Exploring the intersection of sports and criminal justice reform Maya Moore, Michael Rubin discuss how athletes are effecting change

WASHINGTON — The time for national criminal justice reform is now and the opportunity for athletes to effect that change has never been greater.

That was the primary takeaway from a discussion Tuesday centered on criminal justice reform and sports, held in Washington, D.C. The conversation, hosted by The Undefeated and The Marshall Project, featured WNBA superstar Maya Moore, Philadelphia 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin and The Undefeated columnist Clinton Yates.

During a two-hour discussion, the group covered an array of topics ranging from prosecutorial misconduct to the impact of athlete platforms.

Rubin was propelled into criminal justice reform after being present in the courtroom where his close friend, rapper Meek Mill, was sentenced to two to four years in prison when a judge ruled he had violated his probation. Rubin said the moment changed his life.

“I watched a probation officer recommend a reduced sentence. I watched a district attorney recommend a reduced sentence. Then I watched a judge send him to jail for two to four years for not committing a crime. I was shook to my core,” Rubin said.

In January, Rubin and Mill launched the Reform Alliance along with New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Brooklyn Nets co-owner Clara Wu Tsai and rapper/entrepreneur Jay-Z. The initiative was started with a mission to overhaul the probation and parole system. The group has a goal of freeing at least 1 million people caught up in the system within the next five years.

During the discussion, Rubin said he believes that Mill would still be in prison today if it weren’t for so many athletes who were front and center pushing for his release. He is channeling that approach for the Reform Alliance, which will aim to leverage the likeness and following of athletes and celebrities to tell the “crazy” stories of everyday citizens.“What we’re going to do with the Reform Alliance is we’re going to have big celebrities, athletes and influencers tell everyday stories,” Rubin said. “We’re trying to find the person you’ve never heard of, find a crazy story and then have people tell the story on social media.”

Philadelphia 76ers co-owner Michael G. Rubin sits on a panel discussing the intersection of criminal justice and sports on Sept. 17 at The Google Space in Washington D.C. Rubin was propelled into criminal justice reform after his close friend, rapper Meek Mill, was sentenced to two to four years in prison when a judge ruled he had violated his probation.

Jeff DiNicola

Rubin’s Alliance Reform partner Jay-Z made waves last month when he signed a multiyear partnership with the NFL to produce its Super Bowl halftime show and amplify the league’s social justice initiatives. Rubin strongly defended Jay-Z’s motives for partnering with the NFL, which have been criticized by some as monetizing a movement largely propelled by Colin Kaepernick’s protests.

“This is a guy who does not care about money, he cares about doing right,” Rubin said about Jay-Z. “The reason he got involved with the NFL is because he felt from the inside he could make a real difference. Anybody who is questioning Jay-Z, they don’t know what he’s about.”

Moore, an example of an athlete attempting to use her platform to enact change in the criminal justice system, shook up basketball when she announced in February that she would sit out the WNBA season. Moore has only spoken publicly on a handful of occasions since her announcement, focusing her year away from basketball on her family and her ministry work. She’s also dedicated much of her time to the criminal case of Jonathan Irons, who has been incarcerated since 1997 after being found guilty of burglary and assault with a deadly weapon and given a 50-year sentence. Moore, who met Irons through her family when she was 18, believes Irons was wrongly convicted.

Moore said the deeper she got into Irons’ case, the more she learned about the infrastructure of the criminal justice system and how it operates, giving her added motivation to educate communities about the problems pertaining to social justice occurring in their neighborhoods.

“Through getting to know Jonathan and his story, the world of criminal justice reform, mass incarceration and racial equality have become so real to me. Part of what I want to do when I tell people about Jonathan’s story is not just look at this story but look at the stories in your community.”

Four-time WNBA champion Maya Moore speaks on a panel discussing the intersection of criminal justice and sports on Sept. 17 at The Google Space in Washington D.C. Moore shook up the basketball world when she announced in February that she would sit out the 2019 WNBA season.

Jeff DiNicola

When asked by a member of the audience to detail why she didn’t play in the WNBA this year, Moore said a large part of her decision was to ensure that she would be available to see Irons’ legal proceedings through. Irons’ evidentiary hearing to potentially reopen his case — which Moore plans to attend, according to a report by The Associated Press — is on Oct. 9 in Missouri. For context, the WNBA playoffs, which began last week, could run as late as Oct. 10.

“It’s extremely hard to be engaged in these issues and be at the top of your craft,” Moore said. “I couldn’t imagine what this year would look like for me if I was fully invested in my team and trying to bring Jonathan home and raise awareness for some of these causes.”

Moore emphasized that Irons’ story is just one of many that require attention and education.

“This is a real-life story. There are more Jonathans out there.”

TIFF 2019: ‘Clemency’ and ‘Just Mercy’ offer two differing perspectives on death row One asks us to put ourselves in the position of a warden. The other follows a lawyer seeking justice.

TORONTO — Two films at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival offer different perspectives of how death row affects those closest to it when people are wrongly sentenced to die.

Clemency is the sophomore feature effort from writer-director Chinonye Chukwu, who also directed the 2012 film alaskaLand. It stars Alfre Woodard as Bernadine, a prison warden who grows more and more conflicted over her role in the execution of prisoners. It’s bad enough when Bernadine witnesses an execution via lethal injection that turns into a moment of torture, first when the emergency medical technician administering the IV cannot find a vein, and then when the drugs take longer to work than they’re supposed to, leaving the prisoner in agony.

Alfre Woodard as Bernadine Williams in Clemency, is a prison warden who grows conflicted over her role in the execution of prisoners.

courtesy of TIFF

Then, Bernadine struggles to reconcile what it means to be good at her job with her own opinions, as she follows the case of another death row inmate, Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge). As it becomes clear to Bernadine that Anthony is probably innocent, she tries to maintain order and composure in her prison. But the energy it takes to maintain her professional demeanor at work means that something else must be sacrificed, and in Bernadine’s case, it’s her marriage. The more her husband (Wendell Pierce) attempts to get close to her, the more she pulls away. Bernadine must ask herself: Is it possible to be ethical, to be empowered, when being skilled at one’s job means ensuring that the state’s unjust decisions are completed with order and clockwork precision?

Then there’s Just Mercy from director Destin Daniel Cretton (I Am Not a Hipster, Short Term 12). Co-produced by star Michael B. Jordan and Macro, the company of former William Morris agent Charles D. King. If Clemency is an examination of the toll of complicity, Just Mercy is a journey into the psychic and spiritual rewards and pitfalls of fighting injustice. It tells the story of a real-life civil rights hero: Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. Stevenson is probably best known as the person behind the new lynching memorial and museum in Montgomery, Alabama, but he has spent decades working to free innocent men, most of them black, from death row.

While it’s rewarding work, it’s not easy, which Stevenson, played by Michael B. Jordan, learns firsthand when he moves to Monroe County, Alabama, after graduating from Harvard Law. Stevenson tries to get a stay of execution for Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan), a Vietnam veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. In the war, he was a hero, an expert at defusing bombs. But back home and neglected by the country he served, Herbert ends up listening to the voices in his head telling him to build an explosive. He kills a woman, and then the state of Alabama moves to kill him. The possibility of sending Herbert to a mental institution, which is where he truly belongs, never even materializes.

For Stevenson, witnessing Herbert’s execution crystallizes the urgency of his work, and he dives even more deeply into trying to save another man, Walter “Johnny D.” McMillan (Jamie Foxx). McMillan has been imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit. It doesn’t matter how much evidence there is to support McMillan’s innocence because a white girl is dead, McMillan is black, and another prisoner, in exchange for prosecutorial leniency, has given a statement saying McMillan was responsible.

The real reason McMillan is in prison is because the white people of Monroe County were looking for an excuse to lock him up after a white man discovered McMillan having a consensual affair with the man’s wife. Just Mercy exposes how the cogs of the Alabama justice system line up to condemn McMillan to death — from prosecutors who disregard the truth to public defenders who barely do their jobs to sheriff’s officers who terrorize Monroe County’s black residents.

It’s a new twist on the old formula of Yankee lawyers who come to the South and find a wall of community resistance to racial equality and injustice, but it’s a powerful one. That’s especially true given how the film’s screenwriters (Cretton and Andrew Lanham) contrast the real-life Stevenson and Monroe County’s most famous legal hero, Atticus Finch, the fictional hero of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

Ultimately, both Clemency and Just Mercy continue the work of highlighting racial inequality in the justice system, leaving their viewers disturbed and impatient for change.

Two Starbucks employees say the anti-bias training was needed, but it’s not nearly enough ‘Maybe it can stand as a pillar of equality’

In April, Starbucks was in the news because a Philadelphia store manager called the police on two black men who were waiting for a friend. To address the bias that could lead to such an unfair response, Starbucks closed its doors early on Tuesday to send its employees through an anti-bias training session.

I talked to two employees from different stores who participated in different sessions. After the conversations I was shocked, confused, and slightly encouraged. Here are excerpts from our conversations. Frank is a white male in his late 30s. Mark is a person of color in his mid-20s.

Do you think the session was needed?

Frank: Absolutely.

Mark: Truthfully, as a person of color, I feel as though these are things I intrinsically already understand. But I believe it was necessary for my store specifically.

Mark: After the incident in Philadelphia, a co-worker asked me, ‘You know the whole Kanye West thing’ and I was like ‘umm, yeah, I do.’ And she went off saying that people online are calling him an Uncle Tom and a fake n—–. I went, ‘Excuse me?’ And she REPEATED HERSELF. And then she said, ‘it’s not like I was calling you a house n—– or something, I was just talking about the situation.’

Mark: On a different occasion a co-worker said to me, ‘I’m brown just like you, just on the inside’ while I was washing dishes one day. And another time, a friend told me that she heard transphobic comments as we just hired an individual who is transitioning. I didn’t report any of this, because it will just make a hostile work environment. I am trying to transfer.

What was the goal of the session?

Frank: The goal of the training was to bring into the light real-life racial, sexual, insensitive bias and to talk about how we can minimize those situations to the point that hopefully will have them no longer happen. Starbucks admitted that one four-hour training session isn’t going to fix any problems, so they made sure to stress that we all have to make efforts continue the progress that they made. (Neither man could remember the training facilitators giving recommendations for specific continued efforts.)

Mark: Being Color Brave was one of the main themes. The term colorblind was referenced as a platform long ago used to describe people who don’t see color, which is now known to be just as bad. Color Brave is being brave to be who you are and embracing your racial and ethnic backgrounds.

What happened in the sessions?

Mark: One of the first activities we did was introduce ourselves in small three- to six-person groups. We then were told to break off into pairs within those groups and make a list of eight reasons why we are different.

Frank: For me the most effective exercises were watching videos of people of color still telling stories about how they get followed in stores to ‘prevent theft’ and then hearing one woman say that she wishes she could walk out her door and feel carefree like the white guy she sees on the street. That last part is a direct quote and it bothered me to my core that still this bulls— continues.

Frank: They gave us 39-page workbooks. We were supposed to write our thoughts in them and take them with us.

Mark: They explained the difference between explicit and implicit bias. Then they ran us through the Stroop Color [and] Word test so we would understand that stereotypes are cognitive shortcuts we form.

Was the session beneficial?

Mark: For the company, perhaps. Maybe it can stand as a pillar of equality, great.

Frank: Yes. I think more companies need to do this, but the real change that needs to happen are everyday people coming to the same realization that racial bias needs to stop. That’s when true change will happen. I just wish it was easier. People give up because learning anything new is tough and Americans are lazy.

How would you describe the training with one word?

Mark: Needed.

Frank: Costly.

Closing 8,000 stores for a half-day most certainly cost Starbucks some profits. But the costs of biases are ordinarily paid by the same segment of our society. And they don’t get to pick the day or the price.

On April 12, when Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson were cuffed and arrested, they were forced to pay with a bit of their dignity. Though everyone knows one session won’t eradicate biases held by Starbucks employees, if the result of the session is a lower likelihood of an incident like that recurring, then Tuesday’s cost is a worthwhile investment.