RISE is the Ross Initiative for Sports Equality, started by Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross. The initiative uses the power of sports and the notoriety of the athletes to draw attention to these important issues of social justice.
The moderator for the event was Jason Reid, Senior NFL Writer from The Undefeated. He set a great tone and moderated each of the panels, yet unlike many moderators, he was not shy about inserting his beliefs into the conversation.
The first panel consisted of former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue as well as Dr. Bernice King, CEO of the King Center. They were a little bit more tame than the following panels who really dove into the issues of social justice. Still, given the weight and magnitude of their respective accomplishments, their presence in the room set a powerful tone for the session.
Perhaps the most outspoken was NFL Executive VP of Football Operations, Troy Vincent. A longtime NFL player and former President of the NFLPA, Vincent spoke about the challenges in the current criminal justice process. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Vincent has been a leader throughout his career at the University of Wisconsin, the Philadelphia Eagles and with the NFLPA and NFL.
Among the many issues that this panel highlighted were:
- The disparity in sentences for blacks and whites
- The setting of bail in amounts that amount to a summary sentence because the defendants cannot afford it
- The high likelihood that an accused will accept a plea, even an unfavorable plea, because the penalty of being convicted is so high
- The absurdity of long sentences for relatively small crimes such as low level drug possession, minor assaults arising from bar fights or other intoxicated situations with no great bodily harm
- People spending decades in prison with no hope, even when there is little evidence that they truly committed the crime
- The lack of meaningful educational programs in prisons
- The lack of proper job skill training in prisons
- The lack of any true rehabilitation efforts in prison
- The lack of any transition or re-entry support upon release from prison
One of the most compelling speakers was Brian Banks who told of his time in prison and how he lost years of his life before being exonerated by the California Innocence project. Banks was accused of kidnapping and rape by a woman who later recanted her story. Banks was an upcoming football player who many believed had a promising career ahead of him. Instead, he was talked into accepting a plea and a reduced sentence instead of facing over 40 years in prison.
Banks presented an amazing amount of forgiveness and an admirable lack of bitterness as he discussed the reality of his situation. He spoke about how 95 to 97% of cases are resolved by pleas because defendants are so afraid of the draconian sentences that will be imposed by the court in the event that they “dare” to challenge the charges, the evidence or the prosecution.
The stories of how many cases are prosecuted with flawed evidence is an ongoing tragedy in the United States. This panel didn’t back down from challenging the system and issuing a strong mandate to everyone in attendance to take up the issue and continue to pursue justice in their communities.
The final conversation engaged RISE’s CEO, Diahann Billings-Burford. She spoke about the vision behind RISE and how Stephen Ross’ initiative has really activated a high level of interest around the league. Billing-Burford projected the passion and the urgency for support for this terrific organization.
A terrific ending to the event was the presentation of Super Bowl tickets to several coaches and athletes who have truly made an impact in their communities. The excitement of any person who receives that Super Bowl ticket is obvious and the videos of them being told were heartwarming.