The Brian Banks story: What the NFL tells us about how our legal system needs to change

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Content warning: sexual violence

If I named a random date from the year in which you were 16 years old, would you be able to name any details about that day?

Considering that date was almost certainly insignificant to your life as a whole, would you recall what you had eaten for lunch, whom you passed in the hallways of your high school or what shirt you were wearing?

Probably not — especially if it never happened.

Brian Banks, born in 1985 in Los Angeles County, was the rising star of Long Beach Polytechnic High School’s football team and the pride of his hometown. By the age of 16, he had verbally accepted an athletic scholarship to continue his gridiron career at the University of Southern California as a linebacker and had his sights set further down the road on the NFL.

On July 8, 2002, 16-year-old Banks left his summer school classroom and was walking down the hallway when he saw 15-year-old Wanetta Gibson, an acquaintance from middle school, farther down the corridor. The two slipped into a stairwell for a romantic between-class rendezvous before parting ways shortly thereafter.

When authorities arrested Banks later that night for alleged kidnapping and rape, however, he discovered that his fleeting encounter with Gibson had been used to fabricate the testimony that he dragged her into the stairwell and forced her into intercourse completely against her will, despite never actually having sex with her at all. After pleading no contest to avoid a much longer sentence and still unaware as to why Gibson accused him, Banks was ordered to serve six years in prison and was required to register as a sex offender for life.

Gibson’s family sued the Long Beach Unified School District after the trial and received a $1.5 million settlement.

Upon being released from prison, Banks contacted the California Innocence Project, a law school program that aims to acquit wrongfully convicted prisoners. This group eventually helped Banks record a confession from Gibson that she had invented the whole situation and used it as evidence — this exonerated Banks completely and released him from sex-offender status.

Despite being free by some accounts, Banks was never granted those 11 years of his life back, though he was able to briefly experience playing in the NFL for the Atlanta Falcons in 2013.

Banks’ misfortune is only one of many examples of our current legal system’s failures and the institutionalized racism that continues to disadvantage people of color. Not only do Black people experience discrimination at all levels of the criminal justice system, as evident in the court’s willingness to put a young Black teenager in jail for years with literally no evidence against him or to give the maximum sentence to a mere 17-year-old, but people of color are systematically denied access to positions of power, resources and economic opportunity, which keeps them stuck in a cycle of injustice — through no fault of their own.

The same racist ideals that manifest themselves in court also forcibly expose Black people to poor living conditions with disproportionately high risk factors for arrest and criminal offense — according to the Vera Institute of Justice, as of 2018, 22 percent of the Black population lives in poverty, whereas only 9 percent of whites do. Some sources indicate that Gibson and her mother contrived the rape in order to sue the school district for a settlement, indicating once more the disparate financial burdens that people of color bear in our “post-racial” society.

Despite Gibson’s glaring fault in the situation, there is no doubt that our criminal justice system is in drastic need of change. The fact that prejudice is becoming procedure among police officers and judges is alarming and accounts for the fact that Black people are incarcerated more than fives times as much as whites and make up a third of the prison population, according to the NAACP.

Criminal justice for people of color is largely a misnomer — there is nothing just about the way Black people are cycled through the prison system and treated as constant threats to society. If these minorities are threatening anything, it is the stability of the social structures that have historically favored the upper class, which have been purposefully bolstered throughout history to ensure that the “opposition” remains unempowered.

Justice requires equal consideration of every person and every group, and that is something we would all be well advised to remember.

Emily Ohman writes for Bear Bytes, the Daily Californian’s sports blog. Contact her at [email protected].