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Past lessons might offer hope for the 'Jena Six'

10/16/2007

Mychal Bell might not know the lessons of Darryl Williams and Marcus Dixon, but the latest turn in Bell's case makes his story the next chapter in a series that includes the tales of those other two African-American high school football players from earlier generations. Together, they inform us that racism is still too virulent in our society.

In fact, the lessons of Williams and Dixon are even more vital for Bell at the moment. In the end, they are lessons of hope; and hope is something Bell and the rest of the "Jena Six" desperately need right now.

Because Mychal Bell went back to jail late last week.

Twenty-eight years ago, Williams, a 15-year-old sophomore who dreamed of someday playing for the New England Patriots, scored a touchdown in the opening half of his Jamaica Plain High School team's game against Charlestown High School in Boston. Standing on the field waiting for play to resume in the third quarter, his dream was shattered -- literally -- when three white teenagers opened fire on him from the top of an apartment building. Williams became a different human being that day as a quadriplegic, and not as a hopeful NFL player. While the assailants went to prison, Williams felt the local and state governments abandoned him and forced him create his new life largely on his own.

Equally compelling is the story of Dixon, an African-American high school student at Pepperell High School in Rome, Ga., who excelled in the classroom and on the football field. He had a 3.9 grade-point average and a scholarship offer from Vanderbilt. The world looked sweet. But on Feb. 10, 2003, Marcus and a 15-year-old white classmate had sex in an empty classroom. When the girl's father found out, she accused 18-year-old Dixon of rape. Dixon maintained the sex was consensual, and a jury agreed. After only 20 minutes, the jury acquitted Dixon of rape, aggravated assault, false imprisonment and sexual battery. However, it found him guilty of statutory rape and a much more serious charge of child molestation that carried a mandatory 10-year prison sentence.

Dixon was sentenced to 10 years in prison, an indication of how far we still have to go in dealing with sex across the color line. In May 2004, after Oprah Winfrey and others led a nation-wide protest, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that Dixon should have been prosecuted solely on the statutory rape charge, which has a maximum punishment of one year in prison. Dixon was released, as he already had served more than the year in prison.

Now comes Bell, who is back in jail in Jena, La.

Little noticed in the story of the so-called Jena Six is that Bell, one of the six, was a star football player. One of the few media stories that connected any of the Jena Six to football, in fact, was a recent "Outsides the Lines" segment on ESPN.

Here is a quick summary of the case.

When the high school year began in Jena in 2006, a long-standing tradition that only white students would sit under a large old oak tree was challenged by another football player, Kenneth Purvis. When Purvis questioned the school's principal about that tradition, the principal responded by saying it was OK for black people to sit there, too. Several African-American students sat under the tree that same day. But when school started the next day, three nooses hung from the tree. A noose is a symbol of the approximately 4,000 lynchings that are a part of the segregated South's history.

The nooses inflamed African-American residents of Jena, as well as African-American students at Jena High. The three students responsible for them were expelled, but then readmitted when the school board overruled the expulsion. Tensions remained high.

Several months after the initial incident, Robert Bailey, another member of the football team, reported that he had been assaulted and hit with a beer bottle at a party attended predominantly by whites. Several other incidents took place in this atmosphere as well, as reported on "Outside the Lines."

The Jena football coach warned Bell, his star player -- who had several previous juvenile offenses -- not to let the controversy swallow him up. But on Dec. 4, 2006, everything changed. Bell, along with five other African-American students, was charged with beating junior Justin Barker, a white student. Barker was hospitalized, but was released after three hours and was well enough to attend a school event that night.

The Jena Six, including Bell and Bailey, were told they would be charged with aggravated battery, but those charges were upgraded to attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit the same.

In June, the charges against Bell were reduced; and Bell, who had been in jail since his arrest in December, was tried as an adult and convicted by an all-white jury of aggravated battery. His court-appointed attorney did not call a single witness on his behalf.

Finally, in late September, Bell was released on bond after nine months in jail when an appellate court overturned his conviction and ruled that he should have been tried as a juvenile.

But last week, when he showed up in juvenile court for a routine hearing, he was unexpectedly sentenced to 18 months in jail on two counts of simple battery and two counts of criminal destruction of property. The district attorney said the matter had nothing to do with the December 2006 incident at the high school.

So Bell very likely might need the help of knowing the stories of Williams and Dixon, who both experienced something of a resurrection in the years since their troubles.

Williams has spoken to thousands of teenage students nationwide, denouncing racism and dispelling stereotypes as he delivers a message about violence prevention, school success, personal empowerment and conflict resolution. His years of selfless public service led The Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University to name an award for him (the Darryl Williams Award), and he received a Presidential Scholarship to get a degree at Northeastern.

At a fund-raiser for Williams in Boston in 1992, Muhammad Ali told him: "Darryl, you're the second Greatest!" And in a personal letter after he viewed a television interview with Williams on the 25th anniversary of the shooting,
former President Bill Clinton wrote to Williams: "You are an inspiration. Let your voice be heard."

And it has been.

In some ways, Williams, now 43, reminds me of Nelson Mandela. He teaches people to love, and not hate. He could have developed a hatred for white people in general, but he tells his audiences that the shooters were "three white people," not all white people. Williams never got the chance he dreamed about to play in the NFL, but he has inspired people to fight racism and people with disabilities to strike out boldly in new directions. In doing so, he has made friends with blue-collar workers and presidents alike.

Dixon received a full athletic scholarship to the historically black Hampton University, where he has played for head coach Joe Taylor, a leader of the Black Coaches Association. Taylor, known for his compassion and discipline, was just what Dixon needed. And Dixon has shown the world that Taylor's faith in him was merited. According to Taylor, Dixon has been a dean's list student at Hampton and has starred on the team. Taylor thinks Dixon has a legitimate shot to play in the NFL.

Hopefully, Bell will be able to draw on their examples, and build a positive future. Perhaps he can learn from their battles with racism and their abilities to overcome the past. And in doing so, he might also help the other five members of the Jena Six to their own second chances when -- if -- the justice system finally clears their paths.

Richard E. Lapchick is the Chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. The author of 13 books, Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the Director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He joined ESPN.com as a regular commentator on issues of diversity in sport.