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Roger BelAir is a 72-year-old from Edmonds, Washington. In 2011, he fell in love with a sport called pickleball.
"You know, here was a sport that was very easy to learn, it's easy on the joints, it's great exercise, it's incredibly social," Roger says. "Somebody once said it’s the most social sport since skinny dipping. And, most importantly, it’s fun."
In pickleball, teams of two stand on a miniature tennis court with oversized ping pong paddles and hit a Wiffle Ball back and forth over a net.
"Almost everybody can play this from 9 years old, up to — I've played with people over 90 years old," Roger says.
These days, Roger travels the country teaching the sport at retirement homes, high-end destination spas ... and prisons.
Roger wasn't always focused on criminal justice reform. But one night, after watching a "60 Minutes" segment about Cook County Jail in Chicago, Roger got an idea.
"I thought to myself, you know, 'This would be terrific,' " Roger says. "Sport that I love — introduced inside the prison system. It would give the people an opportunity to get some exercise and also learn life skills, like learning from mistakes, thinking about consequences, being a good teammate."
Roger also adds this: "The most popular sport on the inside is basketball. But you have young aggressive men. And, as you can imagine, once they get on the court, there’s a lot of injuries. There’s some people that even want to eliminate basketball from being played on the inside."
Roger thought pickleball was the perfect alternative. So, in 2017, he decided to write a letter to Cook County — America’s largest jail — asking to teach pickleball to the detainees.
His family thought he was delusional.
"They said, 'This time you've lost it,' " Roger remembers. " ‘You've lost it before, but this time, it’s really over the top. And not only that, but you can go ahead and you can write Sheriff Dart a letter, but don’t even expect a reply.’ "
Roger wrote the letter anyways. He says Sheriff Tom Dart had never heard of pickleball.
"But over dinner that night, mentioned it to his 8-year-old daughter," Roger says. "And she says, something like, 'Oh, Dad, you’re so out of it. I'll tell you about pickleball.' "
A few weeks later, Roger was inside the walls of Cook County.
"It was the first time I've ever been in a prison, and its very unsettling," Roger says. "Prisons are very tough on the inside. It’s not a friendly environment. There’s no laughter. People are in there for serious crimes. I was particularly nervous once I stood up in front of the men and started telling them what the game was — and wasn’t getting much of a positive reaction."
I spoke to a 34-year-old detainee at Cook County, who is charged with murder. He told me how pickleball helps give him something to look forward to — how it takes the stress away and how it makes him want to do better.
Roger doesn't shy away from the reality that he works with violent men accused of unsettling crimes. That’s what drives his work.
"If guys don’t behave, they can’t play," Roger says. "I know one situation where one inmate screamed at another, 'I'd beat the hell out of you, but if I did, I couldn’t play pickleball.' Well, how wonderful is that?
"One inmate screamed at another, 'I'd beat the hell out of you, but if I did, I couldn’t play pickleball.' "— Roger BelAir
"I know another situation where two guys were out on the court. They gave each other high fives and then realized that they belonged to opposite gangs."
After his success at Cook County, Roger was invited to teach pickleball at Rikers Island and Washington State Penitentiary. He’s far from a bleeding heart, but he understands the reality that 95% of inmates will be released at some point.
"They’re going to be out on our freeways, they’re going to be in our shopping malls, they’re going to be in parks where our kids are playing," Roger says. "If we can make them better people on the inside, it’s going to make it safer for all of us once they’re on the outside."
Roger plans to continue traveling the country teaching the game he loves, one correctional institution at a time.
"I don’t know how far this is going to go, but Johnny Appleseed started one with apple," Roger says. "And if I can help the world become a better place by making it safer for all of us, that’s exactly what I want to do."
We first learned about Roger BelAir in an article written by Scott Gleeson for USA Today. Also, a special thank you to the Cook County Leadership for their help.
This segment aired on July 27, 2019.
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