The Autistic Journalist

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I see that despite not blogging for the last several months, I still manage to draw interested readers eager to learn more about autism’s prevalence in news coverage.

For now, I have devised a strategy to successfully convert the content I used to report here on my Examiner account. Examiner.com is a website where reporters can file stories and receive compensation for viewership. 

Readers who wish to see my newest contributions can get an up-to-date feed through this link. I will still highlight and dissect articles and press released related to autism, as well as other forms of mainstream media exposure.

I won’t say I’ll never return to WordPress, but I want to thank the audience who continued to visit as my writing and reporting career evolved.

Written by TheSportsBrain

August 29, 2012 at 8:53 am

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Autism safety not “in the bag”

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To those who celebrated, I hope your Christmas was a blessed one. I also wish the same for a nine-year-old autistic boy at the center of a Louisville, Kent. school controversy when word got out that staff members at Mercer County Intermediate School stuffed Christopher Baker inside a duffel bag for allegedly acting out on Dec. 14. Chris is enrolled in a special needs program there.

The Kentucky Department of Education has no laws regarding restraint or seclusion, although an autistic Georgetown University student started a petition calling to fire the school employees responsible. The online petition had over 700 signatures at the publication date.

Thankfully, I can say I was never placed in a duffel bag when I was in school, or I’d probably be at the center of a lawsuit. However, controversies over how the education system handles autistic children still appear in mainstream news cycles periodically. With no uniform system in place for training on autistic students, coupled with varying levels of intervention behaviors chosen by education specialists, such actions are theoretically possible if educators are unprepared.

The biggest difficulty with the lack of a streamlined system are public school employees who do not understand the symptoms of autism. This does not suggest that all of them will choose actions that compromise the safety of students, but if their patience is low, they will be more likely to exhibit an impulsive emotional response.

Bruce Schreiner of the Associated Press published the story, which was then syndicated on Huffington Post. The story is largely a reaction piece that interviews Christopher’s mother (the school cited confidentiality laws and refused to comment on the incident specifically), the Georgetown student who started the petition to fire school employees, and a former teacher who blogs about autism issues.

Generally, controversial stories revolve around what two parties are thinking, as reporters either on deadline or lacking journalistic intuition consider getting both sides of a story satisfactory. Schreiner goes one step deeper, researching the larger public’s response to the incident. While more sources may not change the tone of a “he-said she-said” story, but just as surveys decrease their margin of error when their sample size increases, quoting subjects not involved in the center of an altercation provides a better consensus of the situation’s brevity. As a result, readers will more likely get the idea that what the school did to Chris would violate rules or laws in other states.

Obtaining outside sources also develops a well-rounded story. When facing controversial topics, the “defendant” is often hesitant to speak either in an attempt to hide guilt or to control damage. Reporters shouldn’t be “out to get them,” but having a neutral go-to source to spell out an event’s significance will offer analysis or details that will likely be skipped by both the accuser and defender.

Odds suggest a follow-up story will be found on Huffington Post or the Associated Press if Mercer County School reaches a decision, but until then, the story highlights what all of us could add when taking the effort to expand the source pool.

2011: The year in autism

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As we enter the holiday season, I want to thank all my new readers who discovered the site this year, causing an exponential growth in traffic, even as my posting schedule was more sporadic than 2010.

2011 was a considerable year for television exposure. In April, Holly Robinson Peete hosted a weekly series on CBS daytime program The Talk. Although her contract wasn’t renewed for this season, throwing a cloud of doubt in future features on that show, Peete highlighted a few groups often ignored in mainstream media coverage.

Syfy joined the foray this summer with the drama series Alphas, featuring a group of people with superhuman abilities. One of the main characters is autistic man Gary Bell, portrayed by British actor Ryan Cartwright. Cartwright and the production staff took several steps to ensure accuracy in depicting the condition, and both will get more chances to display the disability as the show was renewed for a 2nd season in 2012.

A lot of articles I discussed this year focused on brain research, including theories on unique brain maps of autistic children and the possibility of heavier brains caused by an overflow of neurons. Of course, such studies need to be flushed more thoroughly before they are accepted as widespread fact, but research will never cease.

You can read more autism notables by clicking here. With my new position as autism bear writer for Examiner, I will be transferring some content to that site, including reviews of television or movies that feature some glimpse of autism, subtle or blatant. I will still dissect articles on this site, but will link them to Examiner for stories with relevant material.

I have at least one more story to analyze before the calendar year is out, but it was a fun year watching my audience grow right before me. May that rise continue in 2012.

Written by TheSportsBrain

December 23, 2011 at 12:49 pm

The Onion returns to continue layering autism

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Courtesy of The Onion

Intrigued by why my site received a spike in search traffic, I discovered The Onion brought back a well-known fictional character in the autism community: Michael Falk. Actor John Cariani returns for more lampooning for the fictitious Onion News Network, which airs Tuesday nights on IFC.

In Falk’s latest “story,” he profiles a convicted felon who details the changes in lifestyle from a 40,000 square foot mansion to a tiny prison cell. However, the prisoner is dumbfounded when Falk is spellbound by a strict adherence to routine inmates must live by during their incarceration. The more details the criminal reveals, the more interest Falk has in a living condition with little to no room for ad-lib.

The prisoner attempts to quell such interest to no avail as Falk declares his desire to join his subject in prison, oblivious to the warnings of emotional turmoil experienced by inmates who regret the crimes they commit as he fantasizes about the crates his guest has to stack on a daily basis. Falk even shrugs off embezzlement and fraud as taking too long to land in prison.

(Un)fortunately, a myriad of ways exist to land in prison for a criminal charge. I shall not disclose those methods on the rare chance some crazed psychopath reads this blog post and draws inspiration to commit morally reprehensible behavior (and I have no intent on violating laws today, tomorrow, or yesterday). However, I can offer additional insights as The Onion was clearly not affected by the smattering of blog posts criticizing Cariani’s previous performances as mocking members of the autism spectrum.

I received a recent comment on my first post on the Falk character. While some autistic people take offense to The Onion‘s portrayal, others in the blog world find Michael Falk amusing. Some even suggest Falk’s stories are a tongue-in-cheek parody where others who fail to grasp the condition serve as comic foils. An argument could be made watching all three stories featuring Falk, as all of his interview subjects are either left confused or offended by his blunt approach to communication. Mainstream media previously made such frustrations a focal point in their content, with the premise of Rain Man being Charlie Babbitt’s (Tom Cruise) struggle to adapt and accept the distinctive qualities of his autistic brother, Raymond (Dustin Hoffman). Autism Speaks’ controversial Autism Every Day profiled the feelings of hopelessness from parents of autistic children, and even traces of such concerns can be found in the Syfy series Alphas.

Whatever the intent, The Onion is making its audience more aware of the disability by playing off common characteristics found in those diagnosed with autism. If the synopsis or video is not enough clarification, Onion News Network parodied the fixation on routines and repetitive tasks which autistic people often find enjoyable, sometimes at the cost of environmental surroundings (Falk doesn’t understand that going to prison is an event that should be avoided). Since the fake news organization has a mission statement of satirizing the follies of mainstream media and its subjects, interpreting Cariani’s latest performance beyond a comical look at an often-repeated symptom on traditional news outlets is difficult to theorize. For anyone concerned about an autistic person seeing this and taking the video too literally, recent news reports highlight programs and efforts to employ autistic people in favorable conditions, which include repetitive work details.

You don’t have to find this or any other video funny, but it appears Falk will continue to appear as a recurring Onion News Network character. While a precedent has been set for expected emotional reactions to the fake stories, there are learning opportunities in a comedic format enjoyed by many consumers as opposed to the dry, heavy-handed presentations found elsewhere.

Written by TheSportsBrain

November 21, 2011 at 4:49 pm

Autism’s “brain power”

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Courtesy Jochen Sand, Digital Vision/Getty Images

A story picked up by several news outlets, including Reuters and ABC News (whose version I’m critiquing in this post), reports results of a small study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that suggest autistic children have heavier brains and an overflow of brain cells called neurons.

The study is crucial because it presents the first exhibit of hard evidence of brain development veering off course for autistic children. Previous research showed that autistic children have larger heads and brains, with key regions that develop communication overgrown.

The study, using brains of 13 boys that were donated for scientific study after their deaths, discovered that brains of autistic children have 67 percent more neurons in the prefrontal cortex than non-autistic brains. The prefrontal cortex is linked to emotional, social and communication processing. The study’s lead author notes how surprising the finding was, also suggesting the abnormal development occurs in the prenatal stages as neurons aren’t generated in the prefrontal cortex after birth. Autistic brains also weighed 17.5 percent more than non-autistic brains.

While a future avenue could be explored in the research to find a cause, many point out the findings are preliminary and don’t apply to children and families currently dealing with autism. There is also no way to analyze brain tissue of living children.

The small sample size and lack of immediate impact may discourage some readers upon encountering this story. However, the findings are notable with several major outlets offering their version of the results published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Although not new, the story does reveal through autism brain research that a physical characteristic that could possibly signal the condition exists, but not every person with a larger-than-average head will automatically develop the disability.

As with most study findings, extrapolating the results to a form that fits mainstream journalism remains simple, yet difficult. When combining the small number of brains studied with the lack of any immediate significance for the autism community, the challenge for reporters is seeking a relevant development for a scientific breakthrough. In this case, Gann points out that discovering that an abnormal development occurs before birth could lead to improved screening efforts in the future.

Another possible avenue that could be investigated with the knowledge of this study are what effects larger, heavier brains with more neurons could have on autistic people. Several stories on this blog and general knowledge will highlight the untapped gifts of the autism spectrum, including superior memory skills and focus. This is by no means a suggestion that larger brains equal smarter people, but considering the astonishment from the public when autistic people demonstrate skills with general knowledge, but a plethora of stories relating to autism and the brain could be found should this study lead to more examinations.

For now, we’ll have to settle for current methods of diagnosis as science always approaches its studies with a methodical attitude.

Written by TheSportsBrain

November 9, 2011 at 6:03 pm

Five years later, McElwain’s magic muscles on

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Jason McElwain. Photo by Neilson Barnard, Getty Images North America

How does a reporter fight a case of insomnia? By doing some research to write another blog post!

In my efforts to unearth the resurgence of popularity for Jason McElwain five years after his memorable 20-point game that propelled him to permanent celebrity status among the autism community (a 2006 CBS Evening News feature was recently shared among Facebook users), I found a story published last week by Craig Fox of the Watertown Daily Times. The 22-year-old McElwain can add public speaking to his credits, as Fox documented his speech to a crowd of 100 at the Jefferson Rehabilitation House’s annual dinner in upstate New York.

Fox recaps McElwain’s life-changing game that recently gained a second coming on Facebook with its users sharing the story once more, but notes a few details from McElwain’s speech the audience may not have known when he first was a media sensation. McElwain attended a special education school at a young age and didn’t understand why until years of inquiry led to his mother telling him about his autism diagnosis. He tried out for Greece Athena High School’s junior varsity team, but didn’t make the cut. His “failure” led to his position as team manager, running drills in practice and doing whatever was asked of him.

Fox also reveals where McElwain picked up his “J-Mac” nickname, given to him by Athena varsity coach Jim Johnson because he had a difficult time pronouncing Jason’s last name. Johnson had no difficulties rewarding his loyal manager, letting him suit up for the final regular season game, where McElwain nailed six three-pointers and a deuce to finish as the game’s high scorer. McElwain told his audience he achieved his dream while shooting hoops in the driveway of making the game’s last shot. However, he considers Athena’s Section 5 title that year to be a bigger moment for that roster.

Fitting with his passion for sports, his favorite moment in the aftermath wasn’t meeting President George W. Bush, Oprah Winfrey, or writing his autobiography. McElwain is most proud of earning a 2006 ESPY Award for Best Sports Moment of the Year and working as an equipment manager for the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts, which included a meeting with quarterback Peyton Manning.

McElwain will start his fourth year as junior varsity coach for Athena, where he also coaches the track and cross country teams. He also is training to run a marathon in Rochester, New York as he continues to live life the way he wanted to when he was little, as “one of the boys.”

Fox illuminates how time can benefit journalists when the concept itself appears ironic with a schedule filled by story deadlines. Once McElwain’s life-changing game video surfaced, every news outlet in any form that covered the story focused almost exclusively on the game. ESPN was first to provide a back-story, producing a feature that ran in the 2006 NBA Finals about how McElwain inspired the country, including a young autistic boy who also took up an interest in basketball (his father played for Richmond and orchestrated an upset of Syracuse in the first round of the NCAA tournament). More stories would surface occasionally following up on the man who stood 5’6″ his senior year and hit 6’0″ before he finished growing, each detailing a new note to readers caught up in the hoopla of McElwain’s public appearances and meetings in the weeks and months following his 20-point game.

While the details don’t provide an insight that would drastically change the story, Fox does reveal just how deep McElwain’s passion for sports. Fox also enlightens us on Jason’s exploits as everyone’s favorite autistic basketball players continues his mission to be “just one of the guys.” As I noted in my last post, the shift from solely dwelling on autism’s deficits to embracing its advantages will play a key role in the future direction of the autism population. McElwain benefits from this not because he can remember what you ate for breakfast on a specific day five years ago, but because his biggest interest is an area shared by many people in many backgrounds. In fact, I have yet to read a story that summarizes just what exactly McElwain’s specific deficits are, making it clear that acts of greatness can transcend a status quo.

Of course, his passion for sports is an assist, because sports itself is considered the great unification among communities. No polarizing politics, no debates about morality or the economy, just a bunch of people relishing in the talent of their athletic idols. Fox won’t be the last reporter to tell McElwain’s story, and every time we see Jason appear, look for another of his endeavors to appear that will reinforce the notion autism shares a similarity with other disabilities: they’re merely obstacles to be cleared.

Advantage – autism

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I’m aware of my most recent hiatus, which was partly due to Minnesota Lynx playoff coverage and Minnesota state high school tournament coverage, but now I’ve returned with a new story to share.

Unfortunately, my blog was not selected a winner in WCCO’s Most Valuable Blogger competition, but I appreciate those of you who still paid visits in my absence. While I continue to research a renewed fascination in the blogosphere and social media regarding Jason McElwain, the health page from NBC’s daytime program Today published a story about a Canadian researcher who argues scientists need to stop viewing autistic traits as flaws that need correction. Dr. Laurent Mottron, a psychiatry professor at the University of Montreal, reflects on recent data and personal experience in his assessment of the disability.

Mottron said researchers who notice activation in unusual regions of the brain compared to the average human, they report such activity as a deficit than an alternative brain organization. He nor most researchers will minimize the concerning outlook facing autistic people, but he advocates they can succeed in a favorable environment, including the field of research. Mottron has several autistic people working in his lab, where they can utilize their exceptional memories. Mottron believes intellectual problem may be over-estimated among autistic people because of inappropriate testing, saying how there is little hesitation to remove audible components for people with hearing impairments. In general, the research field has adapted a broader and deeper view of the disorder, although autism still presents many obstacles.

Rachael Rettner is the woman behind this story, and she reports on another changing trend in the approach to autism by science and mainstream media. While stories of struggle and the future will continue to permeate Google news feeds, the public has been exposed to potential benefits of the condition as far back as Rain Man, released in 1988. Rettner’s story isn’t groundbreaking either, as this blog does have a history of procuring articles on success stories in the autism community. However, with much fear about what autistic children and adults will be able to do, the story is part of a larger paradigm over the exact response about the enlarging base of autistic people. Many are quick to see action in order to address major problems, while others are concerned about an over-bearing assumption that autistic people need intervention in order to conform to expected values of mainstream society. Gauging where the discussion is tilting is difficult to evaluate given the unpredictable and inconsistent effects of autism, but researchers like Mottron see a vastly under-tapped potential that could benefit the community if utilized properly.

Talk about adaptation versus conformation will continue assuming many forms and tones. The conversation Rettner highlights is heavy on science and low on emotional output, without bold and temperamental claims that can sometimes fog progress. There is no question people given an autism diagnosis face a task tougher than a 16-seed playing a 1-seed in the NCAA basketball tournament, and reporters like Rettner will possess responsibility and influence in dictating the direction of the ongoing quest to determine what path, if any, should be laid for those who “think different.”

Placing autistic brains “on the map”

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Erin Allday of the San Francisco Chronicle filed an article this weekend reporting a Stanford University research project suggesting autistic children have a distinctive topography within their brains, based on data obtained from brain scans of 24 autistic children between ages 8 and 18 when compared to scans of 24 non-autistic children. Unlike previous studies that analyzed the overall volume of the brain, where it was found that autistic children generally have larger than average brains, but the information wasn’t refined enough to be useful in diagnosing or treating the disorder, the Stanford study sectioned brain scans into tiny cubes and compared the size and structure through computer analysis. What they found was a pattern of organization in regions of the brain affecting communication and self-awareness particular to autistic children (communication and awareness are hallmark facets that autism affects).

The brain maps applied to 80 to 90 percent of autistic children, and the research pinpoints a potential bio-marker should the maps be replicated in a larger group of children. While the research is years away from application in the real world, coupled with questions about the method’s validity in screening children, the goal is providing refined treatments and clearer understanding of autism’s impact on a vital organ. The research was published online in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

Numerous studies and endless research attempts to find a biological indicator for autism spectrum disorder will continue as long as the cause of the condition remains unknown. On this blog, I’ve covered urine tests and studies on genetic proteins as potential signs to determine whether or not a person fits the autism spectrum. The explorations of so many subjects aren’t all that different from “old wife’s tales” of treating various conditions. When there’s a lack of concrete indicators for a disorder or disease, researchers task themselves to discovering at least one answer. Throughout the quest, numerous possibilities and theories emerge until further research either eliminates them or creates new support to continue investigating a certain topic. Unfortunately, the process is agonizingly long and often ignored by a mainstream audience thirsting for instant gratification, and that’s one reason why stories I cover on biological research often mentions such studies are years away from widespread relevance.

Another reason? Small sample sizes. In order to determine whether a theory is potentially correct or not while avoiding over-exerting resources, autism studies will generally use a localized test group that rarely breaks four figures. This story is one example of how quickly patterns and similarities can be found among people with a particular condition, and that itself is progress compared to scientific observations of autism 20 years ago.

Allday goes through the usual angles in covering this story, explaining autism’s rapid growth while a solution to finding the cause continues. I’ve mentioned before that stories on studies are difficult to provide detailed information because what is published is usually an early step of testing a hypothesis. Allday tempers any reader who may spout that a bio-sign was found by uncovering the unknown usefulness of the research itself. Stories like hers will continue to be published to newspapers as a “mainstream translation” of what is disseminated by journals, even though answers lie far beyond. However, when a biological cause is found, reporters will hopefully have at least one story of their own to reference.

 

San Diego police officer protects and serves

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Police officer Brian Herritt and his autistic son

In what was a timely follow-up to my analysis of the Toronto Sun story published earlier this week, Rebecca Woolington of The Oregonian brings us a story profiling a San Diego police officer hosting a four-hour training session for fellow police officers in Oregon’s Washington County. The training is far from standard, as Brian Herritt will be instructing police officers on how to respond to autistic children. The father of an autistic child himself, Herritt’s inspiration began when his son eloped at the age of three and he found himself relying on police to find him. While his son was discovered safely, Herritt noticed police may be unprepared to handle autistic children, his experience as a parent and law enforcement official created a dedication to teaching cops how to recognize signs of autism and deescalate situations. Conversely, he also wants to teach parents the mentality of police officers.

The Autism Society of Oregon is funding the training session, and one likely subject will be the potential of confusing symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (people talking to themselves or fixating on objects) with socially awkward behaviors that exhibit signs of drug and alcohol use. Herritt also explains how to best take autistic people into custody, what crimes they are most likely to commit or fall victim to, and to avoid assuming someone isn’t cooperating because they’re not responding to questions or orders (as explained many times on this site, some autistic people don’t communicate verbally).

Autistic people must follow the laws like everyone else, but after the ordeal I dissected in Toronto, Herritt’s mission is the perfect antidote to solve issues surrounding lack of awareness of autism in law enforcement. One training session won’t make police experts, but because Herritt is a fellow officer with an autistic child, his ability to communicate to both parents and cops is more effective. He understands the wishes of parents to accommodate autism spectrum disorder when approached and the rapid responses officers must sometimes make on or off-duty. As I mentioned in the last story, there will be increasing encounters between autistic people and police officers as the autism population grows and ages, which likely means Herritt won’t be the only cop to offer this training in the future.

There’s also a possibility of a follow-up story in The Oregonian as the training session doesn’t take place until next Wednesday, creating a set-up to report the response of attendants. Many are representatives of the sheriff’s office and local police departments in Oregon, so finding ties for the reading audience would not require much effort. Continuing to cover this story could also reveal Herritt’s future plans for these training sessions; the fact he is traveling to Oregon from the San Diego area brings forth the desire to promote a subset of knowledge to a group who most likely will need them on future assignments. Outside the region, other news editors and reporters may find citizens similar to Herritt who share his goal.

Woolington spends the first half of the story explaining Herritt’s background and his drive to educate other officers before switching to local sources for their reaction regarding his Oregon visit. Woolington indirectly highlights why autism training will matter to any kind of safety official in the long-term: parents already in the business are getting a first-hand experience with the disability.

Policing the integration of autistics

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Courtesy Ernest Doroszuk, Toronto Sun

Our latest story is part reporting, part editorial hailing from our neighbor to the north, Canada. Michele Mandel covers an incident at the Fairbank Memorial Day Care Centre where Toronto Police are under fire from autism advocacy groups for their July 28th handling of a nine-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome who had to be physically restrained after throwing a tantrum. Police handcuffed the boy for five minutes before the mobile crisis intervention team arrived and calmed him down. While autism groups protest that less drastic restraint measures could have been employed, police say the boy was a danger to himself and waiting for the crisis team could have posed a safety hazard.

The boy blamed his tantrum on being bullied during the lunch hour. Mandel quoted him saying he holds his mother’s hand whenever he sees a cop car. Naturally, parents of autistic children are furious, at least according to Autism Ontario. The executive director says they offer training for law enforcement on handling people with mental disabilities, but few have taken advantage of the program unlike their colleagues in Ottawa.

I have some question on the date’s accuracy in the published article. If the incident did occur on July 28th, having an article published now would be horrendously ill-timed. There is a possibility the story has a typo and the incident happened on August 28th, which would better justify releasing the story on its publication date (August 30th). With parents as emotionally charged as they are, notwithstanding parents of autistic children, waiting an entire month before expressing outrage over a controversial situation makes little sense.

Regarding the story itself, law enforcement is almost always a hotbed when it comes to controversy. This doesn’t suggest an antagonistic relationship between journalists and police (you need to establish a positive connection if assigned to a crime beat), but material that suggests public service officials aren’t performing their job description makes for saucy news material. Generally, this controversy arises when police are seen abusing their role. In Mandel’s story, the argument is police not considering the well-being of the child with Asperger’s Syndrome who had to be restrained. When pursuing an event as it’s occurring, police have to be prepared for rapid responses to a multitude of situations to protect themselves and/or the people they intervene. The “gray area” illuminates how people who are trained to keep communities safe can adapt to the autism spectrum, as their emotional output doesn’t fall within expected norms. This story may spur Toronto’s law enforcement to seek more training, or lead to further coverage on public readiness to handle a population prone to mental outbursts.

On the story itself, I’m not familiar with the ethical standards of Canadian journalism, but the reporter appears to side with autism organizations and suggesting the response was mishandled. Mandel uses strong words and questions why less forceful measures weren’t used to begin with, creating the impression that Toronto police were the “bad guys” in the case. The discussion shouldn’t be about who’s right or wrong, but instead included for the ultimate concern of how an increasing number of autistic people throughout the world can be approached.

Written by TheSportsBrain

August 31, 2011 at 11:36 am