The ESPYS Collection Portraits of past and present stars set the stage for this year’s awards show, July 10 at 9 p.m. ET


‘Evidence of Innocence’ on TV One tells the stories of the wrongfully convicted Almost half of exonerated prisoners are African-American

Lisa Roberts was always high-energy and athletic. Growing up in Boston and Palatka, Florida, she played basketball and volleyball and ran track. She then joined the Army, where she trained as a mechanic, hooped and played flag football and softball. She weighed just 123 pounds, but she later got into powerlifting.

“I was an itty-bitty thing,” she says now, “but I was strong.”

That was long ago, before Roberts left the service, fell into what authorities called a volatile love triangle and ended up pleading guilty to a murder she did not commit. She was locked up for 12 years before new analysis of DNA evidence raised doubts about whether she had actually strangled her girlfriend, and a federal judge found that her lawyer had offered ineffective counsel. She was released from an Oregon prison in 2014.

The story of Roberts’ imprisonment and the work she has done to rebuild her life is featured in a new documentary series, Evidence of Innocence, premiering June 4 on TV One. The show, hosted by civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, casts a revealing light on one of the grossest injustices regularly produced by the nation’s flawed criminal justice system: the incarceration of the innocent.

“I call it ‘killing softly’ when you have these prosecutors who knowingly, spitefully, illegally, immorally send poor, majority black and brown people to prison for crimes they know, or should have known, they did not commit,” Crump said.

The innocent are sent to jail in alarming numbers. In the past three decades, 2,215 prisoners have been exonerated after going to prison, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, a collaboration between the University of Michigan and Michigan State University law schools and the University of California, Irvine. Crump suspects that figure captures only a fraction of the problem.

On average, those proved to have been wrongfully convicted served nearly nine years before being freed. Forty-six percent of prisoners who were later exonerated were black, the registry said, although African-Americans make up just 12 percent of the nation’s population and 37 percent of the prison population.

In recent years, Crump has become one of the nation’s best-known civil rights attorneys, as he has worked on cases that helped ignite the Black Lives Matter movement and brought new scrutiny of the criminal justice system. His clients have included the families of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old killed by a neighborhood watchman in Sanford, Florida; Michael Brown, the 18-year-old killed in a confrontation with a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri; Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old killed by police in Cleveland while holding a toy gun; and Corey Jones, the cousin of former NFL star Anquan Boldin who was killed by a plainclothes officer while he was waiting for a tow truck to pick up his disabled car in South Florida.

“When you get arrested, they say you are innocent until proven guilty. Well, I was guilty trying to prove myself innocent.”

“I always knew that the criminal justice system was terribly unfair and discriminatory, but until you get into the trenches and see how inherently racist and discriminatory the system is, you can’t even fathom it,” Crump said.

When it comes to incarcerating the innocent, the bias is not always obvious. It often lurks in law enforcement’s assumptions about the lifestyles of their targets or the neighborhoods they live in, the shortcuts authorities take to jail those they believe are guilty, or the inadequacy of legal representation for the poor.

Lisa Roberts spent 12 years in prison before being released in 2014 after new DNA evidence raised doubts about her guilt.

Courtesy of William Teesdale and Tricia Leishman

In Roberts’ case, police gathered what from some angles appeared to be compelling evidence against her. She was arrested on Aug. 16, 2002, nearly three months after the naked body of her lover, 25-year-old Jerri Williams, was found dumped in a Portland park.

Prosecutors said Williams, who had a history of drug use and prostitution, was the victim of a love triangle involving Roberts and another woman with whom Roberts had lived for years. They also pointed to witnesses who said that Roberts had a history of violence and had seen her punch, choke and threaten people.

As the case approached trial in 2004, prosecutors told the defense that an analysis of cellphone tower records placed Roberts near the park where Williams’ body was found on the morning of the murder. Her lawyer had hired an expert to do a separate cellphone tower analysis, but it was never completed.

While Roberts had maintained her innocence and said she had never been arrested before, the prosecution’s cell tower analysis was enough to make her accept a plea bargain. If she had gone to trial, she could have received a life sentence. Instead, she pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to a 15-year term.

“When you get arrested, they say you are innocent until proven guilty,” Roberts said. “Well, I was guilty trying to prove myself innocent. And there was no daggone way. So I took the plea bargain because I couldn’t see myself doing life.”

Two years after her guilty plea, she began a series of appeals. By 2008, her new lawyers had received DNA laboratory reports that cast doubt on Roberts’ guilt but weren’t conclusive. Later DNA testing on semen found in Williams’ body turned up two male profiles, including one of a man who was known to have badgered Williams to work for him as a prostitute. Then, crucially, a re-examination of the cellphone records concluded that the tower data was incapable of pinpointing Roberts’ location.

It wasn’t until 2014, after Roberts had served the lion’s share of her sentence, that a federal judge vacated her guilty plea. She was released from prison on May 28, 2014, and prosecutors dropped charges against her five days later.

“It didn’t feel like victory, but at least I have my freedom and my life,” said Roberts, who is now 53 and works at a commercial laundry in Portland. She relaxes by hiking, running and bike riding. “At least I don’t have any metal doors slamming behind me.”

Roberts let out a deep belly laugh when asked whether she received compensation from the state for her wrongful incarceration. “Excuse my language, but hell, no,” she said.

While players were balling in NBA playoffs, these students were winning in NBA Math Hoops National Championship The second annual event was hosted by the Detroit Pistons and the nonprofit Learn Fresh

While the NBA playoffs were in full swing in mid-May, the Detroit Pistons were hosting 20 students from across the country competing in the second annual NBA Math Hoops National Championship, courtesy of the NBA Math Hoops Program, Learn Fresh and NBA Cares.

On May 18, the team welcomed participants for the weekend event and competition at Little Caesars Arena. On the final day, sixth-grader Angela Montelongo and fifth-grader William Cooley, representing the Utah Jazz, were named winners in this year’s competition.

Asia Mays and Daivion Smith, the Pistons’ 2017 national championship representatives and tournament runners-up, were on hand to congratulate the new champions. Both Pistons students competed in the inaugural 2017 event, which was hosted in the Bay Area by the Golden State Warriors.

Students competed in multiple events including a Jr. NBA Clinic and a college savings session for participating parents and educators courtesy of Flagstar Bank. The University of Michigan and Wayne State ran unique sessions that connected sports and science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), while exposing the students to a collegiate academic environment.

Angela Montelongo (left) and William Cooley (right) representing the Utah Jazz emerged as winners at NBA Math Hoops National Championship.

The NBA Math Hoops Program is a board game with a built-in sports-based curriculum offered in schools in 14 states that all have NBA teams. The program is offered in communities of color for students in grades 3 through 8. Using basketball as a hook to engage participants, it helps students to improve their core math and social emotional skills while developing a passion for learning. The main goal is to help students become better prepared for high school math and STEM subjects, and ultimately lead to increased graduation rates, college attendance, and diversity in STEM-related fields. To date, more than 87,000 students have completed more than 60 million math problems through the NBA Math Hoops program. This year more than 30,000 students participated nationally.

The NBA Math Hoops calendar is broken into 12 weeks running 
parallel to the NBA season. Students spend 45-90 minutes in the program per week, for eight weeks leading up to winter break and four weeks after returning. The top student from each participating NBA team’s community is then selected to attend the national championship and compete for the title of math champion.

In weeks 1-3, students are also introduced to the game of basketball, drafting a team, and learning the game rules. Weeks 4-7 are considered the regular season, when students compete in their first games of NBA Math Hoops. During weeks 8-10, the regular season continues and students battle it out on the Math Hoops “court,” while getting a chance to rebuild their teams for a playoff run. In weeks 11-12, the Math Hoops Tournament begins, and students compete for their site’s championship title and complete requirements to qualify for the national championship. Top students from each site earn the chance to compete at the regional championship.

NBA Math Hoops is run by Learn Fresh, a nonprofit organization that “makes math fun by using the power of things kids actually care about.” Khalil Fuller, the co-founder of Learn Fresh, started tutoring kids when he was 16 years old, and realized he didn’t have any tools or resources at his disposal to make math fun and culturally relevant.

“When I was growing up here [in Los Angeles], the Lakers were just absolutely life,” Fuller said. “Kobe Bryant was a god. So I started to think, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of really cool, useful, beautiful math in the sport of basketball. What if we could just peel back one thin layer and expose that to kids. Couldn’t that be such a game changer?’

“What that looked like when I was 16 tutoring kids was like instead of Sally went to the store and bought X number of raffles, it’s Kobe’s in the gym and took X number of shots. Simple, simple stuff like that.”

During Fuller’s freshmen year at Brown University, he met some people who’d been working on the infrastructure of NBA Math Hoops — Bill Daugherty, and math teacher/curriculum writer Tim Scheidt.

“These two people were both established professionals, one of them used to work at the NBA for a long time before leaving to start a company and he was teaching entrepreneurship at a local high school, and the other was actually the inventor of this NBA Math Hoops games. He’d been in the math field for 25 years.”

Fuller wasn’t sure about his life path, but with his mentoring background, he figured working with the organization could be a great fit.

“We took this idea directly to the league, got the first-ever royalty-free license from them and this NBA Math Hoops concept was born. We work really closely with local NBA teams in school districts, after-school programs, community organizations across the country. We’re in about 30 states, reaching about 35,000 kids on a weekly basis.”

Fuller is in the middle of the transition from his role as CEO into a board member.

“In the fall, I’ll be headed to Stanford for an MBA and master’s in education to reflect, learn and chart a path of continued impact,” he said. He will be a member of the inaugural cohort of Knight-Hennessy Scholars  —  a new program at Stanford modeled after the Rhodes Scholarship.

Stepping into the role as CEO is Nick Monzi, who has been with Learn Fresh for five years as the chief operations officer.

For Monzi, it’s important that people understand that kids need to be educated.

“Fundamental math skills … It’s not the most sexy thing in the world, but it’s critical, and if you want to be a musician, or you want to be a doctor, you need to know how to do fundamental math,” Monzi said.

“Having the NBA behind us allows us to have a really key stakeholder to connect to the teams, which are now the real driving impacts. I mean, the teams are incredible supporters to the community, but financially, and just from a connecting standpoint, it also allows us to have significant credentials behind us when we’re looking at other partners to work with.”

Detroit’s Midnight Golf Program teaches lessons of the game and life Hundreds of students benefit from mentors, scholarships and college tours

The 2018 Masters Tournament has a new champion, and his name isn’t Tiger Woods.

But young black golfers, like the participants in Detroit’s Midnight Golf Program, are still excited about the game and their place in the sport.

The Midnight Golf Program, affectionately known as “MGP,” is a selective, golf-centered program that was founded by Reneé Fluker. The program is based in Detroit, and only high school seniors in the area are eligible for the prestigious program. Those granted a spot in MGP have an opportunity to gain mentorships and learn life skills, etiquette and more, all while learning the game of golf. They are supplied with a set of golf clubs and Midnight Golf paraphernalia, such as polo shirts, hats and golf gloves.

The group’s name is a bit misleading. They do not play golf at midnight.

“Playing golf at night is impossible unless someone shines a light. The program uses the game of golf to give young people a brighter vision of their future,” said Fluker, who also is president.

Established in 2001, the program started with 17 students. That number has blossomed into roughly 200 students each year. This year’s program has 263. Participants attend biweekly sessions for seven months. Each session is three hours long — students receive golf lessons and life lessons such as financial literacy, interview skills and speech writing — with dinner. The program doesn’t cost participants anything, thanks to funding from sponsorships and donations from businesses, community donors, mentors and program alumni. Nearly 60 mentors and PGA professionals contribute their time and expertise.

“Young people in Detroit are full of promise. What they need is direction because school is such a small aspect of what’s necessary for success. I hope that message spreads,” said David Gamlin, vice president and program director of the Midnight Golf Program.

“Young people in Detroit are full of promise. What they need is direction because school is such a small aspect of what’s necessary for success. I hope that message spreads.”

MGP caters to underserved young men and women in Detroit and surrounding suburbs, and mentorship is one of the most essential parts of the program.

“Midnight Golf has impacted my life by helping me see that my future is important and that I can do anything I put my mind to,” said Asia Branham, 20, a sophomore at Harris-Stowe State University. “They helped me see that I don’t have to settle for less and that there is more out there in the world than just Detroit neighborhoods.”

MGP aims to provide mentoring and professional development in a familial atmosphere for its students and mentors. Students receive one-on-one mentoring with three to five students paired with an individual mentor. Mentors take students under their wing, staying in communication with them even after they go to college. The program’s motto is “College. Career. Beyond.” According to MGP, more than 98 percent of MGP students matriculate to institutions of higher education.

“I’ve seen young people with no intention of going to college or who didn’t believe they were ‘college material’ go on to be valedictorians and graduate summa cum laude,” said Winston Coffee, 34, who is in his seventh year of mentoring with the program.

The program relies heavily on its mentors, who must be able to volunteer twice a week and be at least 25 years old with no criminal background. They represent a diverse range of professions, from pilots to accountants to nurses and more.

Midnight Golf students and mentors primarily work together in Detroit. Since 2005, they have also traveled to colleges, universities and golf courses around the country. This portion of the program is called the Road Trip For Success (RTFS).

“The first time I visited my college, Philander Smith, was on the RTFS. I saw it and fell in love. I applied and was accepted with scholarship,” said Tiffany Phillips-Peters, a 2017 graduate of Philander Smith College. “Beyond the road trip, Ms. Reneé and another mentor, Mr. Ambrose, saw to it that I made it to and through college successfully. Mr. Ambrose and another mentor even attended my graduation.”

This year, the trip includes six cities. Six charter buses have transported students to North Carolina A&T State University, North Carolina Central University, Duke University, Winston-Salem State University, Duke University Golf Club, Birkdale Golf Club and the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Although they were unable to ride to Augusta, Georgia, for the 2018 Masters, that didn’t keep them from following the tournament — especially since Woods was playing.

“It is a sport that has no equal and will be viable for the individual throughout time. Can’t digitize it. Can’t shrink it. We can speed it up, but golf will always be a great asset for those who play.”

“Tiger has been a strong inspiration for many new to the game, but golf needs no PR,” said Gamlin. “It is a sport that has no equal and will be viable for the individual throughout time. Can’t digitize it. Can’t shrink it. We can speed it up, but golf will always be a great asset for those who play.”

Although Woods was not a top finisher at the Masters and has been out of the sport for most of the past four years, that has not affected the students’ enthusiasm for the game. They credit MGP.

“Golf is not just a sport, but it teaches life principles and fundamentals for success,” said Tiffany Moore, 25, an alum of the program who is a current MBA student at Northwood University. “Many business transactions are held over the game of golf. I have been able to gain a business network from speaking on my experiences through the program and have encouraged a previous employer to invest in the program.”

Once students complete the 30-week program, they are eligible to receive awards, scholarships for college, a graduation cord and the title of MGP alum. Many also walk away with a desire to give back and help uplift others.

“The biggest lesson I took away from my experience as a Midnight Golf Program participant is that as you advance in your career and life overall, it is your duty to reach back and pull as many people up with you as possible,” said Jenise Williams, 21, a current senior at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Gaining alumni status in MGP is something that students don’t take likely.

“MGP made it known that we are not who we are merely off our own hard work. For that, we should pay forward the love and devotion others have poured into us, no matter how big or small.”

‘Playing While White’ examines privilege on and off the field New book says that sports, like America itself, is a place where race matters

Playing While White: Privilege and Power on and off the Field by Washington State University professor David J. Leonard shines a light on whiteness in sports culture and the ways in which white athletes are characterized compared with black athletes. Leonard wrote an adaptation from his book, released in July, for The Undefeated.


Playing While White: Privilege and Power on and off the Field explores the ways that white athletes are profiled as intelligent leaders, hard workers, underdogs and role models.

Exploring a spectrum of athletes from Tom Brady to Johnny Manziel, several teams, including Wisconsin basketball and the St. Louis Cardinals, as well as extreme sports, NASCAR and lacrosse, I look at the ways whiteness is imagined within America’s sporting cultures.

America’s sporting fields are not postracial promised lands; they are not places where race doesn’t matter because the only thing that counts is whether you can score touchdowns or make buckets. Sports is not the “colorblind mecca” that we are routinely promised each and every weekend.

Sports, like America itself, is a place where race matters. While writing about the NBA, USC professor Todd Boyd makes this clear, writing that sports “remains one of the few places in American society where there is a consistent racial discourse.”

It is a place where anti-black racism is ubiquitous, from the press box to the coach’s office, from the stands to the White House. It is also a place where the privileges of whiteness are commonplace.

After my book was published, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich highlighted the nature of white privilege, or what it means to be #PlayingWhileWhite inside and outside the sporting arena.

“It’s like you’re at the 50-meter mark in a 100-meter dash,” Popovich said during a recent news conference. “You’ve got that kind of a lead, yes, because you were born white. You have advantages that are systemically, culturally, psychologically rare. And they’ve been built up and cemented for hundreds of years.”

The power of whiteness can be seen in the celebration of Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Tim Tebow and countless white athletes as leaders and role models on and off the field. Praised as disciplined, hardworking and humble, while their black peers are consistently depicted as either “ungrateful millionaires” or “natural athletes,” the power of race can be seen in the descriptors afforded different athletes.

To be a white athlete is to be a scrappy and gritty player, whose motor never stops, whose “drive never relents” and whose determination is unmatched. To be a white athlete is to “play the right way,” to be unselfish, to be without ego and to always put winning and team first and foremost. These sorts of racially stratified descriptors are common in the sports media, from coaches and general managers, and from fans alike. As are the consistent attribution of hard work and intelligence to white athletes whose IQs, work ethic and intangibles are the source of constant celebration. To be a white athlete is to be cerebral, a student of the game, a throwback to a different era.

The power of whiteness is equally evident in the trash talk of John Stockton, Larry Bird, Brady and Manziel. Amid widespread nostalgia for greater sportsmanship and respect for the game, whereupon hip-hop and black athletes are blamed for the intrusion of toxic values, the trash-talking of white athletes is either ignored or celebrated as evidence of their passion for the game and competitiveness.

Brady is what #PlayingWhileWhite looks like inside and outside of sports. Despite coming from immense privilege and opportunity, earning a scholarship to the University of Michigan and being drafted into the NFL, Brady has been recast as an underdog, who through hard work, intelligence, dedication and unselfishness has become the league’s greatest quarterback. He’s a winner and a leader. Yet he also is a victim of being underestimated, and of those who “falsely” accused him of cheating. The story of Brady is the story of whiteness, of advantages and systematically produced opportunities.

White privilege is also the celebration of Bill Belichick’s hoodie as African-American youths are seen as criminals and “thugs” for their similar clothing choices. It is “Gronk being Gronk,” while any number of black athletes are denounced as selfish and out of control.

White privilege is the NASCAR CEO endorsing Donald Trump, while its fans historically waved the Confederate flag, all while it threatens consequences to anyone who protests during the national anthem.

White privilege is fights in hockey, among NASCAR pit crews and in baseball being recast as tradition, as fun and as part of the game, while the shoving matches in the NBA prompt national panics.

White privilege is silence about drug use in extreme sports and in those white-dominated collegiate sports amid headlines about NFL and NBA marijuana arrests and a war on drugs waged in black and Latino communities.

To #PlayWhileWhite is to be seen as smart, scrappy, determined and a leader. #PlayingWhileWhite is to win, to be celebrated in victory, redeemed in defeat, lifted up when down and sympathized with by others as a real or imagined victim. It is to be innocent and a repository of excuses for failure. It is being empowered to be silent; it is being seen as a person and not just as an athlete, as a commodity, as someone who dunks or makes spectacular catches. And that privilege is bigger than any contract, any commercial and any award, one that extends beyond the playing field.

Life before Death Row: The brief football career of Suge Knight The scariest man in rap was a star lineman at UNLV — and a scab Los Angeles Ram

Marion “Suge” Knight’s original terrordome was the defensive line. It’s where he starred for four years at Lynwood High School, 20 minutes from Compton, California’s much-loved Tam’s Burgers. Knight faces murder (among other) charges stemming from a January 2015 incident at Tam’s in which he is accused of barreling a Ford F-150 into two men.

Knight’s friend, Terry Carter, 55, was killed. Cle “Bone” Sloan, 51, was injured. All of this followed an argument near a filming location for the 2015 N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton. For the better part of three years, Knight has been held at Los Angeles County Jail, where he awaits a January 2018 trial. He is claiming self-defense. “He left the scene,” attorney James Blatt said in February 2015, “because he was in fear for his safety, and life.” Knight has shuffled through more than four attorneys since.

Wealthy white kids at Hollywood high schools were often the target of Knight’s shakedowns when he was at Lynwood. During the early ’80s, however, Knight was far more focused on sports than thugging: He earned letters in track and football all four years.


Harvey Hyde became the head football coach of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in 1981. At the time, the UNLV Rebels (recently on the wrong side of the most lopsided college football upset of all time) were new to Division I. The school, established in 1958, had gained national prominence via basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian’s “Runnin’ Rebels” program. It was up to Hyde to make UNLV a two-sport school.

Hyde still calls Marion Knight “Sugar Bear,” Knight’s childhood and neighborhood nickname. They met on a recruiting trip that Hyde made to Los Angeles County’s El Camino Junior College, where Knight excelled in the defensive line’s trenches. The Compton native was 6-foot-2 with big hair and an imposing frame.

“How would anyone know who he was at the time? He was one of the guys that the Rams players were throwing eggs at.”

Hyde, a player’s coach, brought Knight to Las Vegas. As a junior, he started at nose guard and defensive tackle and immediately became one of the Rebels’ best defensive players. Knight was voted UNLV’s Rookie of the Year, named defensive captain and won first-team all conference honors. In a city full of sins, Knight was apparently UNLV’s biggest blessing.

“[Knight] played his butt off,” said Hyde, whose coaching portfolio includes NFL stars Randall Cunningham, Ickey Woods and 2017 Hall of Famer Terrell Davis. “[Knight] was a ‘yes sir, no sir’ guy … the type of player any college football coach would love to have on his team.” Hyde was let go in 1986 after a string of damaging events for the football program, including burglary, the beating by a player of an off-duty policeman, the embezzling of video and stereo equipment, sexual assault and domestic violence, among other issues. Knight, a part-time bouncer at Vegas’ then-hot Cotton Club, wasn’t a blip on Hyde’s disciplinary radar. “He never, ever gave me a problem in any way.”

To many members of the UNLV team, and his close friend Tarkanian, Hyde was the scapegoat for a program he helped save. The lack of institutional control, they believed, wasn’t Hyde’s fault. Hyde has never spoken ill or shifted blame to anyone.

Knight may have been yes-sir-no-sir, but he was side-hustling: Books. Jon Wolfson, who in the early 2000s was a publicist for Death Row Records and is now the manager of Hall and Oates, recalls a conversation he had with Knight about his UNLV days. “He’d say something like, ‘Then I’d play the dumb athlete role and say, ‘Oh, Coach, I lost my books.’ ” The staff never second-guessed Knight, said Wolfson. “They’d give him brand-new books, and he’d sell them to make some extra cash.” Knight enjoyed two impressive seasons at UNLV in 1985 and 1986, lettering in both.

Yet, per Randall Sullivan’s 2003 LAbyrinth: A Detective Investigates the Murders of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G., the Implication of Death Row Records’ Suge Knight, and the Origins of the Los Angeles Police Scandal, Knight’s demeanor became more ominous and reclusive during his senior campaign. Visitors from his hometown of Compton were frequently sighted, as Sullivan reported. Knight, too, moved in an apartment by himself, and was seen in several late-model sedans. And his reputation on campus evolved far beyond that of the friendly jokester he was the year before. He seemed a man involved in far more sophisticated situations.

Yet when Wayne Nunnely took over as coach in 1986, Knight’s athletic demeanor apparently remained consistent. “He wasn’t a problem guy at all,” Nunnely told the Las Vegas Sun in 1996. This was three days after Tupac Shakur was shot five times near the Las Vegas Strip by a drive-by assailant who remains unknown. Shakur and Knight were at the intersection of Koval Lane and Flamingo Road. Shakur, of course, died. Knight, by then better known as “Suge,” was then gangsta rap’s unquestioned, unrivaled and undisputed emperor. “You didn’t really see,” said Nunnely, “that street roughness in him.”

The gridiron roughness is something Knight didn’t hesitate to talk about. “I think the most important thing, when you play football,” Knight told comedian Jay Mohr in 2001, shortly after being released from prison for serving half of a nine-year sentence for assault charges stemming from the fight with Orlando Anderson in Vegas’ MGM Grand the night Shakur was shot, “you get the quarterback, you stick your hand in his helmet and peel the skin back off.”

He jokingly suggested, even after selling tens of millions of records and doing nearly a five-year bid, that he could still play in the league. “I think I could strap up and intimidate most of those [guys]. I think we could make a few deals and I’ll be like, ‘OK, look. Lemme get ’bout three, four sacks. I’ll let you get a few blocks. We’ll enjoy it.’ ”

According to teammates, Knight dropped out of UNLV before graduation. By 1987, he was back in Los Angeles. One of the biggest songs on the streets was Eazy-E’s gangsta rap bellwether “Boyz n Da Hood,” which dropped in March of that year. But before turning to hip-hop to plant the seeds of a future empire, Knight had one last gridiron itch to scratch: the National Football League.


The first overall pick in the 1987 NFL draft was Vinny Testaverde, who played until he was 44. The second overall pick was defensive stalwart Cornelius Bennett. There was also current University of Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, Christian “The Nigerian Nightmare” Okoye, 2002 NFL MVP Rich Gannon and Rod Woodson, the only Hall of Famer from this class. Former University of Oklahoma megastar linebacker Brian Bosworth and future Hall of Famer wide receiver Cris Carter were chosen in the supplemental draft. Marion Knight was not one of the 335 players selected. But the NFL eventually did come calling. The league was desperate.

As documented in the new 30 for 30 film “Year of the Scab,” NFL players went on strike shortly after the start of the 1987 season. Today, football players influenced by exiled Super Bowl quarterback Colin Kaepernick fight for their freedom of expression. Thirty years ago, players bucked back at ownership for freedom of agency. In 1982, players went on strike demanding 55 percent of revenue. The 57-day standoff cost the league seven games and $275 million in revenues. And another $50 million returned to networks. While united in both strikes, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) gained little ground in either.

“Free” agency in the 1980s wasn’t the spectacle it is today, with hundreds of players changing teams annually. “This was before free agency,” said veteran Los Angeles Times sports reporter Chris Dufresne. “[NFL players] really were indentured servants. They couldn’t go anywhere!” Players were, for lack of a better phrase, property — bound to teams for life. With rare exceptions, they did move to new teams, although many times those were star players with leverage, a la O.J. Simpson’s 1978 trade to the San Francisco 49ers.

Teams could sign free agents, but the cost was steep. The “Rozelle Rule” stated the NFL commissioner could reward the player’s original team with draft picks, often first-round selections, or players. NFL salaries did rise in the ’80s, primarily because of the brief existence of the United States Football League (an entity that featured team owner Donald Trump) and its willingness to lure NFL players with large contracts. But by 1985, the USFL was defunct. Even that era couldn’t hold a candle to the second strike. “The 1987 Rams season,” said Dufresne, “was the craziest I’ve ever had in journalism.”

In a city full of sins, Knight was apparently UNLV’s biggest blessing.

Training camp started with star running back Eric Dickerson warring for a new contract. On Aug. 21, 1987, running back and former Heisman Trophy winner Charles White, after drug issues that plagued him while with the Cleveland Browns and at USC, was arrested after being found in a field. “[He had a] trash can lid, pretending to be the Trojan Warrior,” Dufresne recalled. “That’s how the summer started.” White led the NFL in rushing that same strike season, with 1,374 yards.

The strike started after Week 3. Players said they wouldn’t show up for Week 4, owners called what they thought was bluff, and then had to scramble to fill rosters with replacement players: former college players, undrafted players, construction workers, bartenders, even ex-cons. Replacement players, otherwise known as “scabs,” were ridiculed.

Somewhat like Faizon Love and Orlando Jones in 2000’s The Replacements, Knight was one of those replacement players. Dufresne, 30 years later, doesn’t recall the future head of a gangsta rap empire. “I have no recollection of Suge being there. I must have seen him,” he said. “[But] why would I remember him? How would anyone know who he was at the time? He was one of the guys that the Rams players were throwing eggs at.”

The strike lasted only a few weeks, but it got ugly. It sounds ridiculous to say Knight was bullied, but such was life in the NFL during the 1987 lockout for “scabs.” Knight, a man who would evolve into an intimidating pop culture tour de force, had eggs thrown at him. First-year Rams offensive tackle Robert Cox smashed the window of a van carrying replacement players after union players began rocking the van.

These incidents were common throughout the league. Frustrations were at a boiling point. Once stars such as Dallas Cowboys’ Tony Dorsett, San Francisco’s Joe Montana, the Oakland Raiders’ Howie Long and Seattle’s Steve Largent crossed the line, the NFLPA recognized the ship was sinking. “They had a weak union compared to the baseball union,” Dufresne said. “But the things they were fighting for were real.”

The strike lasted 24 days. Knight officially played two games as a Los Angeles Ram, against the Pittsburgh Steelers and against the Atlanta Falcons. Although Knight’s official stats are all but lost to history, this YouTube video compiled his official NFL stat line: eight plays, zero sacks, zero tackles and one penalty. John Robinson, Rams head coach from 1983-91, said the team had too many bodies that year between union and replacement players. He, too, has no recollection of coaching Knight.

“Suge,” said Dufresne, “was just an anonymous nobody in the surroundings.” The anonymity wouldn’t last long.


In October 1987, as the regular NFL players reported back to work, Knight’s rap sheet ballooned and his boogeyman persona began to take shape. In Los Angeles, Knight was charged with domestic violence after grabbing future ex-wife Sharitha Golden (whom he’d later implicate in Shakur’s murder) by the hair and chopping her ponytail off in the driveway of her mother’s home. That Halloween, he was arrested in Vegas for shooting a man in the wrist and in the leg, and for stealing his Nissan Maxima. With felony charges looming, Knight skated away from any serious penalty in part because of a contrite courtroom appearance and his history in the city as a famed football player. The felonies were reduced to misdemeanors: a $1,000 fine and three years probation. “I shot him with his own gun,” Knight told The Washington Post in 2007.

Three years later, in Vegas once again, he pleaded guilty to felony assault with a deadly weapon after pistol-whipping a man with a loaded gun and breaking his jaw. Knight again evaded serious penalty.

Knight by then was immersing himself in the music industry, serving as a bodyguard for superstars such as Bobby Brown. He eventually maneuvered his way into the circles of rappers like The D.O.C., Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Eazy-E. Knight partnered with Dr. Dre to create Death Row Records in 1991. Dr. Dre’s 1992 The Chronic (Death Row/Priority) and Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle (Death Row/Interscope) the following year became instant pop gospels and solidified Knight and Death Row as not only major players but also undeniable and controversial cultural focal points.

It’s been years since Coach Hyde has seen his former player. He’s not sure if he will again, but, “You can’t get me to say anything negative about Suge Knight,” he said. “Whatever somebody is accused of, he’s still a football player of mine. He’s still part of the family when I was at UNLV.” Hyde pauses momentarily, then continues, “I’m not endorsing all the certain things they accuse him of, because I really don’t know. I have no idea! He doesn’t judge me and I don’t judge him. We just have our old feelings of each other. I just think that’s what it’s all about. You don’t forget people.”

“When I watch the news, it’s like I’m watching someone else,” Jon Wolfson said. “That’s not the guy I know.”

As for Dufresne, he’s not on either side of the aisle. He’s more shocked that Marion Knight, a guy he only mentioned in passing through roster lists, morphed into Suge Knight, the Death Row Records impresario who was once worth more than $100 million. Suge, he recalled, wasn’t the only notorious figure to come about during his time covering the Rams. Darryl Henley, a former cornerback for the Rams (1989-94), was convicted of cocaine trafficking in 1995. He is currently serving a 41-year prison term for conspiring to murder the federal judge who presided over his trial, as well as the former Rams cheerleader who testified against him. And the Rams’ 1996 first round pick, running back Lawrence Phillips, received a 31-year sentence for domestic violence, spousal abuse, false imprisonment and vehicle theft and was later charged with first-degree murder of his cellmate. Phillips committed suicide in 2016.

Dufresne recalled the bitterness of rap in the ’90s, the “East/West thing” as he dubbed it. And he remembered the personal sadness that followed Shakur’s murder. Yet, it wasn’t until this phone call where he put one and one together. Marion is Suge. Suge was Marion. Suge Knight was a replacement player during the most untamed year of my career.

“Marion Knight, out of UNLV, who did what a lot of guys did and had a dream to play [in the NFL] and maybe didn’t understand what the players were fighting for, he was just another guy,” he said. He stops, as if he’s shocked. “Little did we know.”

Jalen Rose is not just talking about change, he’s making it happen The basketball veteran is doing his part to help the community through his leadership academy

There’s an age-old adage that says there are two types of people in this world: people who contribute to the mess and people who ignore the mess. But for the sake of accuracy, let’s add a third: the people who help clean up the mess.

And NBA veteran and ESPN sports analyst Jalen Rose is definitely that third type, as he continues to influence and assist those beyond the hoops world.

Rose, with co-founder Michael Carter, began The Jalen Rose Leadership Academy (JRLA), which was established on the foundational aspects of respect, determination, excellence and family. Since 2011, the academy has been empowering scholars with not just the knowledge but also the necessary skills needed to succeed academically — or to “unleash the transformative powers of learning” to create a better world for themselves and those around them.

“I always felt it was important to try to give back, No. 1, to my community, but also to the less fortunate, and understand that we need everybody to have opportunities in order to actually have harmony in our country,” Rose said. “My way of trying to influence was through education.”

As an original member of the “Fab Five,” the Detroit native and his fellow University of Michigan freshman teammates were known for their cultural impact on the game of basketball. Their style on the court and their freshman swagger led them to be the first team in Final Four history to start five freshmen. But Rose was just beginning to make his mark in the basketball world.

After being a freshman standout, Rose went on to be drafted in 1994 by the Denver Nuggets and lasted 13 years in the NBA. After retirement, he decided to pursue a career in broadcasting, earning his bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland University College. Rose is also the co-host of his own show, Jalen & Jacoby.

But JRLA is a way of paying his good fortune forward with an open enrollment, tuition-free public charter school that serves more than 400 ninth- through 12th-graders. Rose and his team are devoted to providing the same quality education to students who don’t have the opportunity to attend an institution with more resources and funding.

“We’re basically trying to put [the students] in a position to succeed in the same college classroom and also compete for the same job and career opportunities in the future, so that’s why we call it bridging the education gap. It’s really bridging the financial gap.”

Necessarily, fundraising is a key component to funding the school’s financial needs. Rose developed the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy Celebrity Golf Classic, along with an annual auction to raise money for facility improvements and provide the school with the appropriate accommodations.

Despite the difficulty of JRLA being a charter high school and not a part of a network of schools or a feeder school, its high success rate makes it even more satisfying for Rose, the school and its students.

“There are so many people in our country that pay lip service to what we should or should not be doing to move our country forward … people that have voices that talk about what should be done but physically aren’t doing it themselves,” Rose emphasized.

And Rose is not the type to just put his money where his mouth is. He’s putting in everything and more, from investing in the school to creating career opportunities for its students. He’s doing the work.

“[I’m] hands-on like a member of the staff.”

And that work is paying off.

“We graduated more than 90 percent of our scholars, with 100 percent of all graduates gaining college, trade, technical school and/or military acceptance. And more than 83 percent have matriculated to college, and that’s significantly higher than the state average. There’s one thing to talk about the outcomes, it’s another thing to achieve them,” Rose said.

Michigan’s state average for those who graduated from public schools is 62.3 percent in the 2013-14 school year, and JRLA is exceeding that in just six years of opening.

“We really understand that we’ve taken the toughest road, [and] to have outcomes have been amazing. We’ve still got a lot of work to do, but we’ve come a long way and I’m proud of it.”

However, Rose didn’t expect that his impact would be through starting a school.

“It definitely wasn’t something I set out to do. It wasn’t a goal of mine. It wasn’t a dream of mine. It’s really just something that happened,” Rose said.

Although the school is named after him, Rose says the existence of this academy is a tribute to anyone and everyone who has helped him in the process. From the teachers to his ESPN colleagues to corporate sponsors such as Jeep to Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores, his list of thank-you’s seems endless.

“There are so many people that have dedicated their time, their energy, their passion, their money. Too many to name,” Rose said. “You can never truly say thank you, and I’m always going to be indebted to anybody that’s ever lifted a finger for JRLA and/or its students.”

With most of the students coming from the inner city, JRLA’s collective fight has and will always be for equality in the education system despite one’s socioeconomic status.

“I realized really early the economics of your situation as it relates to education a lot of times puts you in a position of success depending on your family’s fiscal dynamic,” Rose said. “If your family is fortunate enough to live in the suburbs … and clearly I’m not a fan of this, because they designate that you pay more taxes [so] that the school district should get more, which really is just a different level of segregation.”

To put education costs in perspective for the Michigan area, below are the numbers at a glance.

The top private schools in Michigan are the most expensive. For example, to attend high school at a Detroit Country Day School or Cranbrook is upward of $30,000. That’s an investment of about $120,000 for all four years.

For a family living in the suburbs whose child attends a mid-tier public high school such as a Birmingham or Bloomfield public school, the state provides a little more than a $12,000-per-student allowance. That’s a value of $48,000 per student.

According to The Detroit News, there are public schools in the metro Detroit area that receive the minimum allowance per student, ranging between $7,511 and $8,229, which equals about $32,000 per student.

“For about eight or nine years through my foundation influencing five public school students each year via scholarships to college, JRLA really just became a graduation of that mission,” Rose said.

What do independence and freedom mean to black college students? It’s about music, fireworks and discussion of America and our so-called independence

The Fourth of July has come and gone, but conversations about freedom and independence don’t get old … especially among black college students.

Webster’s Dictionary says freedom is the power to act without restraint, while it defines independence as not requiring or relying on others. How do students feel about the two?

America’s birthday seems to be inextricably tied with fireworks, barbecues and feuds over its significance. Some students simply describe the federal holiday as a day off work. Others joined Chance the Rapper in calling it Malia Obama Day.

When asked about music that inspired or made them think of independence, students spoke highly of songs that encourage economic independence, social justice and hope for black folks:

  • “The Story of O.J.” by Jay-Z
  • “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke
  • “Someday We’ll All Be Free” by Donny Hathaway
  • “Revolution” by Arrested Development
  • “The Conquering Lion” by Lauryn Hill
  • “Change” by J. Cole
  • “Glory” by John Legend and Common
  • “16 Shots” by Vic Mensa
  • “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar
  • “F.U.B.U.” by Solange Knowles
  • “Where Do We Go” by Solange Knowles
  • “Candles in the Sun” by Miguel
  • “They Don’t Really Care About Us” by Michael Jackson
  • “Wake Up Everybody” by Teddy Pendergrass

These songs come out of different generations and genres, but the common chord they share is one of unity, equality and perseverance. The beats are so good and the messages are so timeless, this playlist could stay on repeat any day of the week.

Besides music, some college students can point to individuals who are advancing the black community and America at large.

“I think everyone in opposition to the president is actually making America great; Auntie Maxine and Auntie Kamala, I see you!” said Arielle Wallace, 21, a senior at Hampton University.

“Ethnic and social diversity makes America great,” said Demetrius Smith, 36, an alumnus of Morehouse College. “Those outside of the dominant culture hold America accountable to its ideals, which results in slow yet continuous advancement of American society.”

“The charitable donations that Russell Westbrook’s Why Not? Foundation have made to the OKC and L.A. communities has taken another approach other than usual athletes by focusing on education and family service programs while encouraging youth to believe in themselves and ultimately ask, ‘Why not?’ of any situation,” said Jordan Frank, 21, a senior at Clark Atlanta University.

Jenise Williams, 20, a senior at the University of Michigan, sees Independence Day as a time to be with family.

“The Fourth of July is just about me coming together with my friends and family despite all of the craziness of America and the world in general.”

Michigan State sophomore Andrei Nichols questions whether the celebration is premature for people of color.

“For some Americans, it is a time to celebrate freedom that was said to have been granted,” said Nichols, 19. “However, as a black man in America, [I don’t think] freedom was ever granted to people of color. But, hey, what do I know?”

Celebrating America’s independence from British rule may happen once a year, but the fight for individual and collective freedom never stops.