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August 1, 2013 · Posted in Commentary 

Brian Banks, as an Atlanta Falcons signee

By Bob Vickrey

The Atlanta Falcons’ recent signing of an unproven linebacker would normally not command much media attention, but the circuitous route Brian Banks has been forced to travel in order to have the opportunity to play professional football is truly a remarkable one.

The well-documented story of the talented Southern California high school football player who was on the verge of college stardom, but wrongly convicted of rape, is one that has riveted the nation—not just the sports world. Perhaps it offers us a cautionary tale about the inherent biases of our legal system against defendants who are unable to provide witnesses in their own defense and the ensuing imminent rush to judgment that often prevails.

In 2002, the talented junior middle linebacker at Long Beach Poly was already being pursued by just about every major college program in the country. Pete Carroll, who was then head coach at USC, was hopeful of signing him to play for the Trojans after graduation.

Banks had engaged in consensual sexual relations with a classmate, but when the young woman became vindictive about the incident, she went to school authorities and claimed that he had raped her.

His predicament was like so many others who have been accused of a crime in which there were no witnesses to corroborate their story. A jury trial could have arbitrarily decided this case simply on ’he said, she said’ evidence.

Banks and his attorney faced the realization that there was no clear-cut proof that could be offered which would demonstrate his innocence of the crime. He stood the possibility of facing a lifetime in prison if convicted. He opted for the ‘no contest’ plea and took what he was led to believe would be a three-year sentence with possibility of parole after one year.

The fact that Banks is African-American is no subtle distinction in this case when considering the long and heartrending plight of the black male in American society. The disproportionally high percentage of criminally incarcerated black men in past decades has been well documented and remains a disconcerting blemish on our legal system.

After serving five years and two months of a six year sentence, he was released from prison in 2007 after enlisting the California Innocence Project to have his conviction overturned. He has been diligently trying to reclaim his life ever since.

The Banks story is particularly egregious in that the young woman who was his accuser, Wanetta Gibson, contacted him through Facebook four years after he was released from prison and fully recanted her story. She claimed that she was “just acting immaturely and he should let bygones be bygones.”

Banks arranged for a private investigator to meet with Gibson and during the secretly recorded meeting she acknowledged that she had lied about the story. After an agonizingly long legal process, Banks was finally exonerated of all charges in May of 2012.

Banks getting a hug from his mother after his exoneration

In media interviews after his release from prison, he seemed truly overwhelmed by the attention and outpouring of compassion received from the public response since his exoneration was first announced. (Banks said he “just about fell out of the chair” when he was offered a job last year in the front office of the Arizona Diamondbacks’ major league baseball organization.)

In April of 2013, the Long Beach Unified School District announced it was suing Wanetta Gibson for $2.6 million in an effort to recoup the $1.5 million she had received in her family’s earlier lawsuit against the school district. The district also added attorney’s fees and punitive damages into their lawsuit amount.

Several NFL teams showed interest in having Banks tryout for their clubs. His initial attempts with several teams including the San Diego Chargers, Kansas City Chiefs, San Francisco 49ers, and the Seattle Seahawks (whose head coach was now former USC coach Carroll,) all proved unsuccessful. Although he maintained a rigorous training schedule in months leading up to the tryout camps, his long layoff from football had made a successful comeback extremely difficult to accomplish. After his attempts to break into the NFL, he eventually signed with the Las Vegas Locomotives of the United Football League and saw limited playing time in only two games before the USFL suspended its season in October.

The Atlanta Falcons have obviously seen enough of his ability and raw talent to give him a shot at a professional career. That is practically a story in itself.

Banks at his tryout with the Seattle Seahawks

After listening to Banks speak eloquently of his situation while benevolently forgiving his accuser, one has the distinct impression this engaging young man wants an opportunity to be a catalyst for change in other people’s lives. He has already volunteered his services for the California Innocence Project to aid other wrongly convicted prisoners and help gain their release.

He is continually asked why he does not exhibit more anger toward his accuser. In an NFL Network interview, he said: “I had plenty of time in prison to get past my anger and redirect my energies toward more positive things in life. You can channel that energy, and what you direct it towards is completely up to you. Instead of sitting around with my hand out waiting for someone to pay for what’s happened to me, I felt like the best revenge was success.”

This story at its very core is about human dignity, redemption, and the power and resilience of the human spirit. Banks seems to embody many of the qualities which should help him persevere in coming years.

The rest of the Brian Banks story is yet to be written, but he’s certainly an easy guy to root for. Making the Falcons squad seemed somewhat of a long shot for someone who has been away from the game more than a decade since his high school career ended abruptly. He may eventually enjoy a long professional football career, but whether that becomes a reality or not, his remarkable resolve in reclaiming his life and preserving his integrity in the process, has already defined his legacy as one splendid success story.


Bob Vickrey is a freelance writer whose columns have appeared in the Houston Chronicle and Ft. Worth Star-Telegram. He is a member of the Board of Contributors for the Waco Tribune-Herald. He lives in Pacific Palisades, California.



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