NCAA News Archive - 2009

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NCAA Awards of Valor go to Phillips, Saberi

Nov 11, 2009 9:06:35 AM

The NCAA News

Richard Phillips, a former basketball student-athlete at Massachusetts Maritime, and Roxana Saberi, a former soccer player at Concordia-Moorhead, have been chosen as recipients of the 2010 NCAA Award of Valor.

Phillips, captain of a merchant vessel, surrendered himself to ensure his crew’s safety after pirates hijacked their ship was hijacked in the Indian Ocean. Saberi was working as a journalist in Iran when she was arrested and jailed for several months.

The NCAA Award of Valor is presented to current or former student-athletes, coaches or administrators who averted or minimized potential disaster by showing uncommon bravery and courage in the face of grave personal danger.

Phillips and Saberi will be recognized in January during the Honors Celebration at the 2010 NCAA Convention in Atlanta. 


Phillips, the captain of a merchant vessel bound for Kenya, demonstrated rare courage in an effort to protect his crew from harm after Somali pirates hijacked it this past spring.

 “I share the country’s admiration for the bravery of Captain Phillips and his selfless concern for his crew,” President Obama said. “His courage is a model for all Americans.”

The Maersk Alabama was carrying food for Rwanda, Somalia and Uganda and was bound for Mombasa, Kenya, when four pirates boarded and hijacked the ship April 8. While the Maersk’s crew of 21 retook control of the ship, Phillips surrendered himself to ensure the safety of his crew.

The crew initially attempted to trade a captured pirate for the captain, but after the pirate was released, the other pirates refused to return Phillips. Instead, they fled on one of the Maersk’s lifeboats and took the captain with them.

The USS Bainbridge, rescue helicopters and lifeboats were called in for support. A standoff ensued between the American war ship and the pirates’ lifeboat. On April 10, Phillips attempted to escape by jumping out of the lifeboat and swimming to safety, but he was recaptured when the pirates opened fire. Meanwhile his captors were trying to connect with other pirates and move Phillips to Somalia, where it would be more difficult to engineer a rescue attempt.

Obama had issued a standing order to act if officials believed Phillips’ life was in immediate danger. Two days later, Navy SEAL snipers fired on the pirates from the USS Bainbridge, killing all three of Phillips’ captors.

Phillips’ crew said they were able to escape because the captain offered himself as a hostage. Massachusetts Maritime’s president, Adm. Rick Gurnon, called Phillips’ actions an example of true leadership.

“His courage during the Somali pirate capture last April was in the highest tradition of maritime service and reflect his strength of character and valor,” Gurnon said. “From the moment he went into the lifeboat until he was dramatically rescued by the U.S. Navy, he endured severe physical and mental conditions with amazing calm and patience.”


Saberi was freed from Iran’s Evin Prison last spring after her late-January arrest and a weeks-long incarceration. The ordeal tested not only her will to survive but also her beliefs and values.

Saberi, a 1997 graduate of Concordia-Moorhead, was a seasoned print and television journalist who had worked in Washington, D.C.; Missouri; North Dakota; and Texas, when she decided to move to Iran in 2003. While there in the birthplace of her father, she planned to learn Farsi, gain a deeper understanding of the Iranian culture and, as a freelance journalist for the BBC and National Public Radio, shed light on the country and its culture.

Without warning, Iranian officials arrested and jailed Saberi on January 31 for an alleged minor offense. Her incarceration was so unexpected that several weeks passed before any word of her whereabouts or the charges against her reached friends and family. In the meantime, she was subjected to severe psychological and mental stress, including being blindfolded and interrogated for many days and warned that she could be sentenced to death or up to 20 years in prison.

“During the early days of my detainment, I felt terrified, helpless and alone. I felt that even God had abandoned me,” Saberi said. “I was not ready to stand up for my beliefs. My main thoughts were to survive and to get out of prison.”

Though she initially made a false confession, believing that it would lead to a speedy release, Saberi later recanted that testimony. She drew strength from her faith, her conscience and her cellmates, many of whom had been detained solely because they peacefully pursued freedom of expression, freedom of assembly or religious beliefs.

“It took some time for me to realize that the life I wanted was not one that would require me to sacrifice my values in order to be freed,” she said. “After a while, especially after seeing the strength and self-sacrifice of many of my cellmates, I realized I had to try to right my wrongs as best I could, even if it meant jeopardizing my chance at freedom.”

Eventually, Saberi was tried, convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison for espionage during a short, unannounced trial. Outside the prison walls, she was the focus of a spontaneous and growing movement around the world, including at her alma maters Concordia and Northwestern. Inside Evin, Saberi took the extraordinary step of going on a hunger strike.

Finally, the Iranian Revolutionary Court of Appeals released Saberi with a two-year suspended sentence on May 11, 2009, exactly 100 days after she was detained. She attributes her freedom largely to the groundswell of support she received from across the world and hopes the same efforts can be made for others who have been wrongly incarcerated.

Saberi said she is both honored and humbled to be an NCAA Award of Valor recipient.

“I honestly think many others deserve this award more than I do, but I am deeply honored by it,” she said. “I would like to dedicate this award to all the prisoners of conscience who are unjustly jailed in Iran. Some have been under tremendous pressure to make confessions that are not true, and many have shown valor and courage in their peaceful pursuit of their basic rights.”

Her book, “Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran,” will be released next April.

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