Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Why Basketball is the Most American of Sports

But I wasn't this good.... smh

If you can picture a scrawny, wild-haired 9th grade girl in oversized shorts, panting on the sidelines of the shiny basketball court, you can conjure up an image of me over a decade ago, wondering how in the world I ended up there. I was at tryouts for the JV basketball team, despite never having played a single day of organized basketball in my life. I naively believed that as a track athlete, I had the kind of athleticism that just needed to be guided by a firm but caring coach into excellence (like Blind Side!); the coach disagreed. Coach Murray gently told me to "Practice and maybe try again next year." Since she was also my geography teacher, it certainly made things a little awkward during 3rd period, but she was right. I had no business out there; so why was I?

Because I love basketball. Always have and always will. My earliest basketball memory is from the Chicago Bulls dynasty era. At that age, I followed my dad everywhere and whatever he did, I wanted to do. This particular Finals Season, I was watching the game with my dad and his friends. He proudly bragged to his buddies "Crys Cross is my girl; she won't fall asleep - she can hang." I have never fought sleep so hard in my life. In the end, I think Jordan, Pippin, and Rodman outlasted me, but I will never forget that series. I loved basketball then because my dad did. 

But as I've gotten older, I've begun to view even the simple things I innocently enjoyed as a child more critically. Yet the more I learned about basketball, the more I respected it. Which brings me here: 

Basketball is not only my favorite sport - it's also the most American of all sports. Here are five reasons why:

1. Basketball is more accessible than most sports (excluding soccer). All you really need to play is a hoop and a basketball. Compared to hockey, golf, and even football, basketball has a pretty low barrier to entry. What's more American than equality for all?

2. Basketball championships truly allow for the best team to win. As a Carolina Panthers fan (well sorta), I will never forget the Super Bowl of 2004, which in my opinion is the one we should have won. I remember thinking "Why can't we just do best of 5?" But that's not how football works. None of this "It at first you don't succeed, try, try again." It's a wrap and you're stuck hoping you can rebuild the magic next season. Not so with basketball. The playoffs series style (which admittedly is present in other professional sports), truly weeds out fluke wins and ensures the best team really does win. No whining allowed at the end about bad calls.

3. Success in basketball requires a unique hybrid of both individual and team success. 
(Ask Kobe) While football truly requires a unified team effort, and baseball can offer hope with a singular strong pitcher or hitter, basketball is a game where you need both. You need stand out individuals like Lebron James, Michael Jordan, and (I grudgingly say this) Kobe, to win a ring. But Lebron needed Wade, Jordan needed Pippin, and Kobe needed Shaq (at least at first). It's the perfect blend of teaching America's proud sense of rugged individualism as well as the mantra "There's no I in team."

4. Basketball is a true melting pot. 
More than any other professional sport, the NBA hires players and staff who represent an ethnic diversity that mirrors America's gumbo. 53% of its head coaches are minorities. 17% of its players are international athletes. 78% of players are African-American.

And speaking of diversity and inclusion....

5. Basketball is often the first of American sports to change for the better. a. 
This past August, the NBA hired the first female full time assistant coach of any professional men's league.
b. The NBA is the first professional men's league to hire permanent female referees.
c. One article said of the NBA's advancement of women: "Even women who end up working in other sports have basketball roots."
d. The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports gave the NBA an A+ for racial hiring practices, higher than any other men's professional sports league.
e. Adam Silver's swift and absolute condemnation and forced removal of Donald Sterling -the (ex) Clippers owner who made racially insensitive remarks in a private phone call- is a strong contrast to NFL owner Dan Snyder's promise to never change the Washington football team's name which also happens to be racial slur. (By the way... the NBA has a history of changing offensive names; there are young Wizards fans who don't even know they could have been Bullets fans).
f. The first openly gay active professional male athlete in the U.S.'s four major sports came from you guessed it... the NBA. Although the NBA couldn't really facilitate that, Jason Collins' ability to come out does say something positive about the environment that the NBA has nurtured.

And there you have it. Baseball may be America's pastime, and football may dominate in ratings, but basketball is truly the real apple pie of American sports.

So am I right or am I right?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Why I'm Quitting Football

I have written this post in my mind probably a dozen times, and each time I mean it a little more. This post may be better titled "The Evolution of My Attitude toward Football." But before we get into that... a couple stories for you.

My freshman year of high school, I was in the marching band. More specifically, I was in the drumline. Before you conjure up images of a young female Nick Cannon wow'ing the crowd, I should clarify... I played the least glamorous (but very necessary!) instrument of them all -  the cymbals. There were two incentives for doing this. 1) I had a crush on one of the snare players, Jay Free (I mean with a name like that - how could you not?) and 2) Being in the marching band made me a part of something big - something very big - our high school football experience. 

I don't think it's a stretch to say that my high school had some Friday Night Lights elements. Our basketball team was #2 in the state, but our football players were the real celebrities. We had pep rallies during class time, cheerleaders sold gaudy ribbons, and it was a given that everyone was going to attend the game. Some of my fondest high school memories are tied to those made at football games with friends - watching my classmates score TDs and cheering till my voice was hoarse.

I also remember the annual Powder Puff game which was the one time where Southern belles were given free reign to unleash our aggression against each other all in the name of good old-fashioned American football. Hair was pulled, flags were ignored in lieu of tackles, and cheery sweet cheerleaders often turned in to actual bulldogs - incidentally also our mascot. I never failed to be blown away by how transformative football was for people. (And by the way, my class won every year due to the outstanding phenom - Heather Bryson #allidoiswin). 

I shared this with you to give you some background on my affinity for football. I'm familiar and for obligatory reasons, I'm a semi-engaged Carolina Panthers and USC Trojans fan. I was actually disappointed when I arrived at my undergrad, Howard and realized that ironically, the marching band stole the football team's thunder. But I can count the number of professional football games I've actually attended and I'm more likely to be watching Netflix on Monday rather than Monday Night Football. 

Yet and still, I have made an active decision that I can not in good faith support professional football, even passively. 

A few years ago, when reports started to snowball about the dangerous effects of repeated concussions for boys as young as those in the Pop Warner league, I decided that if I ever had a son, I wasn't comfortable with him playing football. At first, I was somewhat embarrassed by what I thought was a smart but mildly overprotective decision until I started to read that NFL players - people who had made MILLIONS from the sport weren't letting their kids play either (Drew BreesKurt WarnerTerry BradshawBart ScottRayfield Wright, and more).

It probably didn't help that this past year, I devoured the Friday Night Lights series, and in the first episode, the star quarterback was paralyzed after a tragic hit (fictional sure, but jarring nonetheless). 

After a spirited debate with a very close friend of mine who argued that the values of children playing football outweighed the risks, I did some research. As it turns out - it was worse than I thought. A few important facts:
1. The risk starts early - "In a study of second grade football players, the average player sustained more than 100 head impacts during the course of about 10 practices and 5 games... some exceeded a force equivalent to a big hit in a college football game."
2. The effects are life-long and severe - "Repeated concussions could put a child at risk for such crippling conditions as early onset dementia, Parkinson's disease and other neurological disorders that require neurosurgery."
3. The more educated people are, the less likely they are to let their kids play - "One in three Americans say [concussions] make them less likely to allow a son to participate in [football]." 

With all those facts and a myriad of less risky activities available to my hypothetical children (basketball/tennis/chess anyone??) it made it relatively easy for me to proclaim that my kid wasn't playing football. Risk your kids' knees with street basketball? Not awesome, but fine. Risk your kids' brain and set them up for early dementia? Unimaginable.

So at this point in my research, I'm thinking "Alright, my kids will be safe - Fight On Trojans!" But it just didn't feel right to cheer for the charming Cam Newton or my classmates at USC knowing that if they were my kids, I'd be less than enthused. Seems a little selfish to have an attitude of "I would never let MY kids do this - but you go right on ahead and entertain me NFL!"

Right about now, many of you are thinking "Well those are adults and they made the decision to play knowing the risks, and they get paid millions of dollars to do it; I'd say it's no big deal." Let's consider this:

1. The average NFL player's career lasts 3.3 years and the average salary is $1.9 million before taxes. That's a relatively short window to make money that you may have to invest in your health after you retire.

2. Much of the research related to concussions and brain injuries has been released this year. Do they really know?

3. The average life expectancy of an NFL player is 59. Remember, these folks are allegedly super rich and in great physical shape; why are they dying so early? Are a couple decades off your life worth a few million in a few years? 

Here are a few additional disturbing facts for you: 

1. 30% of NFL players develop Alzheimer's or dementia. That's 3 in 10. A good chunk of your fantasy football squad. 

2. Former players in their 50s develop Alzheimer's and dementia at rates 14 to 23 times higher than the general population of the same age.

3. Players between 60-64 develop these diseases at as much as 35 times the rate of the general population. 

So when a fan screams "I love you Russell Wilson!!" you gotta wonder... do we? Do we care enough about these players to hope that they have more in tact than their ACL? Do we place a higher value on the entertainment we get from men crashing into each other than we do on the lives of those very men?

For some people, Alzheimer's, dementia, and Parkinson's are clinical distant words that sound like something bad that happens to other people. But not so for those who've witnessed it up close. For as long as I could remember, my grandpa's Parkinson's caused his wrist to tremor violently, generating a source of laughter and incessant impersonations from the neighborhood kids. And much more tragically, the autopsy of NFL player Jovan Belcher who committed a murder/suicide a year ago, revealed brain damage consistent with CTE, a "degenerative brain disease found in athletes and others with brain injuries."

Can professional football be safe and still be entertaining? I don't know. 

But for now, the serious health problems are ones I'm not comfortable with financing through fanhood. (And the R**skins name, domestic violence cases, and penalty against Husain Abdullah certainly don't help.)

For a great read from a real football fan who is opposed to football because "our allegiance to football legitimizes and ever fosters within us a tolerance for violence, greed, racism and even homophobia" I recommend Steve Almond's "Against Football: One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto." (Excerpt and interview with him here.)

Here's an alternative read on why "being a football fan is indefensible": here.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Ferguson, Missouri is Everyone's Concern

Howard University students protesting the death of Michael Brown.
"Don't shoot"

Yesterday afternoon, I met up with a friend in a coffee shop to do some work, and he started streaming the press conference from the Ferguson Police Department providing some follow up to the death of Mike Brown (at the hands of a police officer.) Immediately, I was uncomfortable. We were in a room with a few other people of various backgrounds, and for whatever reason, I felt it was inappropriate to draw attention to our concern about the passing of this young black teenager. I didn't want to ruffle feathers; I wanted people to believe that I was one of the safe Black people that wouldn't make them face hard questions.

Over the past few days, it's been a lot easier for me to discuss my sorrow at the passing of Robin Williams versus the death of Mike Brown. While both are tragic, Robin Williams's death is a much safer topic. Robin William's suicide wasn't particularly controversial and didn't rile up strong opinions that varied depending on your race, gender, or socioeconomic status. But Mike Brown... that's a whole different matter. It involves topics that make us all squirm - race relations, police brutality, perceptions of black men in the media, and more. So I kept quiet.

I have a disproportionate amount of friends who happen to be attorneys that taught me to reserve my opinion until the facts have been revealed and made clear. So when people ask me, even now, what are my thoughts about Ferguson, Missouri and Mike Brown, I respond "I don't know." It ensures I don't appear apathetic but also gives me an out in providing any real opinions or thoughts.

However one question has emerged for me and bugged me as I read the articles and saw the raw passion, anger and frustration from folks I know.

"Where are all the non-Black people in this discussion?" 

I'm seeing posts from Howard University students, the Black students at Harvard Law, and other Black friends of mine, but almost nothing from others. (I say almost, because I read a few articles like this). I am most frustrated by the deafening silence from the Christian community, a group called and committed to serving the "least of these."

I realize that by both stating that I am afraid to discuss it and also voicing my frustration about non-Blacks silence, I appear somewhat hypocritical. However, I believe one fuels the other. If the death of Mike Brown was met with concern, peaceful protests and a collective consciousness of the reality of race relations and police brutality in America by ALL kinds of people, I believe it'd be easier for us all to speak up and grow.

I've used this blog space, my social media accounts, and my voice to advocate for fair treatment of undocumented citizens, (namely the Central American children escaping horrific conditions), same sex couples fighting for marriage equality, and victims of genocide in Syria. As a human and a Christian, I believe that I am required to care for more than those who are exactly like me. I welcome this obligation; I chose it!

I chose USC for my graduate studies because it boasts a significant amount of international students.
I chose Oasis LA because it is the most racially diverse church I've ever attended.
I chose my hipster side of town in Los Angeles, because living with different kinds of people is the best way to develop a genuine understanding and empathy for others.

Now I wonder, when will others choose us? 

I applaud those individuals -of all races- who have had the courage to speak up, do something and inspire meaningful change in regards to social justice and equality. In many ways, your bravery exceeds mine and I strive to be like you.

Update: This is one of those times I am elated to be proven wrong. A photo captured by @darling_darla  at the #NMOS14 (National Moment of Silence) protest in DC shows that a diversity of folks care:

Friday, August 1, 2014

Four Things That Happened When I Stopped Caring About Getting My Hair Wet

You know how some women get really upset when you touch their hair? That's not me. I think a pretty good indication of the beauty and health of your hair is how "touchable" it appears. I've always believed it's the ultimate compliment when your hair is so attractive that it generates a reflex to reach out and touch it.

Note: That doesn't mean that I particularly enjoy complete strangers touching my hair (although this has never happened) or that I enjoy when people approach my hair with a curiosity that makes me feel inhuman (this has happened sparingly). 

So for years, in my quest to create hair that made it difficult for any one to resist touching it, I visited the lovely Amanda of Bang Salon (if you're in DC - get you some!) every two weeks faithfully. The result was touchable, soft hair that earned approving nods from strangers and friends alike. The other result is that I (really my hair) became downright allergic to water. In my opinion, if I wasn't formally washing it, my hair had no business getting wet.

And then... one day a few years ago, me and a few coworkers were rewarded with tickets to a Nationals game. It was gorgeous out, the boss was buying Five Guys, and I was having a more favorable hair day than usual. Everything was swell. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a la Miami, the DC sky turned cloudy and in an instant, there was a downpour. We were all soaked completely through and sprinted to the car, dodging puddles, our hair curling and tightening as we finally made it to the car. My friend and I sat there for a few moments, breathing heavily, shivering a bit in the cold, looking down at our drenched clothes, and then we looked at each other... and burst into laughter so intense we hiccupped. I pulled my hair into a messy bun, and after the rain magically disappeared, we headed back to the office with the windows down, hoping to air dry. And you know what happened? Nothing detrimental. The world didn't come crashing down. My hair just wasn't perfectly coiffed, which if I'm being 100% transparent, usually didn't look perfect anyway... which brings me to my list.

What really happens when you stop caring about getting your hair wet?
1. I found out what my hair really looks like. Even though my hair isn't chemically straightened, I almost always pressed it immediately after washing it, and didn't really take the time to explore too many natural styles. It turns out... it's actually pretty cool!

2. I got healthier. For years, I only sparingly participated in activities that would "sweat my hair out." This long list included swimming, running, hiking, weightlifting, biking... basically moving. That's just silly. Also, thanks to a great date idea sponsored by Groupon, I tried bikram yoga a few years ago and I am now addicted. For those of you who don't know, bikram is a 90 minute session of yoga in a room set to 105 degrees... with a humidifier. In short, the moment you walk in, you're sweating. Since I've let go of this obsession with keeping my hair dry, I've become an avid hiker and (bikram) yogi.

3. I saved more money. When you know that there's a possibility your hair might get wet, you're not as willing to spend significant amounts every two weeks on something that could all go down the drain with one bikram session or spontaneous water gun fight.

4. I had so. Much. More. Fun. As some of you may have already noticed reading this, the restrictions you place on your life to protect your dry hair are pretty well... restricting. The other day I invited a friend to a party at a lounge and the first question she asked me was "What's the temperature like? Is my hair gonna sweat out? I just got it done." And my reflex (in my head) was "Really??" It'd been so long since that was a concern of mine, I couldn't even fathom deciding on whether or not to go to a party because of a "sweat out" concern.

If I was worried about my hair, I never would have been able to do this [video]:

I realize that proper care of hair --particularly kinky hair like mine-- requires moisturization and such. I also realize that we only get the chance to live life once. I prefer to spend it jumping cliffs. :)

So what are you thinking? Do you protect your hair from water religiously? Do you schedule your activities around hair appointments? Do you think it's ridiculous that I ever cared? Do you think it's ridiculous to participate in 105 degree yoga?

Share your thoughts!

Monday, March 3, 2014

Why You Should Have Been Rooting for 12 Years a Slave Last Night

In high school, one of my favorite classes was U.S. History. My teacher Mrs. Putnam treated our class like story time, sitting perched on her stool discussing wars and elections as if she'd been close personal friends with America's historical figures.

But as a native South Carolinian and unabashed conservative, her accounts of the “War Between the States”, the intellectual debate between Booker T. and Dubois, Reagonomics and America’s ugly history of slavery were tinged with her personal bias.  It wasn’t until I studied American history more closely on my own, particularly the history of Black Americans, that I realized how much of what I'd learned had gaping omissions and was often just plain wrong.

(one of my favorite scenes - Solomon sings Roll Jordan Roll)

So last year when I first started seeing trailers for 12 Years a Slave, I was eager to check out the shockingly true story of Solomon Northup, a free man with a wife and children was kidnapped and enslaved for twelve years before finally getting his freedom back. I also couldn't believe I hadn't heard it before. At the very least, he deserved a commemorative stamp! After all, Solomon Northup made it easy for the world to know his story; a few months after making it back to freedom, he published a biography with an astonishing amount of detail and eloquence. In his day, people were gobbling up Uncle Tom’s Cabin – a moving but fictional work- and other slave narratives in much the same manner that contemporary society consumes The Hunger Games and Harry Potter. Yet before the film in 2013, his memoir was relatively obscure. (By the way, I read the book just after seeing the movie and was struck by how closely the film followed the book, a true rarity in Hollywood.)

Everyone, however, isn't pleased with 12 Years a Slave's content. A few of the common criticisms included:
  • "Not another slave movie!"
  • "First The Help, then The Butler, and now 12 Years a Slave… why are all our movies about struggle?” 
  • "All this film does is make me depressed. It doesn't resonate for me; I've never been a slave! Can't we get over it already!?"
Both the criticism and the brilliant film’s triumphant wins at The Oscars inspired me to write the post I’d been doling out in 140 character tweets and over brunch for the past several months.  

Why is 12 Years a Slave a relevant, necessary and extremely important film, worthy of the highest honor, an Oscar (or three)? Here goes:

1. There actually haven’t been that many movies taking a serious look at American slavery. In fact, I haven’t seen a slave movie since Roots, a 1977 TV miniseries, originally aired before I was born. The closest thing to a recent feature film focused on slavery was Django Unchained, a fictional spaghetti western with little to no plausibility (mandingo fighting isn’t even a real thing!)

2. The movie is about more than slavery. It’s about resilience and the indomitable human spirit. Interestingly, Solomon spends much of the movie trying to convince his masters that he doesn’t deserve to be enslaved. Today, one could say that there are groups who understand his desperate attempts to right the wrong of societal injustices. Couples fighting for marriage equality can relate to Solomon’s desire to be recognized as an equal (although I quickly concede that slavery is a much more difficult plight than marriage rights).

3. The film doesn’t give Blacks a reason to be ashamed or depressed; it gives us a reason to be proud. When I consider the atrocities experienced by my ancestors who built families and "kept on keeping on", my heart swells with both pride and humility. How dare I be ashamed of the tenacity, strength and fortitude displayed in 12 Years a SlaveHow dare I question my ability to be extraordinary when I have their blood running in my veins? 

4. Solomon Northup's story deserves a modern and international audience. Even in 1853, when the evil of slavery was still up for debate, Northup published his memoir knowing that his story needed to be told. Sadly, his kidnappers were never brought to justice and it’s unclear of how or when Northup died. Yet the book –and now the film- are priceless works that do more than tell Solomon’s story; they tell America’s story.  The least the world can do to honor his legacy is to pay tribute to his life. 

We are constantly told to never forget 9/11, Pearl Harbor, and other atrocities. There are museums in the United States dedicated to the Holocaust, a horrible systematic massacre that occurred across an ocean – yet when it comes to an American institution that lasted for centuries, many want to brush it under the rug. 

While I don’t believe slavery should be used as an excuse or crutch, it is important to consider the role it played –and continues to play  in the fabric of American life. In her acceptance speech, Lupita Nyong'o mused: "It doesn't escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else's; so I want to salute the spirit of Patsy (a friend of Solomon and fellow slave) for her guidance." That statement alone encapsulates why this story and film matter. 

Kudos to The Academy for honoring 12 Years a Slave with the Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Lupita Nyong’o), Best Adapted Screenplay (John Ridley) nods this year. The film deserves the accolades and more importantly, the world deserves to hear the story.

Did you see 12 Years a Slave? Do you believe it’s a story worth telling? What did you think of the film? What did you think of the wins at the Academy?

P.S. Click here for Lupita Nyongo's emotional acceptance speech: Lupita's Speech
P.P.S. Although slavery is illegal in the United States and many other places throughout the world, it still exists today. Learn more here: Slavery Still Exists and here: End It Movement