There was a lot of pain in my life from 1990 to 2006. But when I think about those years, I have happy memories of the Super Bowls. I remember the blowouts and the nail-biters. Tom Brady outgunning Jake Delhomme. John Elway scrambling every which way and finally winning the big prize. Brett Favre and Kurt Warner and all those Dallas Cowboys.
One of my clearest recollections is of Super Bowl XXV. I'm a Giants fan, and I was surrounded that day by other Big Blue supporters. We watched Scott Norwood line up that last-second field goal for the Bills. I still see it now: Marv Levy, the Buffalo coach, holding the hand of James Lofton, the team's veteran receiver, anticipating a championship. The kick is up. Ever so slightly, they begin to lift their arms. Then the kick sails wide right. Giants win. A group of us yelled and hugged one another and did little dances. And then we went back to our jail cells and banged on the bars in celebration.
From 17 to 33 I was an inmate in the New York State prison system, wrongfully convicted of the rape and murder of a classmate at Peekskill High. My conviction was based on a coerced false confession, extracted when I was 16. Though my case was filled with prosecutorial misconduct and fraudulent testimony, I lost all of my appeals and was refused parole. Then, my Hail Mary touchdown: In 2006 I was cleared and released when the Innocence Project, a New York City--based nonprofit dedicated to overturning mistaken convictions, used DNA evidence to turn up the actual perpetrator—a career criminal who had murdered another woman three years after I went to prison for his crime.
It's been more than six years since my release and full exoneration, but I still think often of my time in prison. It's no exaggeration to say that sports sustained me during my incarceration, just as they do countless others in the criminal justice system. Sports are recreation. Sports are diversion. Sports are fun. But they are more than that. For many of the nearly two million Americans currently imprisoned—the vast majority of them men—sports are crucial to survival.
I served most of my sentence at a maximum security facility in Elmira, N.Y. The inmates were of every age, background and temperament you can imagine. But sports were a point of commonality. At meals, in the yard, in the cell block, we'd argue about favorite teams and athletes. We'd have the same conversations—Who belongs in the Hall of Fame? Is LeBron better than Kobe?—that our peers on the outside were having in bars and barbershops. Sports talk was also a way to build relationships with the guards. We'd even place bets and run our version of office pools, wagering cigarettes and stamps and items from the commissary. When there's a few cans of tuna fish riding on a game, you sweat it out.
As in most facilities, inmates in Elmira don't have access to the Internet. Starting in 1998, though, we were allowed to have small TVs in our cells, and some of us followed sports that way. Just about all of us also listened to sports talk radio. (One definition of frustrating: disagreeing with the hosts when you don't have the option of calling in.) Newspaper sports sections were gold. There was one SPORTS ILLUSTRATED subscription; we'd read the issues and then pass them around.
Sports meant the most to me when I was in the yard or in the gym. When we played basketball—which was often—I envisioned myself as Michael Jordan. I don't mean like Michael Jordan. I was Michael Jordan. I convinced myself that the games were being broadcast on television: When we played in the gym, it was a Bulls road game; in the yard, it was a home game. The inmates waiting for the next game were the audience. I'd call timeouts. I'd think of my teammates as Luc Longley or Will Perdue and scold them for not playing the passing lanes. Toward the end of games I'd think about what I'd say to the media in the interview session.
Now I realize that was an elaborate bit of self-delusion, a coping mechanism. But at the time, it enabled me to leave the prison for a while, if only in my mind. I was in another place, where I wasn't weighed down by the constant struggle to establish my innocence.
I'm struck by something else about those basketball games: There was no fighting, no cheap shots, not even much trash talk. There was a sense of honor, an unwritten code. Knock a guy down and you help him up. Winners stay, losers walk. Respect the call. Some players had committed chilling crimes, but everyone followed the rules of sports.
On Sunday I'll be watching the Ravens play the 49ers. Of course I will. They say that the game might be the most-watched program in the history of American television. Trust me when I say that many of the viewers will be on the inside. For them, the game will mean everything. For those few hours, nothing else will matter. For those few hours, they will feel free.