The Players Tribune

‘I Am A Role Model’: The inspiration behind Bronson Koenig’s Native American activism

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Bronson Koenig does not have any Sioux blood running through his veins, but the star point guard for the Wisconsin Badgers drove 13 hours to stand with protestors in opposition to an oil pipeline in Fort Yates, North Dakota, this past weekend because his people have dealt with the same injustices currently facing the Standing Rock Sioux.

Koenig’s mother is full-blood Ho-Chunk, which, as Koenig explains, is the same thing as the Winnebago Tribe in Nebraska. They’re the same people. They come from the same ancestors. They were the same tribe, except the Ho-Chunk are the people that opted to remain in Wisconsin when, roughly 150 years ago, the federal government came in and forcibly removed the tribe from their land. The Winnebago first were given a reservation in Minnesota before that, too, was taken, and the tribe was sent to a plot of land on the Nebraska-Iowa border.

This fight is personal for Koenig, even if he didn’t know any Standing Rock Sioux personally.

He’s embraced his place as a role model in the Native American community, where basketball is a massively popular sport. He understands that kids living on these reservations look up to him. As Clint Parks, a trainer that flew from Wyoming to Madison just to join the 1,500-mile round-trip drive, tells it, those kids see Koenig the way the rest of America sees LeBron James.

“My mom has always told me that I’m a role model whether I like it or not, and she’s always pushed me to be the best role model I can be for our youth,” Koenig says. He knows that he has a national platform right now, one that may not last beyond his senior season in Madison, which is why he has spent the last month doing everything he can to raise awareness for a fight he believes he was born into.

The protest centers around the Dakota Access Pipeline, a $3.8 billion project that is being built to carry 470,000 gallons of crude oil a day from North Dakota to Illinois. The path of the pipeline does not cut across the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, but the current plans would destroy sacred cultural sites and burial ground in addition to potentially contaminating the water the tribe gets from the Missouri River. On Monday, a D.C. circuit court officially halted construction on the pipeline until a decision can be made.

Since the protests began roughly a month ago, Koenig’s Twitter and Instagram pages have been littered with updates about the protests, a push for national news recognition he feels this issue requires.

That’s no different than any activist with a platform and an opinion, but to truly comprehend the importance of this trip and the value that the accessibility of an icon brings, you need to understand what life is like on that reservation.

Koenig hosted a basketball clinic at the local high school, photo courtesy Clint Parks
Koenig hosted a basketball clinic at the local high school, photo courtesy Clint Parks

The Standing Rock Reservation is a 3,571-square mile plot of land that overlaps the border between North and South Dakota. Bordered on the east by the Missouri River, the reservation is one of the poorest areas in the United States.

The unemployment rate on the reservation is a stunning 79% percent, according to a report from MSNBC in 2014, a number that is even more striking in comparison to the state of North Dakota, where an oil boom has lowered the state’s unemployment rate to 3.1%. Many of the jobs created as a result of this boom are in the construction industry, where infrastructure like the Dakota Access Pipeline is needed to transport the oil and natural gas pulled from the earth to the rest of the country.

The poverty rate in Standing Rock is 43%, more than triple the national average, and the two counties that make up the reservation — Sioux County in North Dakota and Corson County in South Dakota — are two of the ten poorest counties in the country.

“Crumbling homes and boarded up, graffiti-scarred buildings dot this forlorn place, where the great needs of families are etched in the faces of many who live here,” that report from MSNBC read. “There’s a crippling Third World-ness to many parts of the reservation, with life expectancy and quality of life rates among the lowest in the Western Hemisphere.”

“There is little economic activity to speak of and childhood mortality, suicide and dropout rates are among the highest in the nation. Food insecurity is vast. Access to quality healthcare and education is lacking. Far too many go without electricity or running water. These conditions are made worse by political and economic red tape that stymie growth and development.”

The camp Koenig stayed at while in North Dakota, via @ThePlayersTribune
The camp Koenig stayed at while in North Dakota, via @ThePlayersTribune

Koenig knew what he was going to see in Standing Rock when he arrived. He knew the numbers and he’s heard the stories, which is why the most tangible effect of Koenig’s trip was charity.

Koenig’s older brother, Miles, coordinated with the Three Rivers House — where he is a community outreach organizer — and the Hunger Task Force, among other charities, to stock an 18-foot trailer to the ceiling with supplies. Not just food and water, but things seemingly as fundamental as shoes and winter coats, two things will be vital for protesters and tribe members as fall turns to winter. The brothers, along with Parks, also lugged up a pair of generators, which will be useful on the reservation in the long-term but will be immediately useful for the thousands of protesters that are currently occupying four camps in and around the construction site.

It doesn’t take a Rhodes Scholar to figure out that people needing shoes and coats with a North Dakota winter bearing down are struggling.

But knowing and being prepared to see it all up close are two different things.

“Just seeing the reservation and the condition that they live in,” Koenig said, trailing off. “It was pretty eye-opening and made me appreciate everything that I have. Seeing the kids walking around, the conditions that they live in, in the middle of nowhere? You don’t really have much to look forward to.”

“That place,” Parks said, “was given hope with Bronson showing up.”

The trailer, courtesy Clint Parks
The trailer, courtesy Clint Parks

There-in lies the importance of Koenig’s trip, the value that comes with embracing one’s status as the pillar of a community. It’s not just that he’s giving these people supplies that they need, supplies that will undoubtedly help them get by in what is always a long, dark, cold winter. It’s not that he’s hosting basketball clinics and allowing these children a chance to rub elbows and take pictures with their hero. And it’s not just that he’s shining a spotlight on a cause that has been totally overlooked as we argue over whether or not Colin Kaepernick disrespected the flag.

If we, as Americans, ignore a cause — one supporting our nation’s largest minority group — championed by an NFL quarterback because we can’t get past his method of protest, is it any wonder the DAPL protests struggle to make headlines?

So yes, the work Koenig is doing promoting the cause is invaluable, but it’s not as important as the self-confidence he gives Native American children around the country, the belief that they can make it out, they can be successful in life, they can put themselves into a position where they can give back to a community the same way that Koenig has.

And, quite frankly, it’s a chance to provide a simple distraction to everything else going on in their world.

“[We went] there to bring joy to their lives, take their minds off the issue with the tension that’s been growing there over the last month,” Koenig said. “Show them that I’m 100% supportive of them because they’ve been 100% supportive of me whether I have a great game or play awful.” It’s great to have the support of a community, to have an entire nation of people behind you.

And it was time for Koenig to show his people that he is behind them, that he’s in this fight with them. He was there because a retweet is fleeting. The only way to truly support a cause is by going all-in.

“It was a life-changing experience,” Koenig said. “I’ll remember it forever.”

via The Players Tribune
Bronson Koenig with children of the Standing Rock Sioux, via The Players Tribune

Louisville challenges NCAA over recruiting allegations

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville has refuted NCAA allegations against its men’s basketball program in the wake of a federal corruption scandal, requesting that the highest-level violation be reclassified.

The university also is challenging that former coach Rick Pitino failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance in his program.

Louisville filed a 104-page response last week to the Notice Of Allegations sent to the school in May. The document stated that college sports’ governing body seeks to ignore wire fraud convictions against several people involved in the scheme – including a former Adidas executive – by suggesting they were representing its athletic interests. Louisville’s contract with the apparel maker was a standard sponsorship agreement rather than a promotional deal, the response added.

“This argument is as novel as it is wrong,” the school wrote in its response. “Even if an institution has some responsibility for the conduct of its suppliers, that responsibility plainly does not extend to acts of fraud perpetrated against the institution itself.”

Louisville also seeks to have several second-tier violations reclassified even lower. The NCAA has until Nov. 15 to respond with the school responding 15 days after before a decision is made whether the case will proceed through the traditional Committee on Infractions or Independent Accountability Review Process (IARP).

The NCAA’s Notice of Allegations states that Louisville committed a Level I violation, considered the most severe, with an improper recruiting offer and extra benefits along with several lesser violations. Those lesser violations also include Pitino failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance.

The NCAA notice completed a two-year investigation following a federal corruption probe of college basketball announced in September 2017. Louisville acknowledged its involvement in the federal investigation related to the recruitment of former player Brian Bowen II. Pitino, who’s now coaching Iona, was not named in the federal complaint and has consistently denied authorizing or having knowledge of a payment to a recruit’s family.

Louisville has previously indicated it would accept responsibility for violations it committed but would contest allegations it believed were not supported by facts. The school also noted corrective measures taken in the scandal’s immediate aftermath, such as suspending and then firing Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich.

Louisville also dismissed the NCAA’s contention that former Adidas executive James Gatto and amateur league director Merl Code represented the school while funneling illegal payments to recruits at several schools.

“The enforcement staff’s remaining allegations lack factual support and overread the relevant Bylaws,” the response stated, “and rest on the erroneous contention that the conspirators were representatives of the University’s athletics interests.

“For these reasons and others set forth, the panel should reject the enforcement staff’s dramatically overbroad theory, and classify this case as involving a Level II-Mitigated violation.”

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.