‘This is a teachable moment’: Britt Prince and the dangers of our American landscape
A special report: The IX, Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, Nov. 9, 2022
In the weeks since she said it, Britt Prince, a 5’11 guard and one of the most sought-after players in the Class of 2024, has replayed the moment again and again in her head. As she and her mom, Ann, try and figure out everything from why it happened to how to move forward, she can’t escape this feeling that one ten-second clip is going to define her for the rest of her life, and make everything she’s dreamed of off-limits.
That isn’t what’s been keeping her up at night, though. Ask Britt Prince about what she said and why she said it, and she keeps it together when she talks about the impact it has had on her. It is when she considers what the moment means for others that she cannot keep from dissolving into sobs.
Britt Prince’s story is just beginning. What she did, and what it means, is at the intersection of so much we find ourselves all grappling with here in 2022 — of social media’s reach and dangers, of a rising tide of antisemitism, of how we navigate these spaces and teach our children to do the same.
This is how I have come to know Britt Prince, through her, through her mom, through the people around her, through the Jewish community that has come to meet her where she is, and through the prism of being Jewish in America right now.
We must start here. It is ugly, it is horrifying. On October 20, a classmate of Britt’s called her “Brittler”, asked her how many Jews she killed.
She smiles, responds into the microphone, “Six million”. The boy filming her is jubilant. The clip ends.
This is where many who have seen it, perhaps many more who will see it, will end their appraisal of Britt Prince. It is where my journey began.
A reader reached out to me with this clip, believing that my background writing about women’s basketball, and my outspokenness and work on both Jewish themes and antisemitism would make me the right person to investigate what happened here.
She hadn’t intended to find this video — she simply wanted more information about a rising star, one she hoped would play for her favorite team in college.
As it happened, I was on my way to a book event for “The Baseball Talmud” out on Long Island when I saw this clip. It felt like being slapped across the face. That night at the book event, I found the usual joy among my crowd, my tribe, as we dissected the intricacies of Hank Greenberg vs. Sandy Koufax and little-known stats about lesser Jewish players that remained heroes to those in the crowd.
But nearly every conversation I had before, during, and after my speech carried an undercurrent of fear, too. One woman shared with me the horror of watching the Oath Keepers march on Sunrise Highway. Another man raised Kyrie Irving, who was in the midst of trying to half-smirk his way toward refusing to take responsibility for disseminating antisemitic propaganda. The man expressed skepticism that the Nets or the NBA would do anything to punish him. And then he asked the question so many Jews in America are wondering right now: “And what happens when antisemites see no consequences for their actions?”
This was the experience I had as I began processing Britt’s video. But like the reader who sent it to me, I had more questions than answers. Why say this? What makes a moment like this happen?
By the time I’d received this email, that moment, and those questions, had become all-consuming both for Britt and her mother. A routine built around sports was, instead, about introspection, trying to understand why this had happened and what to do about it.
This fall, Britt has been a standout on the cross-country team. It is not her primary sport, but her new high school needed leadership, and she joined, even as she continued her work in the gym to prepare for the November start of basketball season.
A pair of boys on the cross-country team began calling her Brittler. She says she has no idea why they did it, and wishes she’d told them to stop. But they persisted, Prince in virtually every way a target — 5’11, increasingly famous by the day within her school, someone who tends to push boldly into her next activity or moment without much thought. But a desire to be accepted, to be liked, well, that doesn’t disappear just because you can hit 40-footers in Adidas tournaments.
“I think any players who are that invested in their game and involved in other sports at the level she is, it’s at the expense of some things socially,” said one coach who knows Britt and expressed the opinion that the video “couldn’t be further from who she is.” This coach added that “as a high school girl, you feel a pressure where you don’t want to stand out. You’re more willing to do things that will just get an uncomfortable social encounter over with.” (We have chosen not to identify any coaches by name so they could speak freely about a recruit without committing an NCAA violation.)
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In fact, it tends to lead to social media posts, and comments in school, that make it even harder to fit in. Her height, her ability, it all led to a toxic social media experience, one that would sometimes bleed into her school encounters, too.
One of these boys had been approaching others in Britt’s study hall with quick-take interview questions, and when it was her turn, he used the unwanted nickname he’d given her, Britt said.
She answered with a number she’d learned in sixth-grade history class. And then she continued on with her day. She didn’t think to even ask to see the recording.
The Holocaust hadn’t been on Britt Prince’s radar before or since she’d learned about it, briefly, in sixth grade. Jews, really, hadn’t been part of her experience. None of her friends are Jewish, with Elkhorn North drawing from an area with a very small Jewish population. But in the days since, Britt began to put herself in another’s shoes — empathy evident in how she responded most emotionally not to her own circumstances, but how her comment would make others feel.
It is a shifting of focus I have experienced throughout reporting this story. I can picture my daughters striving to fit in, making a terrible mistake on social media that is amplified. I, too, can see them experiencing this kind of comment on the receiving end, as antisemitism becomes a more comfortable place for so many people to reside, and as the victims of a society that moves from dehumanizing comments to the outcomes that stem from them. It is easy for me, the grandson of a concentration camp survivor, in this moment, to draw from different points of reference.
Ann, who is her coach at Elkhorn North High School and teaches phys-ed at the middle school, is sure she’s taught Jewish children, but she said that had not been part of the conversation in their house. She blames herself for this, a mother who has tried to figure out all the pitfalls for her young, gifted daughter, but missed this one.
“We’ve never talked about it at home,” Ann said. “So anything she probably knows about it was at school. I have talked to her, knowing about her being recruited and about certain things that you can’t do — like the obvious ones, like drinking and drugs and smoking, reality, the things that you see going on with kids and stuff. We talked about that. This wasn’t something that we talked about.”
That haunting moment of wondering why you didn’t prepare your child for a moment that comes: I know that feeling too, and any parent who is honest and introspective does as well.
By 5:46 that evening, Ann learned about the video’s existence on social media, when her assistant coach texted it to her. She was horrified, she said. She went to her daughter for answers: why did you say this? What were you thinking?
“She burst out crying,” Ann recalled. “’I don’t know why I said it.’ A lot of remorse, right from the start.”
What both Ann and Britt understood immediately was that whatever the reason this had happened, taking responsibility was the correct course of action. That night, Ann called Britt’s high school principal, Dan Radicia, to inform him this had happened. She called the athletic director and insisted they meet the next morning. And hardest of all, she began calling every single coach that had offered Britt a scholarship, even some coaches who had simply been recruiting her, to let them know what had happened.
“I can’t think of the hardest question,” Ann said. “I mean, it was more just telling them was the hardest thing. Because then you know that potentially, they’re going to look at your child in a far different light than they did before. So just getting getting the words out of my mouth is the hardest thing.”
Ann is a basketball lifer — a high school star who played collegiate ball at Midland, an NAIA school, and has coached for many years since, including Britt since she was four. She knew her daughter was special by the time Britt turned five and could effortlessly dribble down the court and finish a layup the right way. Along with her tutelage came a way of being that attracted others to want to help Britt, too.
And when Elkhorn North High School opened up two years ago, coinciding with Britt’s freshman year, Ann took the head coaching job and began the process of molding Britt into the kind of player who schools would notice. They certainly have, with Britt leading her team to a pair of state championships already, drawing the kind of attention no Nebraska school prospect has enjoyed since Jessica Shepard.
Multiple college coaches I spoke with described her as an easy top-10 talent in her class, an excellent shooter and willing passer. One explained that while her overall game isn’t yet at the level of a Caitlin Clark — an unfair comparison, given Clark is doing things no guard ever has — her athleticism might be ahead of Clark’s already.
Now, one by one, Ann called these same coaches to tell them her daughter had done something that might change the way they’d view her forever, not as a player, but as a person.
That night, both Ann and Britt went to bed and barely slept, a routine that’s become common for them in the days since. The next morning was a teacher in-service day, so Ann left for work. Britt just sat in her room and replayed what she’d done in her head, crying as she did so. Then she got dressed and headed to the bus — her cross-country team was about to participate in states in Kearney, more than two hours away.
Britt said she got about an hour into the bus ride, keeping thoughts to herself. But when the bus made a pitstop in Black Bart’s in York, about an hour away, she couldn’t hold it in anymore. And then the friends she’d made on the cross-country team all surrounded her on the rest of the bus ride as she sobbed, friends she said had helped her get through so much else in her teenage life, a group of young people who didn’t have any idea how to make their friend feel better, or even what had happened and what it meant.
“We didn’t really run well at state, any of us,” Britt said. “So it didn’t really help.”
I reached out to multiple coaches who are recruiting Britt, who have gotten to know Britt, both through the recruiting process and who have in many cases, known Ann for years before that. I got to know Ann as well over this time — a period in which we saw Kyrie Irving light a fire that blazed across social media, and people I’d thought were part of the larger fight toward equality, to lift all marginalized groups, resort to the worst kind of groupthink instead.
I watched, day after day, as Kyrie happily made things worse. I heard Ann and Britt balance trying to find answers to questions we as Jews cannot fathom, and they’d only just begun to consider. As they did so, I saw people who should have been allies in these larger fights against hate stay silent. I saw the FBI issue an alert about a general threat to synagogues in New Jersey, and wondered, not for the first time, whether the mistake I’d make as a parent, the moment I’d relive in horror again and again, would be to send my children to Shabbat services.
Most coaches seemed to understand what happened. But one program cancelled a scheduled visit from Britt. It took Ann two days to tell her.
“We’re in the basement getting ready and packing stuff,” Britt recalled. “And my mom said that we’re not going anymore, and I was like, why? And she told me. It was a really rough night for me. It just made me feel really bad about myself. Like, like, it could be more schools than one that don’t want me anymore. And it just made me feel really bad about what I said, and about myself.”
Kyrie Irving is 30 years old, with millions of followers on social media. Britt Prince is 17, and as of this writing, as 3,444 Twitter followers. She is at that precipice of a moment, still watching college basketball and the WNBA with dreams of joining that select group, while those who encounter her, younger than she is, are beginning to emulate her path as well.
“I know that like a lot of little girls look up to me, come to my games and stuff like that,” Britt said. “And I just want to be a good example for them and show them that they can do whatever they put their minds to. But I just I don’t want what I said to be like something that makes them think of me as not a good example, as not a good person.”
In figuring out that way forward, Britt has an ally. Her principal reached out to the JCC of Omaha for advice about what to do. The Princes made it clear they were ready to accept whatever consequences came their way. But the JCC saw it not as a moment for punishment, but to educate — one conversation with Britt, and it was clear to them she did not have hatred for the Jewish people in her heart.
“Our responsibility and goal as the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) is not to call people out; it’s to invite them in,” Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council at the JCC of Omaha Sharon Brodkey told me. “It was very clear from the first conversations with ENHS principal, Dan Radicia, and the students that this was not a matter of overt antisemitism. Rather, it was a lack of understanding and a disconnect between intent vs. impact. Britt and Ann expressed a keen sense of urgency to address this head on, and we had no desire to see young lives and future careers ruined because of 10 seconds of social media poor judgement.”
That’s how it went with so many coaches as well. That those who have come to know her over this process believe in her still can be taken either as a cynical sign that some programs will do whatever it takes to win, or an understanding that people truly are far more than the sum of the worst moment captured on social media at age 17. I know where, after speaking to Britt and so many around her, with Sharon and even my own family, I have landed on this question as well.
There is a rising tide of hate in this country. We cannot make common cause with those eager to spread those lies. But we can strengthen the bonds with those who have open hearts and want to help.
So on Tuesday afternoon, that’s what Britt, Ann, along with the boy who recorded her and Radicia set out to do.
“Today the students involved, coach, principal, and activities director first met with Scott Littky, executive director of The Institute for Holocaust Education (IHE), and spent time talking and learning about the Holocaust. They viewed the current “Portraits of Survival” exhibit at The Eisenberg Gallery in the Jewish Community Center, a collection of photographs of Holocaust survivors who found their way to Omaha and rebuilt their lives here. Then, we talked about the dangers and consequences when young people use social media and a limited knowledge of history to weaponize and trivialize the most heinous crime against the Jewish people and humanity in human history. We spoke about the collective trauma that Jews experience when we see tweets and videos that mock the Holocaust – especially in this atmosphere of rising antisemitism in our community and country.”
There is no returning to the safety I felt as an American Jew during my childhood in the 1980s and 1990s, something that felt permanent at the time, but now augurs as simply a deceptive moment of peace. There is only going forward.
We went to synagogue. I heard my children sing in the junior choir. Each time the door opened, I turned quickly, my eyes scanning the distance between my children on the bema and the emergency exit.
That weekend, my wife and I started putting together our guest list for my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. Her family got out of Europe in time. Her list is robust. Mine, largely, did not. It is a much smaller list. I told Britt this, and we cried together.
On Tuesday, Britt learned what steps she can take to help.
“We brainstormed ideas about how to turn remorse and apologies into meaningful and actionable next steps to educate themselves and their peers about bias, hate, and how to build a community of allies,” Brodkey said. “We discussed introducing the ADL’s No Place for Hate program, starting an allyship club, and invited the students to be part of the Institute for Holocaust Education’s annual Week of Understanding in March 2023.”
Both Ann and Britt expressed a desire to move forward on all these fronts. There is perhaps no Jewish idea that resonates with me more than “Tikkun olam”, namely: To repair the world.
“I don’t know what they know,” Ann said of the Elkhorn North students. “I know that they don’t know enough. And I know that I didn’t even know enough, because then when you hear those kinds of things, it makes for a more empathetic heart. An understanding of why you would never joke about something like that or speak of it that way when you have a more personal and clear understanding of what happened.”
There is a world opening for you, I told Britt, just as I tell my own daughters. It is up to her what she does with it. Some may condemn her forever for this single moment. But if we condemn Britt before she gets the chance, a lot more than the future of a single, talented young woman will be lost in the process.
“This is a teachable moment. It presents an opportunity for Britt to use her talent and influence as a rising star student athlete to take a lead off the court as well as on,” Brodkey said. “We assured the students and the school staff that the JCRC and IHE are here for them and we welcome the opportunity to provide the resources, tools and support to implement programs and curriculum to turn this unfortunate incident into a positive lesson and a more inclusive and ENHS community.”
So Tuesday night, Britt gathered her basketball teammates and told them what happened, and what she’s learned, and what she wants to happen now. It was her first try at being Britt Prince, a leader fighting intolerance in this world. And she did it.
“It was hard, definitely,” Britt said. “But I know that all my teammates support me and they have my back and they will do anything to help me and help stop the spread of this hatred. Yeah, it was hard. But I think it was a good first step for me.”