"You look nervous," is how Deion Sanders greets me, loudly, as we meet me for the first time. I am not nervous. "That's just the way my face looks," I respond.
He says that I look fine but definitely nervous. I am confused.
We are standing in a fancy indoor practice field, one of several nice workout areas on a campus filled with kids playing sports. We're next door from the Oak Cliff campus of the Prime Prep Academy, the charter school that Sanders co-founded last year.
Sanders opens a door to the locker room, allegedly to give me a tour. Behind that door there are a few men pointing their video cameras at us, kind of just lurking there. I assume that they are from other news outlets and that some sort of press conference is about to take place. I am wrong.
Sanders and I ended up here together because late yesterday a guy named Omar showed up to the Dallas Observer office with some exciting news: Deion Sanders, the NFL Hall of Famer and former Cowboy, wanted to talk with us. Actually, Omar heard we have a reporter named Schutze who is good (true) but Omar settled for me after he asked if I'm a "good reporter" and I said "yes."
Sanders has been in our paper and other local news outlets a bunch lately, mainly for Prime Prep, his charter school that's been the subject of some controversy. In an Observer cover story last year, writer Leslie Minora reported that Prime Prep has raised several red flags among watchdogs and journalists "ranging from nonexistent corporate donations to blatant moneymaking schemes," orchestrated by co-founder D.L. Wallace, who had tried to lease the school property for as much as $10,500 a month.
And last year, the Oak Cliff campus got shut out of local sports leagues amid accusations that it had too many players and had poached players from another local basketball power, Grace Prep, as Eric Nicholson reported last month.
But things have been looking up for Sanders. Now, he'll be getting some good publicity. Recently, Deadline Hollywood reported that the Oprah Winfrey Network has ordered a new reality series about "the crazy and chaotic family life" of Sanders.
As it turns out, my meeting with Sanders seems to be not so much an interview as a filming for that very show.
When I meet with Sanders, school isn't in session yet; that won't happen for another week. But tons of kids are at the campus practicing for the Truth sports league, which Sanders founded under his Prime Time Association. "Our mission is to serve communities by reaching and teaching our youth through sports and education," explains the Prime Time Association's website. The PTA is a nonprofit, though a mom I interview later would tell me that the Truth league charges participant athletes $250 a season.
Anyway, back to my Sanders interview. He leads me across campus, so I can see him in action coaching the young football players. Another man with a camera stops Sanders to let him know that he is going to be filming Sanders as he helps coach the kids. "Are you with the media too?" I ask the cameraman. He smiles at me.
On the football field, Sanders runs around, yelling directions at little kids in color-coordinated jerseys as I chase after him with my reporter's notebook. Sanders is out there everyday. "Look at this tan line," he says, pulling the collar of his shirt down as proof.
He makes vague allusions to his critics, saying how unfair it is "to have your integrity in question when you're trying to educate a child."
Asked to elaborate, it turns out that Sanders is talking about the Observer. We are the people who questioned his integrity. "The Observer, I think they were attacking us," he says to me as he stands in the middle of the field. He can't name a specific article. He's not even sure where to find copies of our paper. "No, I haven't even read them," he says. "I just hear things." He wants me to "kind of get to know a gentlemen before you attack" him, which seems fair, but then he is suddenly done with the interview and he assigns a 15-year-old student named Ja'quan Sheal to whisk me away.
Sheal tells me that he lives with Sanders because of some family issues. Sanders is like a father to him.
We are stopped by Shavon Cooke, a production assistant from the Oprah Winfrey Network.
Cooke sweetly tells me that I need to sign a release form, just to give the producers the OK to use footage that I might happen be in.
I won't sign, but I say I'll talk about it with my editor, and I give the nice producer lady my cell phone number. She understands. A few minutes later, Cooke calls me. It turns out, I happened to be in one of the shots they were filming. It's a shot with Sheal, the 15-year-old who has been leading me in circles around campus. He is one of the stars of the reality show, and they really need to use a shot of him walking around that I happen to be in.
Cooke runs over to meet me as I wander around outside the locker room with Sheal.
Appearing on the Oprah Winfrey Network sounds kind of cool, but I refuse to sign the release form. Cooke tells me not to worry, that the editors can just blur my face out if that's what I want. However, I will also need to sign the release form to allow for that. We seem to be in an alternate reality where there are no options other than signing a "Deion Sanders Project" release form.
The release form is long with lots of suspicious-looking fine print and this woman is in a rush. I tell her to let me take the release form home before I sign it. Sure thing. Cooke hands the unsigned form over.
Sheal then leads me back to a guy whose last name is Calhoun (he wouldn't provide a first name or spelling as he actually doesn't want to be in this article). Calhoun, escorting me out, claims to know nothing about any reality show. "What cameras?" he says, when I ask him about the cameras I saw.
In the parking lot, a few moms are watching their kids practice. "We love it here," says Dianne Steward. Her son is 12 and a player in the Truth league. She sees Sanders out in the field every day. The league costs money to join, Steward says, but she's not sure how much because her husband is in charge of that.
Dunri Warner, another mom, says the price of playing in the Truth league is $250 per sports season. Her son, 9, has played a bunch of different sports in the league for the past three years. He also attends the Prime Prep charter school campus in Fort Worth.
The moms know the reality show is being filmed but say it doesn't get in the way of anything.
I leave and read the release form. It turns out to demand that I promise that I will not "disseminate any news story" about the reality show that I am currently writing about, and if I violate the clause I will be "liable for any attorney's fees and costs incurred by Company in connection with any claim or lawsuit brought in violation of this release." Whoa there, that could have been ugly.
This morning I called Cooke back to ask if Sanders just wanted to speak with me so that they could shoot a scene of him with a reporter for his reality show. "I will get back to you with that information," she said.
On the next page, you can find the release form for the "Deion Sanders Project" in its full glory. It's worth seeing.
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