When it comes to Tokyo, Brian Bell’s attention is undivided: He’s laser-focused on leading Team USA to a second straight gold medal in wheelchair basketball. But outside the competitive setting, he feels a desire and a responsibility to use his voice as a Paralympian to address issues beyond sports.
In an article that was published last summer at Paralympics.org, Bell described how his membership in two minority populations—Black Americans, and people with disabilities—shapes his identity and his interactions with society. “As a father of four [now five] biracial children,” he wrote, “I am hoping that we can see good and lasting change that will make the world a safer place for Black children in my lifetime. My own children have had the privilege of growing up around wheelchair basketball and getting to know athletes from around the world. Unlike many, or even most people, they see disabilities as differences, not as something to fear or pity. . . . . We want to raise children who treat all people with kindness, while celebrating and acknowledging that our differences are beautiful.”
Bell’s high profile as a gold-medal athlete gives him unique opportunities to influence conversations that transcend sports. But he’s also careful to keep his aspirations on the basketball court from getting entangled with his goals as an advocate. Maintaining separation requires a high degree of self-awareness and intentionality, both in words and actions. We asked Bell how he balances his determination to win with his passion to leave the world in better shape than he found it.
We caught up with him last week after his team’s convincing win in the semifinals of the Rollstuhlbasketball-Bundesliga (RBBL), setting up a colossal championship series between Bell’s top-seeded Lahn-Dill club and the Thuringia Bulls. Our conversation is lightly edited for length and readability.
It doesn’t look like there was much drama in the semifinals. Did you expect it to be that easy?
We figured we would come out on top, but we thought it would be closer. We know [Hannover United is] a decent team. But we played them quite a bit in the regular season, and we know them pretty well.
How do the finals stack up? Are you the favorites?
It’s maybe leaning a little bit toward our favor, because we beat [Thuringia] recently and it was pretty bad—almost 30 points. But we played really, really well that night. We’ll have to play that sort of game again to win it all—maybe not that perfect, but somewhere along that line. It’s probably going to be pretty close.
If you do win it all, how many RBBL championships will that be for you?
Since I’ve been a part of this team, we’ve only won one. But we’ve been in the finals every year I’ve been with them. I haven’t ever won the Champions League title yet, so that’s the main thing I’m focused on. We’ve gotten some third-place finishes in the Champions League the past few years, and when I was playing in Italy we were able to get second place, and we only lost by two points in the finals. So I’ve definitely come close.
How would an RBBL championship or a Champions League title compare to a Paralympic gold medal?
All these games right now are to prepare myself for Tokyo. Playing against the top teams in Europe and the world makes it a lot easier for me to keep that edge once we get our team back together to go for another run in the Paralympics.
Do you have teammates on Lahn-Dill who you’ll be facing off against in Tokyo?
Oh yeah, definitely. We have two British guys on our team [Simon Brown and Ian Sagar], and they’re focused on Tokyo as well. They beat us in the finals at Worlds in 2019, and there’s a good chance we’ll see them in the Paralympic finals. I’m also playing with one of my USA teammates, Steve Serio [the team captain of USA Wheelchair Basketball]. So basically we’ve got two American guys and two British guys. It makes for good chemistry. The GB guys are very good players, and it’s good to see them night in and night out. It helps us play against them because we know their weaknesses. But on the other hand, they know ours as well.
I just re-read the article you wrote for Parlaympics.org last June, at the height of the George Floyd protests. How did that article come about?
They kind of reached out to me. With everything going down in the United States, they wanted to get a more diverse group of people talking about it globally. So they asked a few Olympians and a few Paralympians. They asked if there was something I could write to tell my side of the story, how I viewed racism growing up, how I view it now, and where it should be in the future.
In disability sport, I feel like racism is less noticeable because you also have the disability side of it. It’s kind of a double negative. You can be a minority who has a disability, but more times than not people see the disability first before they see the minority. If you do have a disability, most people [in the United States] start with the assumption that you’re a veteran, so they show a little bit more respect. You get less racism directed at you. And sports in general give you a sense of togetherness and inclusiveness. It doesn’t matter so much about your race; it’s more about being together and playing as a team. I feel like sports shields you from most of the racism that’s out there. It does exist in sports, but you see it less.
What about in German society? Is there a contrast between how you’re perceived in Europe as opposed to how you’re perceived in the US?
This is a question I got asked when we were doing a panel about racism a few months ago. You don’t see racial attitudes as much here in Germany. What you see here is nationalism. As as long as you’re representing Germany as a country, that’s all that matters. That’s the biggest difference. There’s more inclusion. You might belong to a minority, but if you live here and you support German sport clubs, people feel like you represent Germany.
Tell me about the panel on racism that you served on.
It was through the wheelchair basketball community. Dave Kiley is kind of a legend in the wheelchair basketball world. He was doing a series of podcasts, and shortly after the George Floyd incident he wanted to put together a panel on race with a few people who are minorities from within the wheelchair basketball community. He got us to talk about how race affected our lives growing up, how disability impacted that, how both of them together impacted us. We just tried to get the word out more about the perspective of being a disabled minority.
The Olympics have been a platform at various times to enlarge the conversation beyond sports. And the Paralympics have a kind of baked-in social conversation about inclusion. It’s almost part of the foundation of the whole Paralympic movement. So have you thought about whether you would like to use Tokyo as a platform to bring attention to the issues of race? Or the combination of disability and race?
It is definitely a good platform, because a lot of people are watching. Most of the guys on my team are more focused on basketball and the job at hand. We might use our voice leading up to Tokyo, but not necessarily during the Games. They are trying to monitor and make sure people aren’t going too over the top if they are thinking of taking some kind of stand. You do have a voice, but they don’t want to get too out of control or give the Paralympics or Olympics in general a bad name if you have a drastic view or take any drastic action.
Personally, I would prefer to discuss these things in a more intimate setting than at the Paralympics. That’s just my personal take on it.
How do you make that judgment call as to whether any given moment is the right moment to raise social issues? Is it difficult to sense whether you’re going to have a receptive audience, as opposed to maybe creating a backlash?
It’s definitely tough. One of the biggest things athletes go through before a big event like the Olympics or Paralympics is media training. Reporters don’t have a filter. They can pretty much ask you any question they want. You have to be able to word your answer in a way that doesn’t reflect negatively on you, your sport, or your organization in any way. Of course you can be outspoken somewhat, but you need to speak in a way that gets your point across without speaking ill of another organization or person.
Have you ever been put on the spot or made uncomfortable by a reporter’s line of questioning?
No, I don’t think so. The only possible time might be if they ask you how you think your opponent played, and you know they didn’t do well because you just beat them by 50 points or something. You have to respond with an appropriate type of answer that doesn’t tarnish the other team.
What athletes out there do you think are doing a good job of using their platform to advocate effectively for social causes?
I think of the top athletes in the individual sports. They have a lot of chances to win medals, so they tend to get more media attention. There are a lot of people I know personally who’ve spoken out about equality, getting disability sports more recognition. They have a little more opportunity to be in the limelight, compared to the team sports.
Tatyana McFadden is one person that I think of who uses her platform well. She talks a lot about empowering women in sports, both disabled and able-bodied as well.
In the article for Paralympics.org, you wrote about the kind of reception you often get in the USA, where people immediately assume you’re a disabled veteran or make other assumptions that are way off the mark. Are there steps you’ve taken to be at peace with any kind of misperceptions like that?
I try to inform people right away. I don’t want to lead anybody on, so I tell them I didn’t serve in the military, but I serve the country in a different way with representing Team USA overseas, whether in the Paralympics or other competition. After that it’s usually pretty lighthearted; people kind of want to get to know you because you’re a Team USA athlete. They want to know about wheelchair basketball, because normally they’ve never heard of that. So they’ll ask, is that like Murderball? And I’ll just tell them no, it’s the same game as able-bodied basketball, it’s just in a chair. I just try to enlighten people if I can, because the reality is that most people don’t know about Paralympic sports. It’s just not televised as much as other sports, so people haven’t seen it. So they just try to relate it to what they have seen. When Murderball came out, people thought that any athlete in a chair must play rugby. Or they must have done track, because those are the only wheelchair sports they’ve seen.
Is there a sense in which the experience of being disabled and Black is overlooked within the disability movement? My own sense is that most of the voices you hear are white voices, most of the faces you see are white faces. Are the doors open to people of color, or do you feel like that needs to be worked on?
Of course there’s room for improvement in that regard. I feel like it has gotten a little bit better. I feel like more people are getting the opportunity to represent that space. I’ve had teammates who’ve had the opportunity to do commercials about insurance with a disability. So we are getting more and more inclusion. But it’s a slow process. You would prefer it to happen a little more quickly. But every bit of progress is important. We’re taking it as it comes and trying to do the best we can with it to get more and more people involved and more people engaged to give a broader view in those types of spaces.
Can you envision a role for yourself in promoting diversity in the disability movement after your playing days are over?
From the beginning, I’ve always said I wanted to give back. So I’m thinking about coaching the next generation, and helping to mold the next group of athletes on top of being able to give my voice on certain issues, especially issues related to minorities and disabilities. I’m definitely planning on staying in the sport when I retire. That’s the biggest thing—we just don’t have as many coaches that have played basketball before, and we don’t have a lot of minority coaches.
I want to start off with youth. That’s where the help is most needed. It’s just a huge leap from the juniors to college, and today’s young players are just not as ready to take that step as they used to be. So I feel like that means we need better coaches and better leaders at the younger levels.