The Dallas Mavericks now belong to the young Euro pairing of Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis with longtime star Dirk Nowitzki retired
Spoilers ahead! This piece includes details on the seventh season.
If you want to understand the significance of Orange Is the New Black, look at its breakout star, Danielle Brooks, who played Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson.
On Friday, Netflix released the final 13 episodes of the show that has functioned as an exemplar of what the streaming era could and should be: addictive, unique and inclusive. It used actors who are often overlooked — black women, Latinas and older women — to focus our attention on women who are completely overlooked: female prisoners.
Orange Is the New Black debuted in 2013, a few months after House of Cards, Netflix’s first foray into original programming, and it’s still the network’s most watched program. The adaptation of Piper Kerman’s memoir of life in a women’s prison made celebrities of a number of cast members, among them Uzo Aduba, Laverne Cox, Samira Wiley and Dascha Polanco. It gave Kate Mulgrew a second iconic role, as Red, after years of being known as Star Trek: Voyager’s Kathryn Janeway. Cox, thanks to her role as Sophia Burset, became the first openly transgender actor to be nominated for a prime-time Emmy.
But even surrounded by an ensemble blistering with talent, Brooks was always one of the most exciting things about Orange Is the New Black. She was originally hired to play Tasha for two episodes before getting promoted to a recurring role, and by season two she had secured a position as a series regular.
Showrunner and creator Jenji Kohan has spoken repeatedly about using the character of Piper Chapman — a sheltered, thin, liberal blonde who came from a family of means — as a “Trojan horse.” She was a device that allowed Kohan to tell the stories of women who had been disenfranchised and forgotten — women like Tasha Jefferson.
Tasha is the first person the audience sees Piper interacting with at Litchfield Correctional, the prison in upstate New York where Orange is set. The series opens with Piper’s voice narrating her life, explaining how much being clean is her “happy place,” especially when she’s bathing or showering with a romantic partner.
And then in bounces Tasha, in a cornflower blue muumuu printed with white flowers, the sort of thing that would be at home on a Southern retiree shuffling to her front porch with an Arnold Palmer in hand. Except we’re in prison, and all is not so bucolic for Piper anymore. Brooks immediately steals the scene as she tells Piper to hurry up and finish showering while there’s still a bit of hot water left.
She peeks through a rip in the shower curtain, then proclaims: “Daaaaamn, you got some nice titties! You got them TV titties. They stand up on they own, all perky and everything!”
In a matter of seconds, you had to wonder: Who is this woman, and when do we get to see more of her?
“Unlike theater, you don’t have a long rehearsal period at all,” Brooks said in a 2016 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “You just do it. You have limited time to make choices. TV has taught me to make bold choices in the moment, the minute they come to you, and not to hold back.”
Her choices paid off. Tasha quickly became a source of levity within Litchfield, sharp-tongued and skeptical of both whiteness and authority in general. But she was a nurturer too. She looked after the naive, neurodivergent Suzanne, played by Aduba. She kept her best friend Poussey, played by Wiley, from succumbing to hopelessness and addiction.
And then she changed.
Over the course of its run, Orange Is the New Black became more ambitious while the conditions at Litchfield worsened, especially after the facility was taken over by a private prison corporation bent on maximizing profits, usually at the expense of basic human decency.
The guards grew tougher, more jaded and sadistic. The inmates grew meaner, more isolated and more indignant. Their interactions and allegiances became increasingly segregated by race. Tasha, motivated by the worsening conditions at Litchfield, shows up at the prison equivalent of the Yalta Conference to represent the black inmates and negotiate a coalition of resistance. Taystee has grown up.
And then everything goes south when Poussey gets suffocated by a guard in the cafeteria.
The women had been peacefully standing on cafeteria tables to protest overcrowding and a staff of inexperienced, undertrained guards. A corrections officer calls for backup, and the guards begin wrestling the women down from the tables. A peaceful protest devolves into mayhem. When the women realize that Poussey is on the floor, lifeless, the chaos subsides. Tasha breaks free from a guard and pushes her way to her best friend’s side. She collapses on the floor beside Poussey and curls into the fetal position, embracing Poussey’s head. Brooks said she drew on the emotions and experiences of real-life women such as Diamond Reynolds, who witnessed the police shooting death of her partner Philando Castile, for this scene. The camera, which is positioned directly above the two women, pans out. It’s the last scene of the episode. The entire dynamic of Litchfield changes permanently.
From then on, Brooks depicts a person who is wracked with grief, depression and fury. Her movements become more self-protective, but also more defiant. She begins to use her size to command fear and respect. Tasha leads a prison riot that lasts for an entire season and strategizes how to make demands that would lead to substantive changes within Litchfield. There’s a sense of control that comes through in Brooks’ work in the later seasons of the show as she extinguishes the light that used to dance in Tasha’s eyes.
And then, for her efforts, Tasha is falsely blamed for the death of corrections officer Desi Piscatella, who was actually killed by a SWAT officer sent in to subdue the prisoners. Tasha is tried for murder and sentenced to live the rest of her days in Litchfield’s maximum security unit. Brooks has to sink deeper into the ugliest parts of herself. In season seven, it’s clear that Tasha doesn’t see what she has to live for. She’s become just as jaded and cruel and resigned as the guards — she has nothing left to lose. Finally released from solitary confinement, Brooks uses her body like a battering ram when she steps onto the prison yard, body-checking anyone who doesn’t have the good sense to get out of her way. Her movements become slower, and slower, as though she’s malingering toward death. Tasha now towers menacingly over the newly installed warden, Tamika (Susan Heyward), whom Tasha knew from her childhood neighborhood. The two women used to have a positive rapport. Not anymore.
Tasha is focused on finding a way to kill herself. She enters into an arrangement with Daya (Polanco), who is now running the drug ring in max, to secure enough drugs for a fatal overdose. But the enterprise is an expensive one, and Tasha begins working in the warden’s office again to earn the money to pay Daya.
But each day becomes more difficult to bear, especially when Tasha’s lawyer informs her that she’ll likely be stuck in prison forever, regardless of her innocence. Afterward, Tasha neatly arranges the few belongings in her cell. She twists the fabric she uses to make a noose. She loops the fabric around her neck, then launches her body away from the bed, feet still on the ground. For several seconds, Tasha struggles against her own body’s instincts for self-preservation. She’s crying and quietly whimpering. Slowly, desperate frustration takes over her face. She’s so miserable, and she can’t even let herself die.
Together with her castmates, Brooks has won three Screen Actors Guild Awards for outstanding performance by an ensemble in a comedy series. Still, her work on Orange has never received an individual Emmy nod. The scene in which she nearly hangs herself ought to change that.
The way she continues through the rest of season seven is just as masterful. When she doesn’t succeed in hanging herself, Tasha has to figure out how to live again, how to make it through prison knowing she’ll never experience freedom again. The journey Brooks charts back to the land of the living, to some semblance of her former self, is just as considered as the moments that take place right before Tasha thinks she’s ending her life. It’s like watching Orpheus slowly try to navigate his way out of hell.
Orange Is the New Black was Brooks’ first job after she graduated from Juilliard. It allowed the South Carolina native to showcase a range that other roles — like, say, voicing Charica in an episode of Elena of Avalor or Olive Blue in The Angry Birds Movie — have not.
During the show’s run, Brooks has become a natural at advocating for herself in an industry that tends to pigeonhole black women, especially dark-skinned, plus-size black women. Her Instagram feed is populated by photographs captioned with the hashtag #voiceofthecurves, and she’s used it to showcase herself as an enthusiastic fashion chameleon.
In a recent post for the underwear and swimsuit brand Aerie, Brooks wrote, “Middle school and high school years were really hard for me. When it came to accepting my body it felt like a forever struggle that would never ease up. Now I know that my beauty is not determined by how skinny my waistline is or how perfect my skin is. The truth is I know I am beautiful, every day, outside and in. Every pimple, stretch mark, every roll and curve are real and unretouched. My beauty shines every day in every way. And yours does too.”
She made a splash in March 2016 when she appeared on the cover of Ebony magazine with plus-size fashionista Gabi Gregg and singers Jazmine Sullivan and Chrisette Michele. The magazine dubbed them “The Body Brigade.”
By far, her biggest fashion moments have come in frocks designed by Christian Siriano, who has made a name for himself dressing women whom Hollywood and the fashion industry have a tendency to ignore.
View this post on Instagram
A post shared by Danielle Brooks (@daniebb3) on Dec 28, 2016 at 10:55am PST
Now 29 and pregnant with her first child, Brooks is clearly thinking about what’s next. If there’s any justice in the world, it will be more than a series of roles as sassy, irritable government employees or obsequious caretakers to white leads who need assistance finding themselves. Although her other on-screen roles have been limited, she’s been able to soar onstage, securing a Tony nomination for her role as Sofia in a revival of The Color Purple.
This summer, Brooks turned down a movie role to play Beatrice in a Public Theater production of Much Ado About Nothing. The entire company, directed by Kenny Leon, was black. Thanks in part to her booming, soulful singing voice, she breathed life and wit and possibility into Beatrice. At one point, she scampered into the audience and settled into the lap of an audience member. There wasn’t a soul in the house who wasn’t completely charmed by her verve and confidence with Elizabethan English.
“I started thinking, What do I want? What would I be proud of on my résumé? and for me Beatrice was that,” Brooks told Vulture. “To me, getting to play this part is opening doors to young black women that look like me or even relate to me, so that was a no-brainer.
“I look forward to being the lead in a rom-com that has a fresh take. I look forward to being in an action film,” she continued. “I look forward to playing royalty.”
I want so much for Orange Is the New Black to be more than an anomaly in the history of television. And in a lot of ways, television is different from what it was in 2013. Its success contributed to an atmosphere in which Pose could be welcomed and given a real production budget and an opportunity to do well. The older women of Orange Is the New Black made it easier to see how a show such as Grace and Frankie could thrive. Even short-lived projects such as the reboot of One Day at a Time and The Get Down owe some part of their existence to the revolutionary shift that Orange Is the New Black propelled.
Still, a 2017 study found that only 4.8% of television writers were black. It also revealed that the streaming network Hulu went an entire season without a single black writer employed on any of its original series. Whatever advances Orange ushered in are tenuous at best.
Just as Orange Is the New Black has offered new visions for what television can accomplish, let’s hope the same is true for Brooks. She’s had a terrific six years, but that’s not enough. She deserves a career that’s just as broad and challenging as her overflowing talents.
Lamaar Thomas has been a football star since he first put on pads as a little boy. Even then, the 65-pound running back dreamed of making it to the NFL. By high school, his star was blazing.
He was the Maryland state champion in the 55- and 100-meter dashes, was an All-American wide receiver and got 31 Division I scholarship offers.
After two years at Ohio State, he transferred to the University of New Mexico, where a coach promised more playing time. While there, he set a school record in the 60 meters and won a conference championship in the 100.
But in his next football season, he broke a bone in his back and then his foot and played in only four games. In his final season, the coach who’d recruited him was fired, the offense changed and his college career, which once held so much promise, came to an anticlimactic close. After a tryout with the Denver Broncos, he wound up on the practice squad (and activated for two games) with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He worked out with other teams and considered Arena football before returning to the Washington area and becoming a personal trainer.
At 23, one football door had closed for him. But there was another one, and it had been open his whole life. He grabbed a flag and met his family on the field. “Getting into flag football was just like I was kind of born into it,” Thomas, now 29, said.
He and his brother, Desmond, 27, grew up in Fort Washington, Maryland, watching his parents play the game. His dad, Sean Thomas, who’d played baseball and football in high school and basketball for Shaw University, started an all-women’s team with his mom, Elwanda, two decades ago. Football, especially flag football, was a family affair.
After college, Thomas helped his dad coach his mom’s team. Other men’s and coed flag football teams knew who he was, knew he’d played pro, and begged Thomas to play for them. But he wanted to play the game he loved with the people he loved most.
“They want me but they don’t want to play with my brother, or maybe they don’t want my mom, or they don’t want my girlfriend, or they don’t want my friend,” Thomas said. And where’s the joy in that? “I’m mostly out here playing because I’m just having fun with them. I’m not playing because I want to score a bunch of touchdowns. I’ve already done that stuff.”
In 2015, he started his own coed flag football team, Ballers Gon’ Ball. The BGB Family team featured his mother; his girlfriend, Asherah; his brother; and a cousin, Darren Cutchin, who everybody calls Cuz. It includes his best friends and their close friends. There are nearly two dozen people on the roster, about half of whom show up for any given game, and the team plays on Saturdays and Tuesdays, January through October. In the past four years, they’ve won some prize money and, in January, the Flag Football World Championship Tour’s national championship in Orlando, Florida. But everybody in BGB Family will say, for real, they’re just looking for a way to stay in the game. Together.
“I’m 51 years old and I’m still running,” Elwanda Thomas said. “There have been times where all of us have been on the field together: mom, dad and the two boys. I’m like, it’s a family thing out here. Not all people can say they’ve physically gotten on the football field and played with their kids.”
Elwanda, a technician for Verizon, said her husband, a carrier for FedEx, talked her into playing 30 years ago. She’s a small woman, barely 5 feet, 4 inches, and a size 2 back then. The first time she played, she got elbowed by defenders and bruised. “I can’t get hit anymore, I’m going to have to figure this blocking thing out,” she told herself. Her husband began teaching her the nuances of the game: how to rush, how to pull the flags and not be fooled by fakes. “I’m a very competitive person. Very, very competitive. So it was like, ‘No, I can’t let you beat me at this. I have to figure out my game plan.’ ”
She had Lamaar young, and when other parents were in the stands watching their kids at football practice, she and Sean Thomas would run steps, or the track, or play catch. “I actually could beat Lamaar in track until he was probably about 12,” Elwanda brags. She stopped racing him after that because she didn’t want him to have an edge in their trash-talk game.
In 8-on-8 coed flag football, the rules require teams to have at least three women on the field. If a woman scores, it counts for 9 points as opposed to only 6 with men. On a field in Burtonsville, Maryland, in mid-May, BGB was leading a team called Wakanda Forever and looking for a chance to run their signature play — Hide the Mom.
After Thomas completed a long pass, he immediately ran his team downfield.
“HTM! HTM!” he called out, and players raced into position. With one exception, the women lined up in the middle, near the ball. The men spread out, and Elwanda Thomas lingered near the sideline chatting with a ref. A defender demanded to know whether she was in bounds.
“It’s not my job to count for you, boo,” Elwanda Thomas told her.
Thomas ended up going to another receiver, and his momma got vocal. “I still got the HTM in me!” she yelled. “You gotta believe in your teammate!”
When Elwanda Thomas dropped a low pass several plays later, Thomas yelled, “I can’t catch it for you!”
“Glad I wasn’t in the middle of that,” said Sean Thomas, watching from the sidelines. “They are the most competitive against each other.”
Lamaar and Elwanda Thomas trash-talk a few more minutes, just a mother and son trying to work out the kinks in their marquee move.
With Hide The Mom, the idea is to draw attention to the middle of the field, where almost all the women line up. “And meanwhile, my mom will be standing on the sideline because she’s the least likely person for guys my age to be trying to check,” Thomas said. These guys are watching the younger women who used to play basketball or run track. “My mom, nobody pays attention to her because she’s my mom, and she’s 51,” he said. He tosses the ball to her, “she’ll catch it, and normally it’s an easy run for her into the end zone for a touchdown.”
The team introduced the play last year as a novelty when shoulder, knee and Achilles injuries kept Elwanda Thomas near the sidelines. But it yields points — 56 in 14 games since April. After they get over the sting of being beaten by a middle-aged, trash-talking suburban mom, opposing defenses usually appreciate the play and Elwanda Thomas has gotten into her role, say teammates. She’ll make conversation with the ref or spectators on the sideline before suddenly turning to catch the ball.
Thomas’ girlfriend, Asherah El, 33, was a high school hurdler who now works in human resources for a government contractor. She cited their team chemistry as the best part of playing. “We hang out after the game, we hang out before the game,” El said.
She loves playing with instead of just cheering on her boyfriend. And she loves that Elwanda is still out there doing her thing. When Elwanda Thomas scores, the other team is like, “What the heck just happened? Everybody is in always in confusion. How did we let that person go, or how did she catch the ball? People always underestimate her.”
Darren Cutchin (“Cuz”) is a real estate agent and youth basketball coach. For Lamaar Thomas to play with his mom is special, Cuz says. “You won a national championship with your mom. And your girlfriend. You got your dad on the sidelines coaching you up.”
During the second half of the Wakanda Forever game, a player BGB is calling Spider-Man — he’s really rocking a great deal of red and blue — is bugging them.
“I got the lady,” Spider-Man called out, signaling he was covering Elwanda Thomas.
“He keeps calling me the lady, ‘I got the lady,’ and I’m about to get mad,” she says.
With less than a minute left in the game, Spider-Man and a BGB player exchange words, and Elwanda Thomas interjects.
“I’m a mom!” she taunts him. “I know why you talking that way. Just let your game talk for you, baby,” she tells him. BGB scores, and she brags that her head game is prime.
With the game over, Lamaar Thomas reminds everyone to get their jerseys and talks logistics for their next game. He and his mother resume their sparring about that incomplete pass.
“That would have been perfect if you would have caught it,” Thomas tells his mother.
“If it would have been thrown correctly, I would have caught it!” she insists.
The two put their wrists together to show off matching half-heart tattoos. “I love you,” her half-heart says. “I know,” reads his half-heart. Arguing about sports always brought them closer. Playing together keeps them closer still. Thomas, Elwanda, Sean and the rest of the team part ways but make plans to meet up again Tuesday, as friends and family, football players, balling out together.
As a young boy, John Urschel would amuse himself for hours solving puzzles and breezing through math workbooks. By the time he was 13, he had audited a college-level calculus class.
He was also no slouch on the football field. A two-star prospect out of high school in western New York state, Urschel was a low-priority recruit to Penn State. He worked his way into the starting lineup and later became a two-time All-Big Ten offensive lineman. He won the Sullivan Award, given to the most outstanding amateur athlete in the country, as well as the Campbell Trophy, recognizing college football’s top scholar-athlete.
Urschel completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics while at Penn State. He even taught a couple of math classes while playing for the Nittany Lions. After college, he was drafted in the fifth round of the 2014 NFL draft and signed a four-year, $2.4 million contract with the Baltimore Ravens.
Urschel loves football — the fury, the camaraderie, the adrenaline rush — and he enjoyed knowing that he was playing at the highest level. But he loves math, too, and he wanted to pursue that passion as far as his ability would take him.
Urschel got a taste of how difficult it could be to do both when he suffered a concussion during his second NFL training camp. The brain injury kept him off the field for a couple of weeks. It took longer than that for him to regain the ability to do math again. Still, the following spring he passed the qualifying exam that allowed him to enroll in a full-time doctorate program in mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
It was a great achievement, but it also meant he had two demanding jobs. By his third year in the league, he was spending more time taking stock of his life. What did his future hold? How long would his body hold up to the brutality of football? How good a mathematician could he be if he devoted himself to it full time?
He was fine financially. He earned $1.6 million over his first three years in the league while driving a Nissan Versa and living with a roommate. His big expenses were math books and coffee. He estimates that he lived on less than $25,000 a year.
In the end, he retired from the NFL at age 26 to pursue becoming a mathematician. Urschel, now 27, has about one year left before he earns his doctorate at MIT. After that, he has his sights set on a career in academia.
Urschel chronicled his uncommon journey in a new memoir, Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football, co-written with his wife, Louisa Thomas. The Undefeated recently talked to the former lineman about his new book, his view of college sports, the safety of football and his twin careers.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Why did you write this book?
I really wanted to write something that conveyed mathematics in a very beautiful light. The publisher kept pushing me to put more of myself in it. At the end of the day, the final product is a memoir that also describes my relationship with both mathematics and football.
What do you hope people take away from it?
I hope they take away a number of things, not least of which is that it’s OK to have multiple interests, it’s OK to have multiple passions, that you don’t just have to be one thing. Also, I hope people take away a newfound appreciation of mathematics that might feel a little different than sort of what they experienced in school.
Who do you see as your primary audience for the book?
First of all, I would really like to reach middle school to high school kids who may be athletes but might have some interest in academics and STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] in some sense. Second, I would say anyone who simply enjoys football and math, because there’s a lot of both in this book.
Did you ever feel pigeonholed coming up?
Yes, I think I was, but I really didn’t pay too much attention to it. These things might bother some people, but I just usually viewed these things as an opportunity to change people’s mindsets.
Do you think there was some skepticism because you’re a football player, that this guy can’t be so good at math?
There initially was some skepticism, which I think was healthy. I completely understand why there was skepticism, and I think it was a reasonable thing.
Do you consider yourself a genius?
What is a genius anyway?
I don’t know, and that’s why I don’t really consider myself one. Listen, I’m someone who is very good at math. I’ve been very good at math ever since I was little. A lot of hard work has gone into me being at the place where I am in mathematics today. With respect to football, I was a decent athlete. I don’t consider myself an extremely good athlete. I considered myself extremely hardworking.
Were you ever discouraged from pursuing high-level academics while playing football at Penn State?
I didn’t get any pushback from my teammates. I did get some pushback from Penn State football early on. But I do want to clarify the sense in which I got pushback, because I think I got pushback in a very good way. It wasn’t like they were saying, ‘Oh, John, this is going to take up way too much of your time.’ It was more of them saying, ‘John, let’s not take such a hard track so early on. Let’s move slow and steady, because college courses are a lot tougher than high school classes, and you think you are good at math from high school, but college is different.’ After my first fall semester, the academic advisers really picked up on the fact that, yeah, they don’t need to worry about me.
Do you think college athletes should be paid?
Of course they should be paid. That’s not an unbiased opinion. I’m extremely biased. Something is fundamentally wrong with the system. That’s obvious. But what’s the answer? I don’t know. Should all sorts of football players be paid? Certainly not. I don’t think the football players at, let’s say, the University of Buffalo are being exploited. Sorry. Does this football program make money? But we look at the Alabamas of the world and, well, clearly these football players are really contributing a lot and they’re the source of a great deal of revenue. How can we give them more? Because I do think they deserve more, but the right way to do it is sort of uncertain to me.
What do mathematicians do?
What a mathematician does is he uses the tools of mathematics to try to solve very complicated and important problems in this world. In some areas of mathematics, mathematicians try to solve fundamental ideas in physics. In some areas of mathematics, mathematicians are trying to understand and perfect those things in machine learning, which have great practical importance on our world. You have mathematicians who are working on Wall Street. The only thing they’re making is money, but they’re making quite a lot of it. Mathematicians work for Google. They work for Amazon. They’re the people who help come up with the technology and the algorithms in your iPhone.
How did the fear of concussions and the prospect of CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy] factor into your decision to retire from the NFL?
Very nominally. It is something you have to take into account, but the risks were something I had been aware of for a large part of my football career. But I also wanted to create more time for mathematics. I wanted to spend more time raising my daughter and I wanted to be in good overall physical health. You know, I want to be able to walk around when I am 60.
Did you really live on $25,000 a year while playing pro football?
Yeah, maybe even a little less than that.
You’re kidding me. How is that possible?
I’m still a very frugal person, and frugal might not even be the right word. Even people around me will tell you, it’s not like I’m attempting to save money. I don’t do things like budget. I do the things I enjoy and I buy things that bring me joy. The things that bring me joy are typically like math books, maybe coffee at a coffee shop. Yeah, I guess luckily for me, both of those things are incredibly cheap.
So, no bling for you. No big Land Rover.
No, no. My car was a used Nissan Versa I bought in college. I kept it my whole career, although I’m not that sad to say I did let the Versa go because, well, I’m in Boston now. What do I need a car for?
In what ways do you miss football?
One of things I do miss about football is being on a team, being close with a bunch of guys, going through the whole deal of pursuing a common goal.
How do you replace the rush that you derive from football?
Yeah, that’s just something you can’t replace. You’re just not going to get that feeling from mathematics. As much as I love math — and there’s many amazing, beautiful things about math — you’re not getting that from mathematics. You’re getting a very different feeling, but it’s also quite amazing: this feeling of fighting against the unknown, this feeling of sort of trying to sort of go where no man has gone before, this idea of trying to solve problems that no one has solved before.
Why are there so few African Americans in math?
You look at, let’s say, all of the elite mathematicians at MIT, Stanford, Harvard, Cal Tech, Princeton, and maybe there’s like one or two African Americans. It’s not because these places have decided we just don’t like hiring African American mathematicians. The fact is that there’s just not many of us. And the sort of root of this, I believe, is not anything that happens in Ph.D. programs. The large part of the damage is done before a student even steps foot on a college campus. The large majority of American mathematicians in the United States, they are Caucasian, they are male and they generally come from pretty good backgrounds. And, I mean, it’s a sobering realization that there are brilliant, brilliant young minds being born into this country, but either they’re being born the ‘wrong’ gender or the ‘wrong’ color or being born into a household that doesn’t have the same opportunities as some other household. And these brilliant minds are being lost. I do believe a large contributing factor is sort of educational inequality.
One final thing: Would you allow a child of yours to play football?
I would, in high school. But not before then. There’s a big focus on college football players, NFL players and health in a number of ways. But the thing that people don’t talk about enough is young kids playing tackle football, contact football, before their bodies and brains are even developed. And that’s something that me, personally, I’m not a fan of. But in high school? Certainly. I think football is not for everyone, certainly not, but if it’s something that you think you’re interested in, I think it’s an amazing sport.
When top NFL draft prospect and Alabama standout Quinnen Williams announced he was signing with Young Money APAA Sports in January, his agent, Nicole Lynn, knew she’d be in for a ride.
Perhaps it was because she was signing a top defensive lineman, a 6-foot-3-inch, 300-pound Outland Trophy winner, to the same agency that reps the name and face of rapper Lil Wayne and all that comes with the Young Money brand. Or, she knows that if Williams does indeed go No. 2 overall as projected, Lynn will become the first African American woman to represent a top-five draft pick in the NFL. Either way, Lynn is living out her dream of helping athletes fulfill their full potential, an act that is along the same lines as Lil Wayne’s vision.
“Lil Wayne got into the business for the same reason I got into the business,” Lynn said. “He wanted to give back to players. He wanted to help them when football was over. At the end of the day, we can all identify with this. Lil Wayne doesn’t need this money, this sports money. It isn’t for that. He’s doing it for a bigger purpose, and I love that. I love working with people every day that walk with the same purpose, and that’s superpowerful.”
Off the field, Williams is described as the prototypical gentle giant with a magnetic personality, pleasant to be around, a team player. On the field, however, Williams is the epitome of a competitor: controlled and focused on the task at hand. Menacing to some and a true challenge to others. In his last season at Alabama, Williams started 15 games and led the team with 70 total stops, 12 quarterback hurries, 18.5 tackles for loss, 7 sacks and a safety.
It wasn’t much of a shock when he was one of four players from Alabama to enter the NFL draft, but Williams also became one of the growing number of athletes to join a sports agency attached to an entertainment company. After signing to Young Money APAA Sports in January, Williams became one of eight agency clients in the 2019 NFL draft class, joining Mecole Hardman Jr., D’Andre Walker, Gary Johnson, Jakobi Meyers, Dennis Daley, Emeke Egbule and Jamal Davis II.
Williams will also join a mixed list of more than 60 veteran athletes as well as up-and-comers represented by Young Money APAA, including second-year Washington Redskins running back Derrius Guice, New England Patriots defensive backs Devin and Jason McCourty, Jacksonville Jaguars running back Dimitri Flowers and former NFL wide receiver Nate Burleson.
Williams was exactly what Young Money APAA Sports envisioned when the agency was founded. After signing, Williams was also in awe of his new Young Money family.
“I signed with, like, basically Drake and Nicki Minaj. That’s crazy,” Williams told ESPN.
With Williams, Lynn was stepping into territory out of her usual realm of veteran players, and she learned to appreciate everything that comes with the sought-after player.
“When I met Quinnen for the first time, I was shocked to see that he was just as impressed with me as I was with him,” Lynn said. “He told me that he couldn’t believe I had never repped a first-round draft pick but he wanted to change that. He believed in me, and I am forever grateful.”
Lynn’s career as an agent began only four years ago. Before she entered the world of sports agency in 2015, she was a financial analyst at Morgan Stanley. But Lynn soon realized the hours she clocked every day took her away from what she actually wanted to achieve.
“I always knew I wanted to be an agent, or that I wanted to do this role,” Lynn said. “I didn’t necessarily know what it was called. I knew that I wanted to help athletes; I knew I wanted to help to maintain their wealth.”
Lynn did a little more research and learned that the sports agency world checked the boxes of everything she had wanted to do. Armed with new information, she applied to law school at the University of Oklahoma, where she had earned a bachelor’s degree in business management, in 2012 in anticipation of taking the agent exam. From there, Lynn landed a six-month internship with the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) in Washington, D.C.
“My goal was to learn how to be an expert in all of the benefits that a player gets,” Lynn said. “Their insurance, their annuities, etc. And I figured that would be something that would set me apart as an agent. Agents don’t do that, so I wanted to be different and have an expertise in that, and life after football.”
After a stint with the NFLPA, Lynn landed a job with the PlayersRep Sports Agency, at the time a top-10 agency, where her focus would be offering the best services to potential athletes and future clients.
Enter Lil Wayne.
Young Money APAA Sports was officially established in 2016 after years of conversations and idea exchanges between rapper and Young Money Entertainment CEO Lil Wayne and manager and Young Money COO Cortez Bryant.
In 2017, Young Money APAA acquired PlayersRep Sports Agency, where Lynn worked at the time, to help grow the new brand. With the new acquisition came more clients and experienced agents, including Lynn. The agency also enlisted the help of Adie von Gontard, a sports-savvy businessman whose grandfather owned the St. Louis Cardinals and great-grandfather founded brewing company Anheuser-Busch.
“With this specific agency, which, effectively, is the same agency with a twist — that’s kind of the way I look at it — it’s been great,” Lynn said. “The addition of Lil Wayne, Cortez, Mack Maine and Adie von Gontard, it has been just really great. We already had a really good agency with great agents and players, so now we just have been taken to the next level. Some of the rooms maybe we couldn’t get in before, we can get in. Some of the marketing deals we weren’t able to accomplish, we’ve been able to accomplish. So all it did was just really take us and put us into a different category of agencies.”
In its three-year existence, Young Money APAA went from three certified agents to more than 50. The sports agency now represents more than 80 athletes across sports, including football, basketball, boxing and softball.
Lil Wayne and Bryant have been sports fans their entire lives but decided they wanted to contribute more to the sports industry. The two drew parallels between sports and music and began formulating ideas for how a sports agency would fit with their well-established entertainment company. After having a firm grasp on what it’d take to develop the agency, the two discussed what the main focuses would be.
“I think that it got more serious because we’ve got a couple of friends that are athletes,” Bryant said. “They were kind of telling their testimony and their stories, how they were hooking up with agents and basically after the contract phase they were kind of out on their own. They didn’t have anybody to guide them or to help them along the way. We saw that, and we understood that most these guys had cross-trained backgrounds, coming from poverty-stricken neighborhoods growing up and coming into a whole lot of money at a very young age. We’ve had our fair share of bumping our heads.”
Taking everything into consideration and realizing this is something they truly wanted to do, Wayne and Bryant began the formal process of turning their dreams of a sports agency into reality.
The first order of business after establishing Young Money APAA was client services and ensuring that the only thing athletes had to worry about was becoming better in their respective sports. The agency would handle the rest. They laid out in clear terms what they were offering to potential clients and promised that they’d help their players build a solid brand.
“Even if they have the longest career, they’re still going to be superyoung with a lot of life left after that,” Bryant said. “We try to help structure that vision and help them grow while they have that opportunity and this window to be successful and make a lot of money. We want to ensure that they’re making the right decisions, financial decisions, and try to do the right thing to build their brand outside a deal so that when they’re ready to hang it up or, Lord forbid, something happens, you have a plan set up post-sports, a vision that can take them throughout their lives and take care of their family.”
Although Bryant believes the agency is still fighting to be respected as one of the best in the industry, it’s still clawing to be the best and improving each year. There’s no end in sight.
“As an agency, I want to make sure that we establish ourselves with integrity so that we can create partnerships for our athletes that can help them in the long run,” Bryant said. “People come to the brand because they know what it’s done and that it’s established. So corporate brands, they tend to partner with us because they know with our portfolio and our roster of artists. … Right now, I’m in a cultivation state. I’m out here breaking doors down, trying to figure it out on the sports side.
“We’re still young. People don’t know me. These people must think that Wayne is signing these contracts and he’s negotiating deals. They don’t understand that we have a whole team and we really built a reputable company. We have agents outside in the cold to talk to. We’ve got agents on board with us with 20-plus years of experience. We value ourselves in doing good business around the board; that’s not gonna change. We built integrity in the Young Money brand, and we’re planning on doing the same thing in sports. People don’t get it, and that’s OK. They’ll get it one day.”
Although Lynn’s achievement in signing Williams is just one of the highlights in her still-rising career, there’s still an uphill battle as one of the few female sports agents in a predominantly white, male-dominated field. Of the 830 NFLPA-certified agents, only 5% are women.
“I had to get used to being the only one in every room that I walk in,” Lynn said. “Even as an attorney, I work in a male-dominated field. But there’s just something different in sports because you are really the only one, right? Every room I walk in, I just have to assume there’s gonna be no women in the room. I have to assume that I will be identified, or when somebody needs me they will assume that I am the marketing rep, or that I’m a girlfriend of a player, or that I’m a wife. Their first thought will never be that I’m an agent.”
Lynn acknowledges that these numbers won’t change overnight, but with support and backing from a sports agency like Young Money APAA Sports, the future is bright.
“First and foremost, obviously you want him to be a good football player. It makes your job easier,” Lynn said of her clients. “But I tend to represent a lot of veteran players. Not on purpose, but those are the ones that typically flock to me, mostly because they are older, they’re more mature. A lot of times they’re married, they’re with kids, and they appreciate what I bring to the table. They appreciate that I care about their entire family, and so my hope is to work with individuals that are just good guys, just good guys that love the game and just want to be great. You don’t always have those clients, and that’s OK. I think it’s great to be a light in darkness. So I get the opportunity to work with guys who aren’t like that sometimes, and I do everything I can to turn it around.”