INDIANAPOLIS---The NCAA Honors Committee has named journalist Roxana Saberi and Captain Richard Phillips as recipients of the 2010 NCAA Award of Valor.
Saberi was working as a journalist in Iran when she was arrested and jailed for three-and-a-half-months, and Phillips, captain of a merchant vessel, surrendered himself to ensure his crew’s safety after the ship was hijacked by pirates in the Indian Ocean.
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. The honor is not automatically awarded each year.
Phillips and Saberi will be recognized in January during the Honors Celebration at the 2010 NCAA Convention in Atlanta.
Saberi, a soccer student-athlete at Concordia College, Moorhead (Minnesota), graduated summa cum laude in 1997 and went on to earn graduate degrees in international relations from Cambridge University and journalism at Northwestern University. She went on to work in print journalism and then television, reporting from Missouri, North Dakota and Texas.
In 2003 she decided to move to Iran, the birthplace of her father, to pursue her career and cultural interests. As a freelance journalist, Saberi regularly reported for the BBC and National Public Radio. In January, 2009, she was arrested and placed in a jail cell at Evin Prison.
The first few days in prison, she was psychologically intimidated and warned she could be sentenced to prison for 10 to 20 years, or given the death penalty. With little information from the outside world, she did not know she was the focus of a growing movement at Concordia College and Northwestern University to free her.
With no contact with the outside world and no hope for release, Saberi went on a hunger strike. Finally, after 100 days in prison, the Iranian Revolutionary Court of Appeals released Saberi with a two-year suspended sentence.
“Before I went to prison on January 31, I didn’t really think much about courage,” Saberi said. “I just thought, ‘well, I’m trying to do what I enjoy and tell the stories of the Iranian people and country of Iran to people who cannot come to Iran.”
Saberi says she learned a great deal about herself during her confinement, but also learned from the other political prisoners she met while there. After being in solitary confinement, she was put into a cell with other women political prisoners, many of whom where there because they were standing up for human rights or they were demanding certain freedoms. “I think they’re some of the most admirable women I’ve ever met,” Saberi said. “Through their courageous actions and words, they showed me that you should stand up for what you believe in … to tell the truth even if you have to suffer for it.”
Phillips, a 1979 marine engineering graduate of Massachusetts Maritime Academy and basketball student-athlete, was captain of a merchant vessel bound for Kenya in Spring 2009. Phillips demonstrated rare courage in an effort to protect his crew from harm after it was hijacked by Somali pirates.
President Barack Obama said at the time of Phillips, “I share the country’s admiration for the bravery of Captain Phillips and his selfless concern for his crew. His courage is a model for all Americans.”
The Maersk Alabama was carrying food aid for Rwanda, Somalia and Uganda and was bound for Mombasa, Kenya, when four pirates boarded and hijacked the ship on April 8. The Maersk’s crew of 21 retook control of the ship; however, to ensure the safety of his crew Phillips surrendered himself to the pirates.
The crew initially attempted to trade one of the captured pirates for the captain, but after releasing him, the pirates refused to turnover 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 on him. 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.
President Obama had issued a standing order to take action if officials believed Phillips life was in immediate danger. Two days later, believing the captain’s life was in danger, Navy SEAL snipers fired on the pirates from the USS Bainbridge, killing all three of Phillips’ captors on the lifeboat.
Phillips’ crew said they were able to escape because the captain offered himself as a hostage. Massachusetts Maritime President Rick Gurnon called Phillips’ actions a shining example of true leadership.
“Massachusetts Maritime is extremely proud that Captain Rich Phillips will receive the NCAA Award of Valor. His true leadership and courage during the Somali pirate capture last April were in the highest traditions of the maritime service and reflect his strength of character and valor,” said Gurnon. “Faced with the potential loss of his ship and crew, Captain Phillips was able to save both by becoming a hostage for the pirates. 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.”