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Why I’m Not Watching ESPN’s “Catholics vs. Convicts”

December 9, 2016

I had lunch at Pastor Steve’s house earlier this semester.

Pastor Steve and his wife, Arlene, are the University of Miami’s Athletes in Action Ministers. Pastor Steve is also the team chaplain for the Miami Heat. It was inside the Heat’s media dining area that I first met he and Arlene. Our conversations for most of the season centered on my constant battle of finding a man of God, but that’s a story for another day.

“Have they told you about the Bibles?” he asked in between bites.

“Yes, sir.”

“What have they said?”

“They like them. They’re reading them. They’re appreciative,” I replied.

“What’s the last place you’d ever live in America?” If you asked me this question in 2011, I would tell you Miami.

I grew up in a small, close-knit suburb of Denver where you can make it anywhere you want to go in ten-minutes. Everyone knows each other and more than likely also knows your mother and grandparents. There’s little diversity and few challenges to the norm in Wheat Ridge, Colorado.

My career in the sport industry began in 2011 when I started RulingSports.com while practicing law in Orange County, CA. I launched the blog in July and it received decent traction. In December, I marched down the hallway of my law firm’s office, into my co-worker Colin’s office and closed the door. “Write this down. In two years I’m going to be writing for ESPN.”

I don’t think I gave him time to speak. I swiftly turned back around and marched back to my side of the office to bill some more hours. It was a bold prediction and certainly a haughty move. But I’ve always had strong self-esteem and belief in my abilities.

I started RulingSports.com not merely to provide sports law coverage, but to begin shifting the needle in terms of how sports news is conveyed. I wanted to channel away from negativity and toward highlighting athletes making a positive difference in the world. I wanted to celebrate athletes’ feats; not their demises.

Nearly simultaneous to the start of my sports career, the Nevin Shapiro scandal erupted at the University of Miami. Stories related to the scandal were filled with some of the most sensational allegations. To the rest of the world outside of Miami, Miami was filled with nothing but criminals, cheaters and rule breakers. The program was out of control.

In 2011, I was one of those people outside of Miami. I went on ESPN Radio stations to discuss the NCAA’s case and voiced my disgust and displeasure over the unsavory allegations being made. I called for the NCAA to levy heavy sanctions.

Over the next two years, I worked with a major broadcasting agent who pitched me for numerous sport broadcasting and writing jobs. The process was moving too slowly for me and there was no guarantee anything would pan out. Recognizing my unhappiness as a litigator, I asked myself what else I’d like to do. I knew I loved working with college-aged people through my work as a national officer of my sorority and that I knew a lot about sports law, so I pursued a career as a professor.

In 2013–two years after I told Colin I’d be working for ESPN–I didn’t find myself in Bristol, CT. Instead, I found myself in the place I’d never thought I’d call home, Miami, as a first-year professor at the university I questioned, the University of Miami.

Today, though, I know why God sent me to Miami instead of Bristol.

Today, as a professor who has taught 28 of the current Miami Hurricanes football players and many more over the last four years, I have a chance to change the dialogue on how this team is covered and represented in the mainstream media. I have a chance to show the world outside of Miami–like the person I used to be–that in total, what this program represents resembles nothing close to criminality, but rather, some of the most positive attributes in society.

I teach the children of billionaires and the children of those who have nothing. I look at and treat them all equally, because they are in my eyes. They are all equal, because they’ve chosen to pursue a college education to give themselves a better tomorrow.

Walking around campus at the University of Miami is a beautiful scene. I often think of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, “I have a Dream” speech. Walking around campus, I see people of every race, religion and sexual orientation. They laugh together. They all sit around tables and stare at their smartphones together. They sip Starbucks and sit by the beautiful palm tree lined lake in the middle of campus together. The football player and the non-athletic class introvert slap each other’s hands as they pass by each other in the breezeway.

I feel like I’m in a utopia when I am at work. I think to myself often, “If the world looked and acted like what happens here, it truly would be a beautiful place.”

My students are leaders. My students conduct research and lead projects that are changing the world. They are artists and musicians. They are innovators and inventors, constantly pushing the needle and improving the world’s technology. They are humanitarians that travel to developing countries to serve the needy. They quietly volunteer in their communities and don’t ask for recognition. They manage football schedules that sometimes account for 60+ hours of their week, along with courses, internships and other extracurricular activities.

My students are dedicated. My students are in class everyday. They are prepared. They speak up. They have relevant items to add to discussions. They engage with their peers. They perform well on exams. They don’t ask for favors. They accept the grades they earn. They are the true definition of student-athletes.

My students care about their peers. A few weeks ago, I gave a hypothetical in class of a female sport industry employee being sexually assaulted in front of co-workers. I asked a classroom full of students how they would respond. The first two hands up were those belonging to football student-athletes, Michael Smith and Terrance Henley. They gave wise answers of how they’d handle the situation and protect their female co-worker and her dignity.

My students are accountable. Sometimes, I don’t think students know how perceptive professors are to all that’s going on in the classroom. As I was wiping off the board as class ended one afternoon, over my shoulder I heard my student, Brad Kaaya, say, “Hey, man” in a serious voice. I turned over my shoulder a little bit and saw Brad pointing and looking at a fellow student, who is not a student-athlete. “You need to throw your trash away!”

My students look out for other people. Two years ago I was battling a bad inner-ear issue that impacted my balance. During this time I went for a run, fell and tore up both of my knees badly. I went to work with bandaids covering both knees. Former Hurricanes running back, Duke Johnson, was in my class at the time. After I finished teaching and the rest of the students left, he came to the front of the classroom. “Hey, is everything ok?” he said. “Yea, why?” “I saw your knees and wanted to make sure nobody did anything to you.”

My students are intelligent. The NCAA measures Division I athletic programs’ academic success through a tool called the Academic Progress Rate. It measures two things: 1. Whether student-athletes graduate or remain enrolled in school (i.e., don’t drop out) and 2. Whether student-athletes are academically eligible. The highest score a program can score is 1,000. The NCAA requires a 930 minimum. The lowest score the University of Miami football program has ever scored is a 956. Earlier this month, the University of Miami football team was one of only three of all 128 FBS teams to receive the AFCA Academic Achievement Award.

My students are talented. Two of my former students will play in the Reese’s Senior Bowl. Six of my former students signed with NFL teams this season. They’ve broken records. They win games. They have God given athleticism.

I have many talented, intelligent, driven and wonderful friends who work at ESPN. This isn’t about them.

It’s about changing the dialogue.

Stop calling my students, “Convicts.”

I understand that the film airing Saturday is about a game played in 1988. I was four-years-old and a Colorado Buffaloes fan then, so truth be told, I remember nothing of this game.

And that’s how it should remain. If the dialogue surrounding the film was merely about minutes on a gridiron, that would be one thing. It isn’t, though. The film is perpetuating a stereotype that doesn’t meet a single one of the young men I’ve taught in my four years at the University of Miami.

That’s wrong. It’s unfair. And it is not unbiased journalism.

In fact, one ESPN.com article wrote that the “Convicts” label still follows “the Hurricanes to this day.”

Well, let this be the last day.

If the world outside of Miami needs some labels for the Hurricanes, here they are: Leaders, dedicated, caring, accountable, intelligent, talented.

“Pastor Steve?”

“Yes?”

“Did Coach Richt give the players any instruction when he gave them the Bibles?”

“Yes, he told them to start in Proverbs.”

So it’s in Proverbs that I’ll end.

Proverbs 31 is an incredibly important chapter in the Bible for women. Proverbs 31:8-9 is the mission for my life. While it relates mostly to my work in Haiti, it is relevant here:

“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and the needy.”

 

 

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