I love most sports. And I love sports movies though I don’t find myself going to movies much anymore. However, 10 days ago, when I heard that ‘Concussion’ was about a Nigerian pathologist, Dr. Bennet Omalu, (played by Will Smith – who never did sound anything like a Nigerian/couldn’t Hollywood have cast an actor with Nigerian roots in this role??) who identifies a degenerative brain disease, now known as CTE – chronic traumatic encephalopathy, that is linked to the death of a growing number of football players, I decided this was one movie I should make the effort to see.

I’m so glad I did, though on this Superbowl Sunday, I feel even more conflicted than ever about this national sport. It’s similar to the way I felt after watching ‘Supersize Me’: I can never walk past a McDonalds again without thinking long and hard about how awful that food (eaten in great excess) can be for us…

It turns out I no longer have a working TV and have not been invited to any Superbowl parties, so my coverage of the big game will be limited to the NYTimes and my local radio station, WNYC (tomorrow morning to hear the results). If I was a real die-hard, I suppose I could follow the game on line somewhere play- by-play. Still, I realize I’m actually glad that I’m free from watching the many collisions that will no doubt accompany tonight’s game.

Yes, there is beauty and grace in this sport too, and the thrill of competition, and the challenge of strategy in advancing the ball down the field through passing & dodging & tackling & catching. But it would be hard to enjoy all this without also thinking about the billion dollar entity that football has become. The 30 second ads alone cost a staggering $5 million, that’s $166,666 per second (source: NYTimes, Sports section 2/7/16, p1). Yikes! It would also be difficult to set aside the reaction of the NFL organization to Dr. Omalu’s discovery and how as an organization, they sought to undermine his findings and set up a questionable Commission to cover up what they had long known. There is a staggering amount of money tied to power in this business: According to Forbes, as reported in Sept 2015, the average NFL team is worth $2 billion, up 38% from the previous year.

So tonight as the nation gathers around TV screens to celebrate the 50th Super Bowl, let’s not forget that as the hits pile up and concussions ensue, we may also be witnessing the acceleration of one or more of those athletes’ brains degenerating. CTE can only be confirmed posthumously but let’s not be naive about the fact that it has its antecedents in events such as these which we so readily glorify.

 

 

arthur ashe wimbeldon1975 tony triolo sports illusArthur Ashe died 23 years ago today at the age of 49. If he were still alive, he’d be 72. The cause of death was pneumonia, an opportunistic infection his immune system developed, ravaged by the HIV virus. He received HIV from a blood transfusion that he was given during heart surgery in the early 1980s. This was in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, before all donated blood was carefully screened for HIV and well before there were medications that could enable people (at least in those in the West)  to live full lives treating AIDS as a manageable, chronic infection.

Arthur was my first real hero. I learned to play tennis @ the age of 15 in Nigeria when a Nigerian coach approached the PE teacher at our American school offered to teach tennis to anyone who was interested. I was one of three who stepped forward to learn. To this day, and despite a chronically injured body, playing tennis remains one of my great joys and passions. I grew up knowing that Arthur was the first (and so far only) black man to win Wimbledon (1975) beating Jimmy Connors for the first and only time in his career which was a huge upset. He also won the US Open (1968) and the Australian Open (1972). On the court, he was known to have a fiery serve-and-volley game (sadly, all but gone among today’s players).  As the only black player at the time in an all white country club sport and growing up in segregated Richmond, he learned from a young age to conduct himself both on and off the court with the utmost integrity and respect. The likes of Zina Garrison, James Blake, Mal Washington, Venus and Serena Williams, Madison Keys – and the list goes on – stand on the shoulders of Arthur.

I never had the privilege of seeing Arthur play tennis. He retired over a decade before I came to the US. But on one occasion, I did see Arthur up close. I was at the Wimbledon Women’s final in 1990, sharing a single ticket with a friend. I watched the first set: Zina Garrison lost that one 4-6 to Martina Navratilova, and then I came out of Centre Court to give my ticket to my friend so he could go in to watch the second set. Arthur was milling around outside. Of course I recognized him, looked at him, and he looked at me, but that was it. I didn’t know at the time he was living with HIV and that he had less than three years to live. I wish I’d had the courage to shake his hand and thank him for all that he’d contributed to tennis, but I was too shy (and frankly dumbstruck) to seize the moment. I didn’t have the presence of mind to think of anything to say, so I kept moving and that opportunity passed.

Arthur was far more than an outstanding tennis player who made history. He was also a scholar (compiling a 3 volume work on the history of African American athletes called ‘A Hard Road to Glory’); a writer (he was just finishing his memoir ‘Days of Grace’ when he passed away so it was published posthumously; an activist (demonstrated against apartheid and got arrested for protesting the treatment of Haitian immigrants); a non-conformist (the first black man to be given a visa to play in a tennis tournament in apartheid South Africa), a mentor (founded what is now called the National Junior Tennis League to introduce city kids to tennis and the skills to that go along with being a upright citizen of your community); a philanthropist (he started the Arthur Ashe AIDS Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS to contribute to research that would limit the impact of this disease); and a recruiter (he plucked Yannick Noah from the tennis courts of Cameroon who later became the second black man  – after Arthur –  to win a Grand Slam, the French Open in 1983). He was also a father (he died when his daughter was 6, sadly, just as his mother had passed away when he was 6), husband (married to the esteemed photographer Jeanne Moutousamy), friend, widely respected colleague, and beloved son of Richmond, VA. Thousands filed past his open casket when he lay in state there for two days before his funeral on Feb 10 and 5,000 were thought to attend the memorial service @ Cathedral St John the Divine on Friday the 13th.

I was one of them. There was a snow storm that day and the city was shrouded in a blanket of thick, wet flakes. I remember being cold inside that Cathedral; large old churches like that are notoriously difficult to heat. But I was warmed by the love and affection countless friends and colleagues had for Arthur and how well, it seemed, he’d lived his all too short life. Billie Jean King had been a commentator with him @ Wimbledon and she wore a purple blazer – one of the Wimbledon colors – in solidarity with him. His best friend and lawyer, Donald Dell, told us how Arthur was as a solid a person away from the publicity as his celebrity status  had led us to believe. I was always impressed that Arthur used his platform to speak (and act) out against injustice and for those less fortunate than he. He remained a man with simple tastes, understated to the end, but his legacy as a Renaissance man lives on and for that I am grateful.

Hallelujah Arthur Ashe, hallelujah! (Courtesy of Andrew Young who married Arthur and Jeanne. This is how he concluded his Eulogy @ Arthur’s funeral)

(Photo credit: Tony Triolo/Sports Illustrated)

Today, on account of the blizzard pummeling the east coast of the US, the city which never sleeps has ground to a standstill — and that includes Broadway. Yes, all matinees and evening performances were cancelled earlier today. The hope is that by tomorrow afternoon, the storm will have blown away, and the city will re-awaken, the subways and buses will begin to move again, in time for Sunday’s matinees.

But in the meantime, here’s a touching Broadway story…

Last Weds night, a group of us from our midtown office decided to walk over to the Richard Rogers Theater to try our luck in the popular lottery for a front row seat to the performance of Hamilton that night. (We were hopeful. After all, a work friend had won front row tickets to the show the previous evening (!), and several others from the office had been lottery winners too. Apparently, their success is not unconnected to how one folds their ticket, it seems, but that’s a story for a different blog post.) As I put on my coat, a friend and colleague, Jess, was heading out, and she, being a lover of all things Hamilton – she’s memorized all the words to the soundtrack – decided to stop by with us on her way home. We joined 300+ other hopefuls, wrote our names on a piece of paper, tried to fold them in that special way, flung them into the basket, and waited on a crowded sidewalk in the winter cold.

The first name was called and cheers went up as that person dashed through the crowd and up to the front to present their ID, hand over their cash ($10/tkt, 2 max), and pick up their tickets. The second name was called and there was more yelling – and this time some groans too. Then the third name was called – and as God would have it – it was our friend, Jess! She blushed with disbelief, her eyes got tearful and then she scurried off to claim her tickets.

The show was in two hours and with three young kids at home, she had some juggling to do: she texted her babysitter and asked her to stay later that evening and then rushed home. Together they got the two youngest kids (4 1/2 & 2) into their pajamas and ready for bed after dinner. With C, her oldest @ 7, since she was having a special night out with Mom, she got to put on a pretty dress.

When the others were settled and in bed, Mom took C into the hallway and told her they were going to Hamilton. At first C couldn’t believe it. When she realized that it was really true, she started dancing and jumping up and down saying, “Nobody loves Hamilton more than I do!”

The show did not disappoint. They were in the front center – and C was given a booster seat so she could have a perfect view of the stage. She sat up, alert and awake, through every scene and rap.

By the end of the evening, both C and Jess were overwhelmed with tears. During the closing ovation, Lin-Manuel Miranda looked right at them, winked, and patted his heart. They were beyond ecstatic.

The next day, Jess couldn’t stop talking about their spectacular evening. I was both thrilled and envious. When she’d dropped C off at school, after letting her sleep in, C’s teachers told her how jealous they were too. Still on a high, Jess decided to tweet Miranda to thank him for such a special treat. And this was his response:

lin manuel tweet jan2016 cropped #2

How’s that for a sweet down-to-earth Broadway response: a 7 year old winking back at a star!

ocean grove jan2013 #3January 6th, is called the Day of Epiphany in the Christian calendar. It is marked by the visit of the magi in search of the baby Jesus. Matthew tells us that magi came from the east to Jerusalem looking for the king of the Jews. They had seen his star and had come to worship him. The star was a sign which led them first to Herod and subsequently to Jesus himself. They saw something unusual and different and it provoked them to take action, to go on a lengthy journey, not knowing where it would lead them or what it would mean for them. But nonetheless, upon recognizing the sign, they took off.

The Shepherds were the first to hear of the birth of Jesus on a dark night that probably seemed no different than any other. When angels lit up the sky and shared news of the birth of the Savior of the world, they too were given a sign: They would find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. Despite being terrified, they went to see if what the angels had told them was in deed true.

God frequently gives us signs which prompt and nudge us out of our current situations and into experiences and deeper understandings of who he is and what he’s calling us to do. If you are anything like me, you are usually too distracted to notice the signs, to recognize them as such, to pay attention to what they might signify, or to act on them. It’s like when I get the flu: my throat begins to tickle, my nose runs more than usual, fatigue begins to creep in – all indications that my body’s immune system is becoming compromised – but usually, I don’t pay too much attention or make any significant changes to the rhythm of my days, until my throat is raging, my sinuses rebel in earnest and my body weakens further, demanding rest (and perhaps flu medicine). The signs were there all along but I ignored them until I couldn’t do so any more. And then I was knocked flat on my back.

As the start of this new year, I wonder what sign(s) God might be inviting you to see in your life right now. Are you strung out and weary from a holiday season that was too full of busy-ness with little time to slow down and reflect on it’s true meaning and implications? Do you need to make a significant change –let go of an unhealthy relationship, release a deeply buried grudge or hurt, transition out of a job that is violating your soul, build margins into your schedule that allow you to have moments of quiet and rest, take up something new that breathes life into you and stirs your passions? Or perhaps you’re already aware of the sign(s) but what to do about the fears and paralysis that interfere with you taking action?

Let the life-changing journey of the Magi encourage you. They didn’t travel alone. They weren’t in a hurry. They asked for help along the way. They kept following the star. And when they found the baby, they were overjoyed.  Open your eyes, look for the sign(s), start moving, take others with you, be willing to go slowly, don’t be afraid to ask for help, and wait for the joy!

 

 

This summer, I listened to a number of disturbing stories on the BBC about migrants, many of them African, undertaking horrific journeys filled with risk and terror. If they get far enough, their efforts usually culminate in a Mediterranean crossing, the result of a desperate attempt to reach Europe. Many are fleeing war-torn lives and economic hardship or both with the hopes of starting over in a country where they’re safe and can find work to support themselves and their families. This weekend alone, 4,400 migrants were rescued off the coast of Libya, making it one of the largest single day rescues ever (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34028487). The number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean this year tops more than a quarter of a million (!) – and counting.

These images and stories are in such sharp contrast to the experience of arriving in Europe by way of sleek airplanes which convey passengers to modern airports which double as expansive malls. I was recently on sabbatical in Uganda and on my way back to the US, I caught a connecting flight in Brussels. When I arrived from Entebbe @ 7am local time and made my way to section B of the airport, at that hour, it was filled with hundreds of Africans, who presumably, like me, had layovers and were waiting for their connecting flights. We lined up for coffee @ Starbucks, perused the Samsonite luggage on sale and then found comfortable chairs to nap on. At one point, I saw a family of 12 sitting across from each other in pairs, laughing and talking over inviting plates of eggs, bacon, sausage, bread and tea.

I dare say most (maybe all?) of us in the airport that day who’d come from various cities in Africa, including Dakar, Abijan, and Kigali, were not migrants. Some were likely on holiday; perhaps others were returning after a trip to their homeland. But the gap between those who can afford to experience Europe in this way and those who risk everything for the shores of Italy could not be more wide.

How privileged some of us are — and how tragic the lives of others of us are.

It’s a sobering reality to contemplate…

A month from today, Nigerians will go to the polls to elect a President for a 5 year term. For a nation that has been independent from Britain for almost 55 years – and with much of it’s checkered past littered with military heads of state, a national “democratic” election (supposedly – that remains to be seen) is hardly an insignificant event.

However, what gives me pause before any votes are even cast is that the current President, Goodluck Jonathan, has been chosen by his party, the PDP, to be their presidential candidate once again. This is despite the fact that his leadership has been appalling, non-existent, ineffective, and embarrassing, at least as far as his response to the situation with Boko Haram is concerned. Attacks throughout the northeast of the country but extending as far south as the capital city of Abuja have taken thousands of lives and left entire villages decimated and destroyed since the insurgency began in 2002. There is minimal accountability: these deaths go unreported – often due to the risk of violence required to get near to the sites of the crimes – let alone investigated, so the perpetrators take life without impunity. They know they can get away with it.

Rather than be contained, the situation appears to be escalating and there is minimal evidence that the government at the state or national level has the will or the courage or the impetus to contain the violence. (Nigerians I’ve talked to – both those who live there and abroad – are convinced that some very high up in the government are benefiting greatly from this insurgency. Hence, the lack of motivation to mobilize the resources necessary to tackle it. As long as the oil money keeps flowing, those in power will continue to ignore the crisis that is building.)

That Goodluck Jonathan would issue a statement condemning the attacks in Paris last week (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/13/goodluck-jonathan-boko-ha_n_6464928.html) and yet make no statement whatsoever regarding what may be the worst attack by Boko Haram so far, days earlier on Jan 3 (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-30794829) is disheartening at best, and pathetic at worst. And of course, despite the worldwide outrage at the abduction of 200+ girls from Chibok last spring, nothing more has been heard about the whereabouts of the girls except those who escaped of their own accord. Or what the government is doing to try to investigate this kidnapping and bring to justice those behind this attack.

How can we expect others to believe that Nigerian lives matter, when the man elected to lead his nation is unable to communicate that message to his people, let alone marshall the type of response needed to tackle this desperate situation? Over and over again, bombs are detonated (the latest one by a 10 year old girl), villages are attacked and burned, throats are slit (literally) and there is silence from Aso Rock, the Presidential Villa.

Who will stand for us?

dr ada igonoh ebola survivor nov2014

I continue to find myself gripped by the events surrounding the Ebola outbreak that continues to devastate Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. As 2015 begins, there are now 20,000 reported cases and 8,000 deaths – and counting. I also keep reflecting on how thankful I am that the disease was successfully contained (at least so far) in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation of 170 million – and counting.

Ebola arrived there at the end of July when a Liberian man who had Ebola and turned about to be extremely infectious flew into to Lagos from Monrovia. He denied that he’d been in contact with any Ebola patients or that he’d been at a burial recently, though he’d gone to Liberia from the US, where he lived, to bury his sister who’d died from Ebola. Due to his failure to provide this crucial information, it took several days before he was tested for Ebola and the appropriate preventive measures put in place. A number of health workers who cared for him were infected with Ebola and some died but fortunately the disease did not spread in ways it might have.

With all the reports coming out of Nigeria about the relentless attacks of the Islamic militant group Boko Haram, limiting the spread of Ebola was a huge national triumph. And in many ways, I think the true significance of this containment got lost in the haze of the international community’s attempts to face the enormity of what was unfolding further up the coast of West Africa in the worst affected nations.

Several months ago, I wrote here about the heroic efforts of Dr. Adadevoh, a senior doctor at First Consultant’s Hospital where the Liberian man was admitted. Sadly, her leadership and courage in caring for this patient ultimately cost this mother of one her life: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-29685127 . But she played a key role in preventing a catastrophe. Recently, I came across an inside account from another female doctor, Dr Ada Igonoh, who was also involved in the care of the Liberian man. She too contracted Ebola – but after battling heroically for several weeks, she survived. Her remarkable and sobering account was posted on Bill Gates’ blog: http://www.gatesnotes.com/Health/Surviving-Ebola-Dr-Ada-Igonoh .

Her story gives us a vivid inside view of the terror infected health workers are facing on the front lines of this outbreak. In Dr. Igonoh’s case, the power of her faith in God to sustain her in the face of such fear is remarkable and her determination to live and the unwavering support of her Pastor are also particularly noteworthy.

(Photo credit: http://www.nta.ng)

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