

Each game day, we applaud Black men for athletic achievement, but every day, we fail to protect them in society. Too often we take the violence as a given, requiring parents to continue having grim conversations with their Black sons on how to navigate themselves safely in our current America. But, at this given crossroads society must now adapt as we adjust the lens.

Seattle Seahawks Head Football Coach Pete Carroll, addressing the media, said, “We all are seeing the truth of how Black people are being treated in our streets and … law enforcement is a huge issue to our guys, because they’re frightened for their lives. They’re frightened for the lives of their loved ones and their children.” 

Coach Carroll is right. There is a Black man in your life who needs you to listen to his story, to understand the daily challenges he faces because of the color of his skin. To know that he fears for the safety of his son.

Coach Carroll continued, “Our players are screaming at us… Can you hear me? They just want to be respected, … [and] accepted just like all of our white children and families…”

As another National Football League season starts, we must use this as an opportunity for advancement. We must honor the work being done by so many to fight for justice in America. You want our talent but not our humanity and that will no longer go unnoticed. 

Commentary: Off the court, LeBron James’ vital role as father

Athletics, Fatherhood, Mentorship, Race, Sports

Originally published in Chicago Tribune, Feb 17, 2020

“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” The remarkable line from author Ralph Ellison’s book “Invisible Man” may seem hard to apply to LeBron James, a 6-foot-8 African American man known for his unparalleled athleticism on the basketball court. But, for a father with unmatched enthusiasm for the success of his sons, society has struggled to view James as the loving dad that he is.

Nevertheless, slowly he is silencing the belief present in society for many years that black men do not play a role in raising their children.

James’ enthusiasm at his son’s basketball games has been seen as juvenile, outrageous and childlike to some who refuse to see the love, compassion and fortitude in his movements. I remember as a young athlete looking into the stands and seeing my father — a validation of my dedication and being. In a similar manner, I suspect James is teaching his sons one of the most important lessons my father taught me: The world is full of opportunities for you to discover, and if you must, to create.

LeBron James, who then played for the Cleveland Cavaliers, celebrates with his sons LeBron Jr. and Bryce Maximus after defeating the Atlanta Hawks during the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2015 NBA Playoffs on May 26, 2015, in Cleveland, Ohio.
LeBron James, who then played for the Cleveland Cavaliers, celebrates with his sons LeBron Jr. and Bryce Maximus after defeating the Atlanta Hawks during the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2015 NBA Playoffs on May 26, 2015, in Cleveland, Ohio.(Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

In 1972 a young black man, trunk packed and ticket in hand, boarded a bus headed to Philadelphia. For the first time in his 18 years of life, my father, Thomas Campbell, was leaving home in pursuit of a college degree — the only one of his siblings to do so. One of eight children, born into modest beginnings, my father persevered to college at a time when only 20% of black men had achieved more than a high school diploma. This was only the beginning, as he persevered to earn a law degree.

 

Forty-six years after my father embarked on his journey, I climbed six shallow steps to receive my medical degree. In that very moment, what I struggled to understand is what my father must have felt as I was declared “Dr. Campbell.” Growing up with a father who could neither read nor write, it must have been unimaginable for my father to believe he could cement a path for my sister and me to earn five degrees between the two of us.

 

But, in actuality all of my father’s actions have continuously encouraged my sister and me to pursue opportunities he never had. Thus, the magnificence of our achievement truly belongs to him. Similarly, James continues to inspire his sons to not only dream but to believe in the realism of their dreams.

LeBron James and my father serve as shining examples of the many black fathers who have created a future for their sons to change the world — a far cry from society’s vision for young black men. These fathers exemplify a view of the world where the finish line is not dictated by the starting line, but is full of boundless direction and achievement — and is not tied to skin color.

Once criticized for their invisibility, our black fathers are now visible, illuminating their brilliance for the world in a way they always have — for us.

Pay Collegiate Athletes If It Is Tied To Their Education: Former Black Student-Athlete Turned Physician Weighs In

Athletics, Race, Sports

There is a script I continue to watch unfold: A young African-American male heralded in college as an elite athlete raises large amounts of money for his university. He then leaves this Mt. Olympus-esque world prior to obtaining a degree for the dream of playing in the National Football League. A few years, seasons and many injuries later this same young man is 30 years old, financially unstable with little to count for his past triumphs but some old newspaper clippings, ESPN highlights found on YouTube and unending aches and pains in his joints. I propose that if the NCAA provides financial compensation under a strict framework of academic compliance and encouragement, multiple issues can be resolved. I am a 30-year-old African-American medical school graduate, a current resident physician, and a former division III track and field All-American.

In 2011, I graduated college and returned to my hometown of Washington D.C., while a savior was moving in from Waco, Texas. Robert Griffin III the former Baylor University QB—nicknamed RGIII—had just been drafted #2 overall by the Washington football team. Each Sunday he had the crowd roaring, game after game, night after night, under the lights and loudspeakers. He was the second most popular person in town next to then President Barack Obama. Years later, as RGIII and I—nearly identical in age—look into the future, divergent futures stare back at us as his career lights are dimming while mine are beginning to illuminate.

Recently, California Governor Gavin Newsome signed the Fair Pay to Play Act allowing collegiate players to be financially compensated for name recognition and to hire agents beginning in 2023. If one steps back, this bill can serve as an opportunity to embolden student-athletes to increase their academic focus for a more enriched future. The financial burden for some players and their families is evident and demands consideration. For many of these families, they send their sons to elite football powerhouses with the hope of winning a national title and the goal of one day playing in the National Football League changing their familial financial landscape. The Fair Pay to Play Act or any bill of this magnitude can be utilized to promote academic compliance through financial compensation. Enforcement of class attendance in conjunction with assignment completion would hold these players more accountable. I propose there be an allocated amount of money a player be eligible to receive on a weekly basis. Yet, missed classes or assignments would result in a weekly reduction or removal of the financial stipend. Daily, the notion of a student-athlete loses its values with certain sports as institutions refuse to hold their student-athletes accountable in the classroom as much as the coaches are holding them responsible on the athletic field.

In 2015, according to Tuscaloosa News, Alabama’s football program earned nearly $46.5 million for the school during their 2015 championship season. Shockingly, this number was nearly $7 million less than the year prior. In the same breath, the organization pushing vehemently to deny these young men the chance to profit from their dedication—the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA—averages nearly 1 billion dollars in revenue annually. These earnings come from exposure and marketing derived from competition and winning, from the coaches who recruit the talent, and from the talent who sacrifice their beings and future. Financial compensation based on academic compliance would allow the players to send money home to their families, to save money and most importantly to better invest in their futures through educational attainment.

I can no longer bear to see former student-athletes holding onto memories everyone else has forgotten not daring to dream of more for their futures. Most NFL players have finished their career by age 30 with no college degree, dismantling financial instability and lasting damage to their bodies. This has to change. There needs to be more retired NFL players becoming businessmen, news personalities, and even coaches. A bill of this nature can create this narrative for these current and future young men. The compass needs to be realigned moving from viewing athletics as the highest point of ones life to utilizing sports and academics to more lifelong achievements.

The importance of sports and athletic prowess is not in question but without a push for education, we are the hurt ones—the men of color.