When not wrangling copy for the MoJo crew, Ian writes about immigration, sports, and Latin America. His work has appeared in ESPN the Magazine, Wired, and Slate. Got a comment or a tip? Email him: igordon [at] motherjones [dot] com.
University of Missouri All-American defensive end Michael Sam shocked the sports world Sunday when he announced that he is gay. The National Football League has never had an openly gay player, and the timing of his announcement—just weeks before the league's so-called combine, when draft-eligible players like Sam are put through the paces in front of scouts and team executives—has been hailed as incredibly brave.
But as Kevin Drum noted Sunday night, a group of NFL front-office types had a different take. Severalteam executives anonymously questioned Sam's talent and pro prospects in a SI.com article published after his announcement. Sample line, from a personnel assistant: "I don't think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet. In the coming decade or two, it's going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it's still a man's-man game." Worse still, some of them argued that teams would lower Sam on their draft boards, or not draft him at all, simply because he's gay.
Is that legal? Do state and local laws protect potential draftees from discrimination based on sexual orientation? And what about the NFL's own nondiscrimination policy? Here's a brief explainer:
As the world gears up for the Sochi Games, we reached out to these three amazing women to talk about everything from their first runs to high-speed crashes to race and gender politics. The opening ceremonies take place on Friday, February 7. Here's the complete schedule of events.
Jazmine Fenlator, 28, bobsled
A lot of people think I'm on the Jamaican bobsled team. It's a question every black bobsledder gets, even if you're wearing a USA shirt. My dad used to love watching Cool Runnings with me. When I told him I got an invite to try out for the US bobsled team, his first words were: "Sanka! You dead, mon? Let me kiss your lucky egg!" Growing up biracial, I never really thought about things: I mean, you have some acceptance issues, but I grew up in a predominately white town. The side of my family I'm closest with is all white, so it's not necessarily a topic of conversation. You get a lot of naive questions, but I welcome those. The more people I can teach and tell about bobsled, the more cheers we'll have in Sochi. Not many people can relate to bobsled, and it's hard to spectate. It's a grueling, blue-collar sport. To support my bobsled habit, I've sometimes worked three jobs in the offseason. We do all the work on our sleds. We carry our sleds. There's no caddy, there's no pit crew. We handle all those things on top of trying to be the best athletes within our sport in the world.
Click here to read our extended interview with Fenlator. Women's "bobsleigh" heats begin on February 18.
Katie Uhlaender, 29, skeleton
I always challenged men in foot races or whatever as a kid growing up, because it was a way of challenging myself—but you have to accept that men are born with testosterone. You can beat them for so long, but eventually they're gonna catch up. There is a double standard: My father was a major league baseball player, and I grew up thinking I could have the same attitude on the field that he did. When I did that in real life, people thought I was a total bi-atch. [Laughs.] Women are held to a different standard, but there's a reason. Because we are mothers, we have a different role in society. There are certain benefits we get being women—and we deserve them! But don't take advantage of them. You have to walk the line and show that you have self-worth. If you lose yourself, then no one's going to respect you. Miley Cyrus, the girl crossed the line! You can be sexy without licking a hammer.
Click here to read our extended interview with Uhlaender. Women's skeleton commences on February 13.
Maddie Bowman, 20, halfpipe freeskiing
Some people don't understand that you can ski in the halfpipe. They think it's cool and kinda crazy. It's like a polar bear-grizzly bear mix—a pizzly. It's a new species and it's super badass! I was a racer before, but it felt a little too serious. My parents were a little resistant, but then they skied with us and realized we think about things before we jump off of stuff. They definitely get nervous. You can't have my mom video a run at all because it's so shaky—she always misses it! The first time I ever did a "left nine"—it's two and a half spins, and I'm spinning down the wall, rotating to the left—I was so excited I completely forgot the rest of my run; I just sort of made it up. Most skiers, we can think pretty quickly on our feet—or off our feet if we're falling. We like to push the limits, but when the limits push back, it's always a rude awakening. Concussions and injuries are something everyone worries about. But you can't be out there worrying about getting hurt, or else you're more likely to get hurt. If I got hurt, knock on wood, I don't know what I would do. Maybe I'd actually be a real college student.
Click here to read more about Bowman. The women's halfpipe competition is on February 20.
As far as Katie Uhlaender can tell, skeleton—which involves hurtling yourself face-first on a sled down an icy course at top speeds of nearly 90 miles an hour—is the safest sport she has ever tried. "I've had eight surgeries," she says, "but none of them were from skeleton."
Four years ago, preparing for the Vancouver Olympics, Uhlaender twice shattered her left knee—the first time in a backcountry snowmobile accident—requiring four surgeries and keeping her on crutches until 20 weeks before the Games. Add in the emotional pain of the death of her father, former major league outfielder Ted Uhlaender, and it's no wonder that she struggled to an 11th-place finish in Vancouver.
Now, for the second Olympics in a row, Uhlaender is coming off an injury. This time, it's skeleton-related: She suffered a concussion on a training run in Lake Placid a few months ago and was limited throughout the fall. "It was the first time in 10 years that I've had to not take the second run," she says.
With Sochi on the horizon, I chatted with the 2012 world champ about how she got her start on the sled, how to slide without thinking, and how to manage the double-standard between men and women, in sports and beyond:
Mother Jones: So how did you ever get started in skeleton?
Katie Uhlaender: I just happened to get to meet someone completely random and got sucked in before I knew better. [Laughs.] I just met a girl who was a bobsledder, and she talked me into trying it. Three weeks into it I won junior nationals, fourth week I went to junior worlds, eighth week I won senior nationals. I kind of started winning right away, and it was either go to college and get a Ph.D. or become an Olympian. So I basically made a choice.
MJ: Had you played a lot of sports growing up?
KU: My father was a major league baseball player, so if you weren't an athlete, you weren't cool. I just was an athlete and was looking for a sport, and that's what happened. I just took advantage of an opportunity and made a choice.
MJ: What was it like to have so much success so early?
KU: It's all relative, right? First, when I went to junior worlds, I was conflicted because I didn't feel like I deserved it. And then I talked to my dad, and he referenced his first at-bat in the big leagues. He couldn't stop shaking. And then he realized that every legend before him took the same steps he took up to the plate. Once you get to the plate, you have two options: You either quit, or you try to hit the ball.
Audelina Aguilar set off on the six-week journey along the migrant trail at 14, leaving her parents and nine younger siblings behind in the highlands of rural Guatemala. She rode atop Mexican freight trains, from Chiapas in the south to Tamaulipas in the north. She fought off a would-be rapist with the help of the only other woman in the group, who screamed, "She's a baby!" She walked through the South Texas wilderness for four days, trying to steer clear of the assailant, who was still with the group, and of the human remains they encountered along the way.
See MoJo's full coverage of the surge of unaccompanied child migrants from Central America.
They were led by a coyote, and her 16-year-old cousin was with her, but other than that Aguilar was on her own. "When I left my country," she told me, "I said, 'I know God is going to be with me, and everything is going to be okay.'"
Eventually Aguilar made it to San Francisco, where her 16-year-old brother lived. They stayed with an aunt, but soon moved out, not wanting to burden her. Aguilar went to work to pay back another aunt in Alabama who'd handled her smuggling fee, first as a babysitter and later on the crews that clean huge hillside homes with views of the bay. She usually got bathroom duty. Hardly anyone asked why she wasn't in school.
Her journey is not unusual. Over the past five years, the number of undocumented children—mostly teens, but some as young as five—apprehended crossing the border without parents or guardians has tripled, rising from 8,041 in fiscal year 2008 to 24,481 in fiscal 2012, with a 52 percent increase from 2011 to 2012 alone. Countless others, including Aguilar, made the trip without getting caught.
A major factor in the increase, known simply as "the surge" to government officials and child-welfare advocates, appears to be the rise in gang violence in Central America. The number of Guatemalan, Honduran, and Salvadoran children crossing alone has skyrocketed in recent years, even as the number of Mexican kids has held steady. "What's alarming is that there's an increasing number saying they're fleeing forcible gang recruitment and gang violence," says Elizabeth Kennedy, a San Diego State University researcher who studies unaccompanied child migrants. "They were being forcibly recruited into the gangs and didn't want to be a part of it, and so they had to flee because threats had been made on them or their family members."
That's exactly what happened to two of Aguilar's younger brothers back in their hometown of La Cumbre; one came to the United States last year, at 17, while the other, 16, crossed the border a couple of months ago. As the authors of a 2012 Women's Refugee Commission report (PDF) on the surge wrote, "Until conditions for children in these countries change substantially, we expect this trend will be the new norm."
Still, unaccompanied children barely register in the national immigration debate, where most of the talk about youth has focused on the DREAM Act, the proposed legislation that would legalize some undocumented immigrants brought to the country as kids. (It would require five years of residency and a high school diploma, disqualifying most of these more-recent migrants.) Legal-aid groups have pushed reforms such as government-appointed lawyers for unaccompanied children. Many of them, advocates note, actually qualify for asylum or other legal relief, but will never know it because they don't have legal representation.
When apprehended, kids trying to cross the border are treated differently than adults: Instead of being placed in immigration detention, they are turned over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services. While seeking to reunify the kids with US-based family during their deportation proceedings, ORR puts them up in shelters run by nonprofit subcontractors like Catholic Charities. (When I first met Aguilar in September, her brother had just left Guatemala; the second time we spoke, he'd just been caught; the third time, recently, he'd just arrived in San Francisco after his stay in an ORR facility.)
Journalists aren't allowed into the shelters "for safety reasons," an ORR spokeswoman told me. But Susan Terrio, a Georgetown University anthropologist currently writing a book about unaccompanied children, visited 19 of them over a four-year period. She says she was surprised to find an almost hermetically sealed system: "The kids were never left unattended. They went to school inside, they played sports inside, and they only got out for supervised outings in the community or for medical and mental-health appointments."
"You walk by, and you think it's just an old nursing home," says one child-welfare advocate, "and it's actually all these immigrant kids inside."
Maria Woltjen, director of the Young Center for Immigrant Children's Rights, says that as a result, unaccompanied children are essentially invisible: "Nobody in Chicago knows there are 400 kids detained in our midst. They're just in [former] nursing homes—you walk by, and you think it's just an old nursing home, and it's actually all these immigrant kids inside."
While many child-welfare advocates are hesitant to criticize the ORR facilities for fear of being shut out of them, the shelters did come under scrutiny in 2007, when ORR removed kids from a Texas facility after a female guard was accused of sexually assaulting four minors. (She was later convicted.) In the summer of 2012, lacking enough beds to deal with the influx of Central American children, ORR temporarily housed hundreds in emergency dormitories at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. According to the Women's Refugee Commission report, "the facility looked and felt like an emergency hurricane shelter with cots for beds and portable furniture." (The base no longer houses children.)
In fiscal 2011, ORR had 53 shelters that housed 6,560 kids. In 2012, those numbers increased to 68 and 13,625; in 2013, there were 80 shelters and 24,668 unaccompanied children. The majority are in states along the Mexican border, hours from big cities, which means it's even harder for kids to find legal representation—and stave off being sent back to the dangerous situations they fled.
ProBAR, a pro bono project that specializes in representing unaccompanied children, is based in the South Texas border city of Harlingen, a half hour west of Brownsville. When I visit its office in mid-December, I meet with managing attorney Kimi Jackson, who says the number of beds ProBAR serves jumped from 369 in September 2011 to 1,187 in September 2013.
Jackson says the government has been reunifying unaccompanied kids with family members faster than ever before—the average shelter stay has fallen from 72 days in 2011 to 45 days. That's good for the kids, but it has complicated ProBAR's work: It means less time to tell them about their rights and screen them about their experiences to build a case against deportation. "We are not able to provide the same services that we used to, because there just isn't time," Jackson admits.
So ProBAR's paralegals go in groups to give their presentations and screen hundreds of kids at a time, listening to countless heartrending testimonials. The attorneys scour their notes, trying to decide whom to represent and whom to refer to other nearby pro bono lawyers. "I can only read so many of them in one sitting," Jackson says, "because it's emotionally exhausting."
And even after unaccompanied kids link up with family members, they're still vulnerable—to abuse, to trafficking, to exploitation by employers. After two years of working full time, bringing home as little as $25 a day after transportation costs, Audelina Aguilar ended up in the hospital one day with severe abdominal pain. The nurses told her she had an ovarian inflammation; when they found out that her parents were back in Guatemala, they made the teen swear that she'd stop working and enroll in school.
That's how she landed at SFIHS. Now in its fifth year, it's a public alternative school in the Mission District that serves recently arrived immigrants. Some are fleeing a civil war. Others endured traumatic border crossings or time locked up in immigration detention. The vast majority, says Principal Julie Kessler, are suffering from some form of PTSD.
"They are absolutely the most resilient, wonderful, resourceful, and motivated group of kids that we have," says SFIHS principal Julie Kessler.
She estimates that roughly 20 percent of her students came alone. They live in shelters or group homes, or have figured something out with a relative, or live by themselves. "They are absolutely the most resilient, wonderful, resourceful, and motivated group of kids that we have," Kessler says.
That's Aguilar. After enrolling in school, a lawyer at Legal Services for Children helped her become a legal resident. Her older brother started working, allowing them to move into a studio apartment by themselves. She only spoke Spanish when she started at the school as a ninth-grader; now, at 20, she talks to me almost exclusively in English—about missing the Mayan skirts she left behind in Guatemala, about the stress of being the de facto mother to her three brothers, about balancing schoolwork with her new job at Old Navy.
In the last month Aguilar has finished up applying for colleges—the University of California-Berkeley is at the top of her list—and received a prestigious scholarship for economically disadvantaged students. Still, there's the thousands of dollars she borrowed to pay for the passage of the brother who just arrived, as well as the money she'll need to get him an attorney. And there are seven more siblings, and her parents, to think about back home in La Cumbre.
"We don't have Dad and Mom to take care of us," she says. "If we need something, we don't have that. We just have to wait until we have what we want."