A career in sports analytics busts another barrier for African-American women I’m in the game to change it, not to be part of the status quo

I was standing right outside of the team personnel entrance when time seemed to slow down. Was I in the wrong place? What if I dressed wrong? Maybe red lipstick was too bold. I’m 17. How in the world am I even standing here even if it is the wrong place?

After an excruciating wait of what could have been two or 200 minutes, the arena door opened and out walked my mentor Calder Hynes. “Hi, Tiffany? Welcome, let’s get you started for the night!” Before his current stint overseeing public relations for some of the world’s most valuable athletes at Wasserman, Hynes was one of the main points of contact for the then-New Orleans Hornets communications team, and graciously took on the role of educating yet another eager high school student in the art of game-night operations.

I’d wanted to take career day off — goof off after four long years of honors courses, two-a-day volleyball practices, and PE Accelerate (physical education for the competitive overachievers if you were wondering). Instead, I marched over to the event, up to the public relations team and asked if I could shadow for a regular-season night or two in order to get skin in this game that would, though I did not yet know it, be my future.

After a rundown of team responsibilities and introductory small talk, Hynes then handed me an all-access pass to the New Orleans Arena, now Smoothie King Center. “I have you assigned to shadow the guys who will be inputting stats while I attend to our celebrity guest for the night, Will Ferrell. I hope that’s OK?” Hynes directed.

“The guys who input the stats?” What about shadowing Will Ferrell? Why can’t that happen? But rather than the response I was thinking, I simply said; “That’s perfect.” I headed off to assist the Hornets game night stats crew disappointed, but determined to make the best of my time with the stats guys.

Following Hynes into an entryway of an 8-foot-by-10-foot space barely big enough for an area rug, I walked into what I noticed was a closet transformed into a makeshift office by dint of the two desktop computers displaying NBA and team websites, a collection of roster posters of the Honeybees dance team pinned to the wall and two men unlocking their gaze from the monitors to greet me.

The stats crew for game nights was in charge of getting box score updates into the hands of prominent front-office personnel during timeouts and halftime, and manual statistical inputs to the team website after the game.

It wasn’t until I started tagging along with said crew as they were handing out stats sheets during timeouts to Monty Williams, the head coach of the Hornets at the time, and entering the suite of former Hornets president Hugh Weber, for the halftime stats update to help with any last-minute team decisions that I realized the significance of the situation.

Never mind Will Ferrell. I’d discovered that stats were what I wanted to do with my life. I’d found a career … maybe even a calling. I now knew that these stat sheets that revealed everything from player on-court contributions to net efficiency were my golden ticket. With these, I could go anywhere … even to the front office of an NBA team. Analytics, coaching and development personnel.

Who should be the sixth man off the bench? How are players developing over time? Should a trade even be entertained?

Still the doubts persisted. Was I really in the right place? The room housing the stats guys were clearly last-minute resources the team scrambled to find. They looked tired … manually inputting stats until 1 a.m. with an emptied bag of Lay’s potato chips near the computers for a postmidnight snack. I was tired leaving the arena before the end of the game news conference. After all, it was still a school night.

Seven years later, I’m still in stats. Moving on from handing out numbers to crafting intelligent insights from those numbers is now my life as a sports analytics associate for ESPN. It is still the career I want but the “Am I in the right place” doubts have never gone away. Sometimes I feel as if they’ve amplified. I have mentors, supportive colleagues and a challenging and intellectually stimulating job that I know I’m good at and to which I can bring my best self. But I have no role model. I am an accidental standard-bearer for black women in sports statistics. The first woman of color on ESPN’s sports analytics team — the only one crunching numbers among all of statistics and information at ESPN. And the shortage of women who look like me hasn’t changed a whit since that day with the Hornets.

Choosing a career in sports had, in part, grown from my experience playing volleyball, basketball and swimming and my hypercompetitive relationship with my older brother Osby (Oz for short). The day I beat Oz in NCAA Football on PlayStation is a day I will never let him live down. But sports became an obsession after that night with the Hornets and still is. I knew then I didn’t want to be what the sports industry expected of me. I wasn’t going to take a job I didn’t feel fit me because it fit the societal expectations of female-dominated roles in sports.

Analytics would be my path. Damn the comments and consequences.

I was and am constantly asked about what I’ll do if I hit that glass ceiling, the infamous old boys’ club that generations of women have struggled to join. And like generations before me, I ignore the question and focus on the work — work that reveals clearly what I bring to my field and hope it does the trick.

I remember receiving a text earlier in my career. A colleague with significantly fewer qualifications than myself was asking for help on statistical methodology that would be used to evaluate him for an analytics position with one of the few NBA teams that were hiring. It was a job I’d also applied for through a well-acclaimed referral (and had heard nothing back). That silence would then turn into apologies followed up with “you’ll end up somewhere soon.”

If I’d known about the glass ceiling on that night in New Orleans, if I’d known how hard it is for women to break new ground in a field that hasn’t ever included them, I’m not sure I’d be in stats right now. But today, it is my work that combats gender and racial stereotypes when I tell people what I do for a living and it is my work that prepares me for the seemingly choreographed head snaps when I walk into a room full of men.

Analytics is my path and I’m not stepping away from it. With a little bit of luck and a more courage than I’d expected I’d need, I found my way to change the perception of what a woman can do in the sports world.

This respect that women, minorities, and frankly any human being should have in pursuing their purpose comes from running toward the gray. It comes from accepting the norm as merely a long inherited social custom to be considered and then rejected or accepted depending on what works for any individual. I chose rejection. By embracing what cultural differences set me apart from my team, I am able to create and quantify different insights that expand the usefulness of analytics.

Analytics is used mostly to help front offices or journalists to find those undervalued players, those Davidson College-Stephen Currys of the world. But what happens when we use analytics for stories about issues that go far beyond pure sports? The stories that intersect cultural experiences and sports. The very stories that create the tension behind the “stick to sports” label.

Basketball aside, maybe that’s using our metrics to calculate the total quarterback rating (Total QBR) or impact on a team’s football power index (FPI) of Colin Kaepernick vs. well, insert any injured NFL starting quarterback of your choosing. For the record, that would be the Kaepernick ranked 23rd in Total QBR for the 2016 season ahead of seven current starting quarterbacks, including the now-injured Carson Wentz of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Either way, analytics should be looked at as a conversation-starter, not ender. And in being just that, it uncovers the rudimentary answers to questions all of us have either had or haven’t thought were relevant, all while trying to strip bias from the equation. This is what I want all individuals to understand about what it is that I do and about what analytics can and will do, prejudices aside.

And yes, there are biases in analytics that I am fully aware of. The bias to strategically exclude racial, gender and educational minorities, or the biased belief that athletes are not bright enough to comprehend these analytical insights. Being that I, ironically, am a target for all four of these prejudices makes me the exception that proves the arguments for and against analytics. I find solace in the coming generations ready and already acting to squash preconceptions of African-Americans, women, athletes, and nonstatisticians. Though it may appear to be but slight progress with me being the lone African-American woman in sports analytics within ESPN, professional leagues – specifically the NBA – and our sports analytics industry as a whole are realizing the significance of not following the norm and following people who look like me.

Shane Battier for the Miami Heat. Aaron Blackshear for the Detroit Pistons. Curry and Andre Iguodala for the Bloomberg Players Technology Summit (the Summit). Rajiv Maheswaran for Second Spectrum. John Scott, Jahkeen Hoke, and John Drazan for 4th Family.

All are “minorities” moving into or helping other minorities move into analytics and data-tech, all while realizing their momentous influence on our industry. But most importantly, they are all building the future of our industry so the next stream of analytics looks like all of us. Specifically, 4th Family and its win in the research competition at our annual conference, what most call the meeting of the nerds – the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, for developing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education using basketball analytics for minorities in underprivileged schooling communities.

Curry and Iguodala are two African-American NBA players in the forefront of investing and all in the battle for startup equity among top venture capitalists interested in the tech right in the Warriors’ backyard, Silicon Valley. Using their own summit to invite other professional athletes to share in their sports tech capitalizing endeavors, my mind can’t help but wander to a player investing in the next startup that revolutionizes the way sports data is managed and how analytical insights are formed.

An investment with professional athletes as primary stakeholders in potential sports tech companies founded on tracking depth perception in arenas and stadiums for holographic experiences that will be used in their team practices. An investment that returns a double bottom line – strengthening on-court or on-field performance and a peek into franchise operations. Now that’s a real key to the city.

My key?

I have accepted my life detour into sports media with open arms, and have complete faith in the handful of women NBA front offices have progressively placed their confidence in. I am an extroverted sister navigating my way in this mostly introverted, analytics industry of men and a few women sprinkled about. I am accepting and learning from role models that do not look like me in order to catalyze change. And that is the exact reason that there is beauty in having no standard. I’m figuring out my own black girl magic.

As she says goodbye to Olivia Pope, Kerry Washington opens up  The style icon is honored at the 20th Annual Costume Design Guild Awards

BEVERLY HILLS — The hooting and hollering from the photo bay picked up when Kerry Washington breezed onto the carpet at the Costume Design Guild Awards on Tuesday night. The star — in her last season of the game-changing Scandal — was the last to grace the carpet, and outside of the legendary Lily Tomlin, Star Wars’ Mark Hamill, and Eva Longoria, Washington was easily the most famous person in the event space at the Beverly Hills Hilton. The event is in its 20th year, and bestowed upon Washington the Spotlight Award, which was presented by Longoria.

This night is one of award season’s keystones, and by far one of the more chill events, as it honors the women and men who create the television and film looks we all fawn over. As the big show — the Academy Awards — draws closer, other such events will take place, and Washington is always a notable face. This year, her husband Nnamdi Asomugha — a former NFL star — is up for a prestigious best supporting actor Indie Spirit Award for his excellent turn in last year’s Crown Heights. So this night of award season celebrating certainly won’t be the last time we see Washington grace camera-filled carpets.

Washington took the stage in a body-hugging Dolce & Gabbana floor length sparkler, and was — perhaps — at her most candid. The notoriously private star rarely references her husband and children, preferring instead to talk about her work as an actor and activist. But this night, she chose relay some insight: about the season on Scandal in which she was pregnant with her first child—and the show’s attempts to hide it. And she talked about saying goodbye to Olivia Pope.

“It’s crazy for me to be saying goodbye to Olivia Pope because I’ve been Olivia Pope longer than I’ve been anybody’s wife or mother.”

“When I grow up, I want to be Kerry Washington,” Longoria said. “But there’s a big problem because she’s just too much. She’s lovely and warm and kind and thoughtful and genuine. She’s the one of the most genuine people you’ll find in this business. But she’s also at the same time one of the most kick-ass women that you will ever meet. All the while being a devoted wife and mother to two beautiful kids.”

Longoria talked about Washington’s seven-year reign as Olivia Pope— she called Washington a TV icon. Importantly, Longoria recalled about the headlines Washington grabbed as the first black woman to lead a network drama in over thirty years. “After all, why shouldn’t a black woman be the boss in politics or anywhere else?” Longoria said. “She owned it … she normalized it. Her success paved the way — not just for women of color — but for our society as a whole.”

The show’s costume designer Lyn Paolo cried as she called Washington “stunningly graceful…Your love of costume design and storytelling … all of that is self evident in your whole body of work,” she said. As Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “You’re All I Need To Get By” played — a musical moment that felt directly plucked from Scandal — Washington made her way to the stage. She recalled a hilarious story about being a scholarship student at George Washington University and failing miserably at pressing a dress in the school’s costume shop.

“That is how much I knew about costumes…By the time I left college, I not only knew how to iron, but I was able to say to people that I don’t really know who a character is until I know what shoes she wears,” she said. “Because the shoes tell you how I walk. They tell me how I stand. They tell me who I am. I have relied on the wisdom and genius of costume designers every step along the way.” Washington also revealed how she took ownership of Olivia Pope. She wasn’t just the face of the series, she wanted to make sure she had a stake in the brand itself.

“When we heard that the network was going to create a clothing line inspired by Olivia Pope, Lyn and I said together, ‘not without us!’ Women wanted to dress like her not only because of what [series creator] Shonda [Rhimes] wrote … but it was because of those extra 15 minutes in a fitting,” she said. “We wanted to go past okay, into right. We wanted to go past okay into telling a story and informing the audience of a deeper truth because we know that a pair of shoes can do that!” Soon, Washington will hang up her white hat and Olivia Pope will go away. This is the show’s final season, and it’s been an emotional ride.

“It’s crazy for me to be saying goodbye to Olivia Pope because I’ve been Olivia Pope longer than I’ve been anybody’s wife or mother. Those things are new to me because of her,” Washington said. “When I told Shonda I was pregnant and Shonda told me that Olivia Pope was not going to be pregnant, I panicked. How in the world am I going to hide this bump? And I could do it because of Lyn. There were no maternity clothes out there. But she took those beautiful couture Armani pants, cut out the front and replaced it with with growing material that held my daughter. I waddled—but I waddled well dressed.”

Russell Wilson and Ciara’s baby girl Sienna makes her debut The princess is here!

Sienna Princess, the daughter of Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and songstress Ciara has officially made her debut, and she is a stunner!

The world has been waiting to see the dynamic duo’s 9-month-old daughter for quite some time, and it was certainly worth the wait. Ciara tweeted photos on Twitter and Instagram announcing the princess’ debut on the TraceMe app. The app, which was founded by the Seahawks quarterback, aims to give fans a closer look at their favorite celebs.

Instagram Photo

Sienna is already serving up chic looks like her mom along with a full side of chubby cheeks and a winning smile. And if you weren’t already impressed that her proud papa is taking on the tech industry when he’s off the field, you will be when you find out who shot the photos. That’s right: Papa Russ.

Wilson and Ciara have become quite the power couple, and their family — along with 3-year-old Future Zahir, whose father is rapper Future — has stolen the hearts of music lovers and sports fans. Throughout the NFL season, Ciara and her son were in the stands rooting Wilson on. And Wilson exercised his photography skills on his wife before turning the camera to baby girl Sienna.

We’re hoping there are more pictures of the family to come!

‘The Plug’ podcast: The Eagles are here, Stephen A. Smith is too (Episode 10) We’re closing out the NFL season while ready to turn up with the NBA

Subscribe: Apple Podcasts | ESPN App | RSS | Embed

It’s All-Star Weekend … Week. It’s Black Panther Week. In other words, it’s a big week in The Undefeated’s neighborhood, so we had to bring in the big guests. The Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles are in the building and they’re still on cloud nine. And by the sound of things, don’t expect them to come down either. We also have the one and only Stephen A. Smith on board talking all things NBA. Stay long enough too, and he’ll dish out some Valentine’s Day advice for all the lovers out there.

We’re off to Los Angeles this weekend, so be ready to pull up on us next week for all of the All-Star Weekend juice. It should be common knowledge by now, but for those new to the party — subscribe to The Plug on the ESPN app!

Previously: ‘The Plug’ podcast: ‘Black Panther’ details — plus ‘GLOW’s’ Sydelle Noel (Episode 9)

NASCAR driver Jesse Iwuji debuts at Daytona International Speedway this weekend The 30-year-old will compete in the Automobile Racing Club of America event

DAYTONA BEACH, Florida — When Jesse Iwuji appeared on a NASCAR podcast at a trade show in November with NASCAR driver Ryan Blaney, the challenges to make it in racing were evident.

Iwuji, at 30 years old, had started his racing career just a few years earlier at 27. Blaney, 23, was completing his second full-time season and fourth overall as a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver.

NASCAR drivers typically know by age 27 whether they have a future in the sport. But the Navy lieutenant and former Naval Academy cornerback is used to doing the unconventional.

While many of his friends have settled into more normal jobs, Iwuji just can’t fathom a 9-to-5 life just yet.

“That’s just too regular and boring to me,” Iwuji said Thursday as he stood in the garage at Daytona International Speedway. “I’m all about excitement and doing cool things. I couldn’t just go home every day and sit on my couch and go to sleep, wake up and do that every single day.

“To me, that’s not fun. For some people, that’s what they want: safe, conservative, that is the life. For me, it’s not. I’ve got to go out and do things. It is a lot of work; sometimes it can be stressful and take up a lot of time. At the end of the day, I look back and wow, I was on TV racing in front of thousands of people. That’s cool.”

Iwuji will compete in the Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) event Saturday afternoon. The stock car series — a mix of up-and-coming drivers as well as veterans who compete in the circuit, which races mostly on Midwest tracks — will feature drivers competing at speeds of 180-185 mph on the high-banked 2.5-mile trioval.

On Sunday, he will compete in NASCAR’s developmental K&N Pro Series East on the half-mile New Smyrna (Florida) Speedway. He competed full time in East’s sister series, the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West, last year, finishing 14th in the standings.

Iwuji’s cars for both races will be fielded by Patriot Motorsports Group, whose ownership includes former NFL All-Pro linebacker Shawne Merriman. In the regional series this year, Iwuji is hoping that his full year of racing last season will give him the experience to keep pace with the younger, more experienced drivers. He also spends an hour or two nightly on iRacing, a racing simulation program.

SPOKANE, WA – MAY 13: Jesse Iwuji #36 talks to a member of his crew during final practice at Spokane County Raceway on May 13, 2017 in Spokane, Washington. (Photo by )

“Age, to me, is just a number,” Iwuji said. “I am still very energetic. I still work out and run. I’m stronger and faster than half the people here physically. Just because I’m not 16 or 18 doesn’t mean I can’t physically outdo a lot of people.

“Experiencewise, yes, I am behind. It just takes time. The more time you’re in the seat racing, the better. A lot of these people started when they were 5 years old. Their 10 to 15, 20 years of experience racing is huge.”

Iwuji’s 2018 plans include about seven ARCA races and a return to the NASCAR regional series. The next step would be to compete in NASCAR’s truck series.

His Daytona debut Saturday will be something special, and part of the progression for any stock car driver.

“Everybody out there who has a dream to race or just do anything that is out of the ordinary, I’m here to show them it’s possible,” Iwuji said. “I’ve always loved cars, I’ve always loved racing. Sometime around 2014, I made the decision, ‘Hey, I want to become a professional race car driver.’

“I remember I went on deployment that year and every single day on the ship, every night on watch, I’d just be in my head thinking, How can I make this happen?”

Like many of his Navy brethren, Iwuji will use his military experience to make up for the lack of experience in his field.

“They’re behind in maybe real-world experience in whatever field, but they’re not behind in just real-life experience, period,” Iwuji said. “They’ve been out there, they’ve been doing things, they’ve led people, they’ve had to make big decisions, whether it’s money, equipment, time or lives. … They have had to manage a lot of things that people in the real world really don’t get the opportunity to do at their age.”

His military experience allows Iwuji to handle the stress of racing, a sport that often depends on sponsorship and is unpredictable in regards to how a driver rises through the ranks. He has sponsorship for the ARCA race from BBMC Mortgage.

“You’ve got to deal with a lot in the military,” Iwuji said. “Being here? There’s nothing here that is going to faze me. When people get stressed after dealing with one or two things, I’m like, ‘How about dealing with about 30 things?’ ”

Iwuji will be the only African-American driver in the race Saturday. There is only one full-time African-American driver in NASCAR’s three national series: Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr., a NASCAR Cup rookie this year at Richard Petty Motorsports who is the first African-American full-time driver at NASCAR’s top level since Wendell Scott in 1971.

“Bubba Wallace, he’s definitely paving the way right now,” Iwuji said. “Right now, diversity is going in a positive direction for the sport. … Whether they’re females or black, Mexican, Asian, you name it, the sport’s open to it and I think more people are starting to recognize that.”

Iwuji hopes to follow Wallace and race at NASCAR’s Cup level in a few years. The odds are against him. But whether he makes it or not won’t define him.

“At the end of the day, racing isn’t my whole life,” Iwuji said. “I’ve got some other big stuff going. I’m going to make it big in the business world too. Racing is the really cool, fun side of things.

“I’m not going to look to make this my end-all, be-all. I’m going to make it to where I want to go but I don’t have to just to live.”

Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback William Gay teams up with Joe Biden to end domestic violence ‘I’ve been through that struggle, still going through that struggle, and I know what it takes to try to rise’

William Gay lives and breathes football. Like most cornerbacks in the NFL, his energy goes into pouring everything onto the field — especially since he’s a part of a playoff-caliber team like the Pittsburgh Steelers. But when game day is over, Gay’s energy goes toward advocating against domestic violence, a subject matter that hits close to home.

The 33-year-old turned the pain he’s been carrying since 1992 into motivation, all in the name of his late mother, Carolyn Hall, who was killed by her boyfriend when he was just 8 years old.

He’s been vocal about his personal journey in the past few years. Now he is partnering with former vice president Joe Biden in an initiative that will address these issues.

Thursday, the Biden Foundation named Gay to its Advisory Council, which focuses on ending sexual assault and violence against women, among other causes.

As an Advisory Council member, Gay joins a prominent group of leaders, experts and advocates who have been selected to serve as ambassadors for the Biden Foundation, guiding strategic partnerships to create societal change.

“I received a letter, and when I saw ‘Joe Biden’ on it, I’m like, ‘OK, this might be a false letter,’ ” Gay told The Undefeated. “But then my agent told me about it and then the NFL also told me about, so then I was like, ‘OK, it’s real.’ His ideas are similar to what I have going on, what my beliefs are, and trying to end domestic violence. I was glad he thought of me. I jumped at the opportunity — not as quick as I wanted to, because I got the invite during the season and I’m 100 percent about football. So I tried to focus in on the playoffs, but I was all excited for the opportunity to be invited on the advisory committee.”

A longtime champion for victims of domestic violence, Gay believes in the Biden Foundation’s commitment to bringing together diverse voices who can uniquely speak to groups that will change the culture.

On Friday, Gay and Biden will link up to discuss their commitment to empowering men and women alike to stop sexual assault on college campuses. The duo will speak at the Association of Fraternal Leadership & Values Central 2018 in Indianapolis.

“We have to start engaging in conversations where we hold each other, and ourselves, accountable,” Gay said. “We hope to spur some of those discussions today and keep them going as we work toward a safer tomorrow.”

The Biden Foundation is a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation established to carry on the former vice president and his wife’s lifelong commitment to public service. Through educational programming and public policy analysis, the foundation works to build a world where all people are equal in dignity and opportunity.

“It’s on all of us to change the culture on our college campuses, in our locker rooms and in our frat houses so that sexual assault is never accepted. We all must stand up and stop inappropriate behavior,” Biden said. “Men must be part of this solution and conversation. William understands what is at stake when we remain silent on abuse. He gets it and is using his platform to work to end domestic and sexual violence. That’s why I am so proud to have him join my foundation’s Advisory Council and partner with us as we work to create a culture where all live free from violence.”

Gay says he is eager to join this platform with Biden.

“This is all I’ve been preaching, for everybody to just come together and realize that this is dangerous,” Gay said. “You can talk about it, you can do something about it. It’s not embarrassing to let someone know or to try to help someone. The more you talk about it, the more you get people comfortable, that’s the first ring of trying to eliminate these problems.”

Gay’s crusade for ending domestic violence has all been in the name of his late mother.

“What drives me is my mother’s story, and this is a way, one, to keep her voice alive; two, just to help someone who is either in their situation or as a child in the same situation, give that encouragement that there are better things out there in the world. As a kid, there’s no like, ‘Oh, my God, my life is over because I don’t have parents.’ And for anyone who is in that violent situation or the sexual assault situation, there are people out there who would help. I don’t think my mom knew people that would help, because this was back in 1992. This is my way of allowing her story to stay alive, her to be alive, and also her story helps someone else.”

After Hall was killed, her boyfriend shot himself. Gay and his three siblings were raised by his grandmother Corine Hall.

“From 8 to about 12-13, I just felt like I was alone, didn’t care,” Gay said. “Even though my grandmother took me and my two brothers in, I just felt like a loner, because when you go to school, you see kids’ parents picking them up, and I didn’t have that opportunity. So I was just against everything.”

Gay says the hardest part of his journey is not having his mother around for major accomplishments.

“I had a loving family. My grandma did what she could to make sure that we felt loved, but it’s just those milestones. The high school graduation, the picking my college, the graduating from college, to getting drafted, going to the Super Bowl and, you know, just all these accolades that I attained and, you know, she wasn’t present. And I know if she was here, she would be front row or even on the stage with me.”

Gay’s uncle was his role model growing up.

“He was just blunt,” Gay said. “He said, ‘If you keep on this path, or being mad at the world, or wanting to being a bad child or thug, or what have you, you’re going to end up dead or in jail. You’re also not going to be able to play football.’ I was 12 years old, but it stuck with me through every journey in my life.”

He said he had a “whole team” of people, including family, teachers and coaches, who took him in.

“[They] saw the potential in me and knew that I needed just a little help to get where I’m going,” Gay said.

Football helped Gay manage his feelings, and he found a safe haven in the sport. It’s been so much a part of his life he doesn’t remember the first time he picked up a football.

“Probably 2, 3 …,” he said. “Football was always in our family. My older brother played, my uncles played. Just sports in general because where we were living, you weren’t staying in the house, you had to go outside. As long as it was hot in Florida, we played football. I officially started loving the game when I was 9 or 10. That was a safe place for me. That was my safe haven for me, even at a young age. I just knew when I went out there, I got away from problems. I didn’t have to think about I don’t have a mom. I’m out here having fun, and I’m competing.”

From this experience with Biden, Gay wants the public to focus on the outcomes and beating the odds of domestic violence than dismal statistics surrounding the subject.

“I always tell people I ain’t big on numbers. I love math, but when it comes down to statistics, I beat those odds, so I don’t even talk about statistics. What I talk about is real-life numbers, examples of people who’d been through it. That’s what I want people to get out. This is not coming from a book. This is coming from a written life, and I just want the realness of it, and that’s what people who are going through it want to see. They don’t want to see, ‘Oh, well, this doctor, he has five different degrees, or this person has eight different degrees and they’re telling me this and that, but they don’t really know what I’m going through.’

“I’ve been through that struggle, still going through that struggle, and I know what it takes to try to rise or take the right path.”

King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ explains the rage over the NFL anthem protests and the persistence of racial injustice Re-reading the famous letter today shows how much still needs to change

On Feb. 11, at 8 p.m., The Undefeated will present Dear Black Athlete, a one-hour special on ESPN featuring conversations with athletes and community leaders about social justice. Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the program will be taped at Birmingham’s Sixth Avenue Baptist Church, where King spoke and led civil rights marches. Below, we examine the meaning of King’s letter in today’s racial climate.


Martin Luther King Jr. penned his Letter from Birmingham Jail in a narrow cell on newspaper margins, scraps of paper and smuggled-in legal pads. He had no notes or reference materials. Yet, King’s eloquent defense of nonviolent protest and searing critique of moderation continues to resonate in a nation still divided by race.

In 1963, the letter spoke truth to white clergymen who called him a troublemaker for coming to Birmingham, Alabama, to confront that city’s harsh segregation and racial violence. In 2018, King’s tract stands as a beacon to a new generation of activists impatient with injustice perpetuated less by flush-faced bigots than by the ostensibly colorblind institutions that structure our society.

King’s letter famously said creating tension was necessary to the work of nonviolent protesters, and that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” He called out the white church for being an “arch supporter of the status quo,” and castigated its ministers for urging members to comply with desegregation because it is the law, not because it is morally right and “the Negro is your brother.” He also expressed grave disappointment with white moderates, whom he described as “more devoted to order than justice.”

The letter was “prophetic,” said Lecia Brooks, outreach director for the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks racial extremist groups. “King really calls out systemic racism and, particularly, systemic anti-black racism. And, of course, it persists today.”

Brooks hears echoes of the white clergymen who accused King of inciting violence in the stinging criticism of NFL players who protested racial inequities by taking a knee during the national anthem.

“What they have done is in the tradition of nonviolent protest. It forces people to have a conversation,” she said. “But the pushback has been ugly. It’s like, ‘We’re sick of you, the nerve of the NFL players.’ They are like the outsiders that the clergy mentioned in going after King.”

King’s letter was written nearly a decade after the Supreme Court outlawed school segregation, but Alabama’s largest city operated under its own rules. Black people could not work or try on clothes in downtown stores. They were given used books in separate schools, and made to wait in separate waiting rooms at public hospitals. Those who challenged the established order risked the wrath of the Ku Klux Klan or other terrorists who enforced apartheid so savagely that the town was nicknamed “Bombingham.”

Today, the city is no longer segregated by law, and violent racists no longer run amok. But segregation remains: Many whites fled the city, and its schools are 99 percent black and Hispanic. The city’s poverty rate is more than 30 percent. Then there is the racial wealth gap, income gap, unemployment gap, school achievement gap, incarceration gap and life expectancy gap. It is a story common to many parts of the country.

“The pushback has been ugly. It’s like, ‘We’re sick of you, the nerve of the NFL players.’ “

Birmingham is now led by Mayor Randall Woodfin, 36, a proud Morehouse College graduate who is among the more than 10,000 black elected officials serving across the country.

“It is hard to read King’s letter and not want to re-reread it and re-read it again,” he said, calling it the civil rights leader’s seminal piece. Not only does it lay out the steps, from self-education to negotiation, that should precede protest, Woodfin said, but it also makes a historical case for why black people are impatient for real change.

“We have black leadership now. But some of the things Dr. King was talking about as it relates to poverty and better education and opportunity, they still exist,” Woodfin said. “We need to be bolder in correcting things we know are not working for many people.”

Better education funding, longer school years, seamless coordination between schools, libraries and recreation centers are some of the things that Woodfin thinks could help. “We are not spending enough time with our children,” he said. “We need to do more with workforce development, that entire pipeline from birth until young people cross that stage.”

But winning support for such initiatives is difficult in Birmingham, much like it is in Detroit or Baltimore or East St. Louis, Illinois. The city alone does not have the wealth to pay for those things, and white taxpayers in neighboring communities do not see problems in places like Birmingham’s as theirs. If polls are any indication, almost none of those white suburbanites see themselves as racist. But they are the present-day equivalent of the moderates King wrote about, minimizing the importance of discrimination in the ongoing struggles of places like Birmingham.

Seven in 10 African-Americans surveyed in a 2016 Pew Research Center poll cited discrimination as a reason blacks have a harder time than whites getting ahead, a view shared by just 36 percent of white respondents. A series of independent studies have found that black people still face discrimination from the criminal justice system, from employers, from real estate agents, and from banks and mortgage companies. Yet, when asked about the racial fairness of institutions fundamental to American life — courts, police, the workplace, mortgage companies — white people are much less likely than African-Americans to say black people are treated unfairly. White evangelicals, who are most prominent in the South, were the group least likely to perceive discrimination against blacks, according to a 2017 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute. Only 36 percent of white evangelicals reported perceiving a lot of discrimination against black people.

Growing up white in Birmingham, the Rev. Jim Cooley said segregation was a way of life that as a child he never stopped to examine. “It was a different planet then,” said Cooley, who is now pastor of the city’s First Baptist Church. One of his predecessors, the Rev. Earl Stallings, was among the eight clergymen who signed the statement that prompted King’s famous letter.

“I remember seeing separate bathrooms and separate water fountains as a youngster. I guess it was a tribute to my parents that I did not think of it as this is ‘upper’ and that is ‘lower.’ My impression was that there was some natural reason for this that I did not understand.”

Now he knows better, and he thanks King for helping to transform his city. He says the new Birmingham is evident in his own church’s growing racial diversity and the fact that its black organist causes no one in the congregation to as much as raise an eyebrow. He also sees black and white people coming together in civic groups to address the city’s many problems.

Still, Cooley acknowledged that huge racial disparities remain. Some are no doubt the result of Birmingham’s long history of racism, he says. But he thinks the gaps have as much to do with educational shortcomings and social isolation that he said also hinders many white people.

“If I walk around my neighborhood, there is an English couple. A man across the way is involved in the Sons of the Confederacy. There is an African-American doctor. Next to him, an Indian veterinarian and a Chinese pharmacist,” Cooley said. “There is less friction now, for sure. While everything was so drastically race-driven 50 or 60 years ago, now it is about opportunity and education. And that cuts across all kinds of racial strata.”

Freeman A. Hrabowski III, 67, the longtime president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, grew up in middle-class black Birmingham, as did former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, activist Angela Davis and Alma Powell, the wife of former Secretary of State Colin Powell. It was a nurturing world of high aspirations tightly controlled by the constant threat of racial violence.

“When we went downtown, we knew we were not part of mainstream Birmingham because there was nobody black in a position of power, not even at a cash register,” he recalled. “No police, firemen, nothing. It is hard to understand if you were not there just how dramatically different the world was then.”

Hrabowski was 12 years old when he was arrested and held for five days for taking part in the “Children’s Crusade,” waves of demonstrations that King launched not long after he was released from the Birmingham jail.

“When we went downtown we knew we were not part of mainstream Birmingham because there was nobody black in a position of power, not even at a cash register.”

Hrabowski brings the lessons he learned then to his work as president of UMBC, a public university just outside Baltimore. During his more than quarter-century at the university’s helm, he has turned the once nondescript commuter school into one of the nation’s top producers of African-American doctorates in science, technology, engineering and math.

That has not happened by accident. Hrabowski had made it his business to mentor and support black students and those from other underrepresented groups. Hrabowski promotes his school with evangelical zeal and brings at-risk students to campus to help them learn the habits of academic success. He promotes his sharpest science nerds as if they were rap stars, and he singles out basketball players with high grades so they can be seen as both athletic and academic role models.

He shed tears of joy in November when a black woman from suburban Maryland, 21-year-old Naomi Mburu, was named UMBC’s first Rhodes scholar. And when the university opened its new basketball arena and events center last weekend, he made sure Mburu strode onto center court, where she was introduced to the crowd at halftime.

It’s his way of battling the pervasive injustice he once endured in Birmingham.

Hrabowski noted that back when King penned his letter only 2 or 3 percent of African-Americans were college graduates, as were roughly 10 percent of whites. Now, according to the Census Bureau, 23 percent of African-American adults are four-year college graduates, as are almost 37 percent of whites.

“We’ve made tremendous progress since Dr. King’s letter, yes we have,” Hrabowski said. “You want to acknowledge that progress. But a lot of people are left behind, and to solve that we have to look at the unjust policies that Dr. King talks about. Just because it is in the structure, doesn’t mean it is just.”

Team LeBron and Team Stephen select charities for the NBA All-Star Game This year’s festivities will result in donations to L.A. community organizations

After players participating in this year’s NBA All-Star Game on Feb. 18 leave the hardwood and the swarms of visitors to the Los Angeles area flee the city, hopefully a lasting impression on the community will be the final result.

As part of the NBA’s revamped All-Star format, the 2018 NBA All-Star teams will play for charity, a decision the league and players association crafted to enhance the All-Star Game and make an impact on the local community.

On Wednesday morning, captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry revealed their charities in videos shared on social media. Team LeBron selected After School All-Stars of Los Angeles, while Team Stephen chose Brotherhood Crusade. The winning team will donate $350,000 and the losing team will donate $150,000 to their selected organizations.

Team LeBron

Team Stephen

After-School All-Stars Los Angeles provides out-of-school services for more than 13,000 students across 52 schools, and Brotherhood Crusade works to support underserved youths in South Los Angeles through mentoring, education, health and wellness, and leadership programs.

After School All-Stars was founded in 1992 by Arnold Schwarzenegger. The organization’s mission is to keep children safe and help them succeed in school and in life. Every school day, students in low-income communities have access to free programs that offer academic support, enrichment opportunities, and health and fitness activities. Brotherhood Crusade has been working in the community for 50 years, improving the quality of life of low-income, underserved and disenfranchised individuals.

In a joint statement, the NBA and National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) revealed the revamped format in October. The new structure will mark the NBA’s first All-Star Game without a matchup between the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference.

The team captains were the players who received the most votes in each conference. The NBA now uses a draft-style system similar to those used by the NHL All-Star Game (2011–15) and the NFL Pro Bowl (2014–16) to select starters and reserves.

“I’m thrilled with what the players and the league have done to improve the All-Star Game, which has been a priority for all of us,” said NBPA president Chris Paul of the Houston Rockets. “We’re looking forward to putting on an entertaining show in L.A.”

The All-Star Game’s coaches are usually the head coaches whose teams have the best record in their respective conferences. The Golden State Warriors’ Steve Kerr and the Boston Celtics’ Brad Stevens are ineligible because they coached last year’s All-Star Game. The Houston Rockets’ Mike D’Antoni will coach Team Stephen, and Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey will coach Team LeBron.

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ JuJu Smith-Schuster loves his dog, Boujee — and The Powerpuff Girls The California native says that playing in snow is to his advantage

Walking the line between excelling at your first job and staying up all night because of your active social life is a cross so many of us bear at the age of 21. JuJu Smith-Schuster, the star rookie wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers, is just balancing it much better than most of us.

When he’s not catching passes from Ben Roethlisberger on any given NFL Sunday, Smith-Schuster is your typical 21-year-old. The former USC Trojan manages to upload weekly videos to his YouTube channel, where his nearly 182,000 subscribers can watch him do everything from making a Primanti’s sandwich to hitchhiking. He has a French bulldog named Boujee, who probably — well, definitely — has more followers on Instagram than you. And he stays up all night playing video games. Smith-Schuster did all of this and more while being named the Steelers’ rookie of the year, with 58 catches for 917 yards and seven touchdowns in his first season in the league.

The California native is adjusting to life in the Steel City, but don’t expect him to say “yinz” anytime soon. He quickly chopped it up with The Undefeated after hosting a Call of Duty: World War II livestream with the newly minted first-ballot Hall of Famer Randy Moss in the lead-up to the Super Bowl.


You survived your first winter in Pittsburgh. How traumatized are you?

It was crazy! I left my pizza in the car, and literally overnight it straight froze. It’s really cold. It’s a new thing for me.

So are you trading in the sand for the snow?

I don’t mind the snow. I feel like it’s to our advantage when you live in it and play in it.

“I can spit gum high in the air, like 10 feet, and catch it in my mouth, but I don’t think I can get paid for that.”

Have you tried snowboarding?

No, I want to! I feel like it would be easier than skiing, no?

What would you do if you didn’t play football?

Professional gamer. I can spit gum high in the air, like 10 feet, and catch it in my mouth, but I don’t think I can get paid for that.

Aside from yourself, of course, who’s the best Call of Duty player in the NFL?

Le’Veon Bell. I have to say him because he’s my teammate. He’ll probably laugh if I don’t say him, but he’s up there for sure.

Your dog, Boujee, has quite the following on Instagram …

That dude loves it [in Los Angeles]. He does photo shoots. He likes those.

Are you the photographer?

Yeah, me — and he has a professional photographer. His page is starting to blow up, so they have to be professional.

Favorite cartoon?

The Powerpuff Girls.

What would your superpower be?

To control people’s minds.

What advice would you give to your even younger self?

Take the opportunity to get to know the people around you.

More to Super Bowl: NFL wants to leave lasting legacies in communities through outreach Check out a few highlights that positively impacted the Minneapolis-St. Paul area

Beyond the chilly Minneapolis temperatures, the highly anticipated gridiron showdown, the electrifying halftime performance and the presentation of the Lombardi Trophy, there were a plethora of community service events surrounding Super Bowl LII, as is the case each year.

Sunday’s season-ending celebration closed with a 41-33 win for the Philadelphia Eagles over the New England Patriots. Meanwhile, the Minneapolis-St. Paul area saw 32 activities and community outreach events throughout the city, which was part of the NFL’s plan to leave a lasting legacy.

For example, Special Olympics Minnesota partnered with the Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee to host a Polar Plunge, a signature winter event centered on participants jumping into a body of icy water and raising funds to support more than 8,200 people with intellectual disabilities across the state.

But there’s more.

Out of the 32 announced events that took place in Minneapolis during Super Bowl LII weekend and the weeks leading up to the big day, here are a few community outreach events of note.


AN INTERFAITH GATHERING

Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee partnered with the Downtown Congregations to kick off Super Bowl week with an interfaith gathering to celebrate unity and shared purpose. The gathering was held at Westminster Presbyterian Church. The celebration showcased Minnesota’s national leadership in multifaith dialogue and cooperation and will raise money to prevent homelessness. The event is the work of the Twin Cities faith community — rabbis, priests, pastors, imams and other leaders — coming together to send a message about unity in the Twin Cities.

CREATING A CULTURE OF CARE: AN INSIDEOUT INITIATIVE EVENT

The NFL Foundation and Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee Legacy Fund hosted a special character development event for local Minnesota High School athletic directors and their respective head football coach and female coach of influence at the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine.

SPECIAL OLYMPICS UNIFIED FLAG FOOTBALL GAME and POLAR PLUNGE

The NFL and Special Olympics Minnesota hosted a Special Olympics Unified Flag Football game.

PRO FOOTBALL HALL OF FAME ARTIFACTS

The Pro Football Hall of Fame showcased more than 130 artifacts during the week. The one-of-a-kind treasures allowed the Hall to convey the NFL’s 98-year history since the league’s birth in Canton, Ohio, in 1920.

SUPER BOWL LIVE CONCERT SERIES

Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis was the site of Super Bowl LIVE, a 10-day fan festival leading up to Super Bowl LII curated by Grammy-winning producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. The event, free and open to the public, encompassed six blocks on Nicollet Mall and featured food and fun. Highlights included an evening of music honoring Prince.

‘TESTIFY: AMERICANA FROM SLAVERY TO TODAY’ EXHIBIT

Pro Football Hall of Famer and former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page, along with Diane Sims Page, executive director of the Page Education Foundation, presented TESTIFY, a preview of their collection of Americana from slavery to today. The wide-ranging exhibit features art and artifacts from pivotal eras in American history while providing a platform for visitors to share their thoughts, feelings and personal experiences.

NFL PLAY 60 CHARACTER CAMP

The NFL hosted NFL PLAY 60 Character Camp, a free event on the field at Super Bowl Experience Driven by Genesis at the Minneapolis Convention Center. The event included 300 predominantly Hispanic youths from the Minnesota area. The noncontact football camp was led by Pro Football Hall of Fame offensive tackle Anthony Munoz.

SALUTE TO SERVICE MILITARY APPRECIATION DAY

As part of Salute to Service, the NFL invited veterans, active-duty servicemen and women and their families to Military Appreciation Day. The NFL is working with its military nonprofit partners, including Wounded Warrior Project, to invite attendees. The event included football-themed activities, meet-and-greets and a special “Thank You” moment for all service members.

NFL PLAY 60 KIDS’ DAY AT SUPER BOWL EXPERIENCE

Children from the Minneapolis area participated and learned more about the importance of healthy living at the NFL PLAY 60 Kids’ Day, which gives more than 1,000 local children the opportunity to spend time with NFL players.

SUPER BOWL LII BUSINESS CONNECT CELEBRATION

The NFL and the Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee hosted the Super Bowl LII Business Connect: Celebrating Opportunities, Teamwork & Success, spotlighting the accomplishments of Super Bowl LII Business Connect suppliers and local businesses that have grown and thrived under the tutelage of the program’s professional development initiatives and, acknowledging NFL event contractors who’ve aggressively used the program, awarding contract opportunities to the vendors in the program. More than 350 Minnesota businesses in 40 vendor categories participated in the 18-month Business Connect program, which identifies Super Bowl LII contracting opportunities and matches those contracts with experienced, local diverse business owners in the program. To qualify for participation in Business Connect, businesses must be 51 percent owned by a minority, woman, veteran, lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender individual. The Business Connect Celebration is a ticketed event for participating business owners.

NFL PLAYER CARE FOUNDATION SCREENINGS

The NFL Player Care Foundation (PCF) and the NFL Alumni Association (NFLA) partnered to conduct their annual Super Bowl Healthy Body and Mind Screening program. This complimentary national program is open to all former NFL players and includes cardiovascular and prostate screenings and mental health resources and education. Comprehensive blood testing will be offered to the wives and significant others who accompany former player screening participants and are being provided by NFLA free of charge.

SUPER BOWL LEGACY GRANT EVENT

The NFL seeks to improve the surrounding communities of the Super Bowl host city with the Super Bowl Legacy Grant Program, made possible each year by a $1 million contribution from the NFL Foundation and matched by the Super Bowl Host Committee. This year, the NFL and Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee’s grants are focused on improving access and creating healthy behaviors for a lifetime, whether it’s access to physical activity or nutritious food. To build a healthier, more active, life-changing future for all of Minnesota’s children, the Super Bowl Legacy Fund’s strategic areas of giving are fun, fuel and fundamentals.

As a culmination of their 52 Weeks of Giving Campaign, the yearlong effort to award 52 Minnesota communities with grants leading up to the big game, NFL and Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee executives awarded the 52nd and final Super Bowl Legacy Grant to Anwatin Middle School.

MINNESOTA SUPER BOWL HOST COMMITTEE LEGACY FUND 52 WEEKS OF GIVING CAMPAIGN

Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee Legacy Fund 52 Weeks of Giving Campaign 52 Weeks of Giving is a yearlong community giving campaign to ensure that hosting the big game will leave a lasting legacy for Minnesota’s children.

Each week, for 52 weeks, the Legacy Fund provides a capital grant to a community organization in Minnesota that is committed to improving the health and wellness of children. The grants help improve access to nutritious food and physical activity and create healthy behaviors in Minnesota’s youths.

23rd ANNUAL REBUILDING TOGETHER KICKOFF TO REBUILD

For the past 23 years, Rebuilding Together has partnered with the NFL to host community revitalization projects in Super Bowl cities across the country. These NFL-sanctioned events provide critical home repairs for people in need and their communities.

Rebuilding Together Twin Cities hosted a community revitalization project to rehabilitate six homes and develop a community garden in the Bryant neighborhood of South Minneapolis. The community garden will give neighbors access to fresh produce, which is extremely limited in the area, and offer residents opportunities to connect with their neighborhood.