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The Personal Toll of Photographing a Story About Euthanasia

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In April 2017, The New York Times sent me to Japan to meet and photograph the decorated Paralympic athlete Marieke Vervoort while she carried out the last wish on her bucket list: dying.

Marieke was fresh off the Paralympic circuit, having just won bronze and silver medals in wheelchair racing in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. She had previously won gold in the 2015 world championships, as well as gold and silver in the 2012 London Paralympics. She was a celebrity in Belgium and in athletic circles for her athletic accomplishments and her public announcement that she had completed the paperwork to end her life by euthanasia.

Belgium, where Marieke lived, was one of just a handful of countries where euthanasia was legal for non-terminally ill patients. Marieke’s degenerative muscular disease was not terminal, but as it worked its way up her body over two decades, it left behind a trail of paralysis.

I met and photographed Marieke in Japan, seven months after the Rio Games. She invited the Times sportswriter Andrew Keh and me to document her life, her suffering and her struggle with deciding when to die. She was savvy enough to understand that a poignant story and series of images could bring attention to her decade-long campaign for the global right to euthanasia. I ended up shuttling between my home in London and hers in Diest, Belgium, for two and a half years.

Marieke planned every detail of her death. She wanted to be surrounded by a handful of close friends and her parents in her bedroom in Diest when she was administered the lethal injection; she wanted to lie in a Coca-Cola red coffin surrounded by white roses; she carefully selected the speakers (including a comedian, whom she instructed to tell a dirty joke) and musicians for her private funeral. She would be cremated, and most of her ashes would be partitioned into little lockets for all her loved ones. A portion would be reserved and spread by her parents among the fields of lava by the dark blue sea in Los Hervideros, on the Spanish coast: her beloved second home, where she trained for the Paralympics.

She had no regrets. In fact, she had done more than most people do in 10 lifetimes.

But there never really seemed to be a right time to die. While Marieke first did the paperwork for euthanasia in 2008, she admitted she wasn’t ready to end her life then. She just wanted the option of knowing she had the power and the permission to do so when the pain became unbearable. In the years I photographed Marieke, her condition deteriorated, and she selected three dates for euthanasia. All came and went, for different reasons, and the story — and our friendship — continued.

I have spent my entire career photographing people whose lives were stolen from them by measles or malaria in the Democratic Republic of Congo or South Sudan, malnutrition in Somalia or Yemen, a car bomb in Iraq or an airstrike in Syria. I’ve photographed families torn apart by war and extreme poverty. Until Marieke, I had never met someone who had elected to die. I had never met someone so full of life — so emotionally determined that she could complete a triathlon in a wheelchair while deeply sick and heavily medicated — but who couldn’t muster that determination to plow though the daily pain and loneliness of a degenerative muscular disease, year after year.

I’ve never photographed someone so consistently over the span of two and a half years; inevitably, she became a friend. Most of the time I was with Marieke, I watched her sleep. I didn’t photograph much. I learned how to hold her when she choked, to pat her back and comfort her, hoping she regained consciousness. Sometimes I took a photograph right away, and then tried to help — because I was the only one in the room, and though I had been taught as a young photographer never to intervene, I am a human being.

I grew close to her parents, too — especially her mother, who spoke little English. We messaged often in Dutch, assisted by Google Translate. Even though I’m not sure my messages ever really said what I intended, they enabled us to have a close relationship. As a mother, I couldn’t fathom what she was going through as she ushered her daughter through moments of joy and darkness, only to know how and when it would all end. I admired the strength and support of Marieke’s parents, to be able to let her go.

On Oct. 22, Marieke was scheduled to die at home in Diest — this time, she hoped, for real.

A few weeks earlier, when Marieke and I discussed how she wanted me to photograph her death, she was more lucid than I had seen her in almost all the time I had known her. She vacillated between excited and strangely calm. The doubt was gone; she no longer booked dates into her schedule for months — or weeks — in the future. She asked me to be one of a handful of people in the room with her during her euthanasia.

Marieke’s parents, Jos and Odette, sat at the foot of the bed, and everyone reluctantly took their places around her, forming a human cocoon. Her doctors alternated trips to her bedside, emptying fat syringes full of the barbiturate Thiobarbital into an IV line into her neck. Her parents sat before her. Every few minutes, her father looked away. Her longtime psychologist held her wrist.

By the end of her life, I knew most of Marieke’s friends, and her dogs no longer barked when I arrived at her home to find her half-conscious on the couch. When I was back in London, or in Los Angeles over Christmas, she sent me long voice messages on WhatsAppduring which she sometimes fell asleep, woke up again and picked up where she left off. She called me sweetheart and told me she loved me. I eventually reciprocated.

I don’t know whether I crossed the lines of journalism by becoming close to my subject or who decides when it is O.K. for a “subject” to become a friend. I don’t think my ability to tell Marieke’s story has been compromised by our closeness, and I wouldn’t know any other way to tell the story of someone’s death by choice. I needed to get to know Marieke and her family to understand how painful and difficult life could be, to decide to end it.

The people in her bedroom that evening began to whimper and eventually sob, as the color drained from Marieke’s face and her lips turned blue. She looked as she had so often throughout my time with her — medicated, sleeping, mouth slightly agape — but this time, for the first time, she looked at peace, without pain.


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The Quiet Confidence of Naomi Osaka

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MELBOURNE, Australia — As the reigning Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka opened her season earlier this month, she checked herself as she expressed her goals for the rest of the year.

“I think just to try as hard as I can every match,” Osaka said. “Because for me, when I feel like I do that, I somehow end up winning the match, no matter what.” As she heard herself, her eyes widened. “Oh, that sounds really arrogant,” she said, clearly embarrassed.

Osaka had spoken into a microphone what she has already made clear with her racket over the past two years: Underneath her quiet demeanor, she has an assured confidence that has helped carry her to two Grand Slam titles. She may be soft-spoken in public, but she is also steely and determined.

Osaka, 22, showed that mettle most unmistakably during the 2018 United States Open final against Serena Williams, closing out a title even as Williams got into heated arguments with the umpire over penalties and the crowd booed what they felt was unfair treatment for the 23-time Grand Slam champion.

She followed up that victory by winning the Australian Open last year. Now, as the No. 3 seed, Osaka has beaten 42nd-ranked Zheng Saisai in a second-round match, 6-2, 6-4, and she will face the 15-year-old phenom Coco Gauff in the next round.



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Massive brawl breaks out at end of Kansas-Kansas State | College Basketball on ESPN

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In the closing moments of Kansas State vs. Kansas, the Jayhawks’ Silvio De Sousa stares down the Wildcats’ DaJuan Gordon after a block, and the two teams break out in a fight.

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California could become America’s sports betting capital

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Two years after the U.S. Supreme Court removed legal barriers to sports betting, California voters could be asked in November to join 14 other states in allowing legal wagers on athletic contests, creating a lucrative industry worth billions of dollars and intense competition among rival gambling interests in the state.

On Tuesday, a coalition of 18 Native American tribes was given approval to begin circulating petitions for a statewide ballot initiative that would allow sports betting at tribal casinos and horse racing tracks, but not at rival card clubs or on the internet.

“This is an important step in helping ensure sports wagering is restricted to adults over 21 at highly regulated and experienced locations,” said Mark Macarro, tribal chairman of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, which operates a casino in Temecula. “The measure will also result in new revenue for mental health programs and vital services like public safety and education.”

Card clubs vowed to campaign against the tribal casino proposal and instead support another ballot measure being considered by the California Legislature that would apply to a larger group of gambling interests.

California voters have given their blessing to legalized gambling three times — first through the creation of a statewide lottery in 1984, then by authorizing tribal casino operations with ballot measures approved in 1998 and 2000.

The stakes are high both for the state and companies that might be licensed to offer sports betting, said Assemblyman Adam Gray (D-Merced), a leading proponent for legalized sports betting and chairman of the powerful Assembly Governmental Organization Committee.

A legal sports betting market could bring in $2.5 billion in gross revenue annually in California, the largest market in the country, according to Chris Grove, a managing director for Eilers and Krejcik Gambling LLC, a research and consulting firm that has provided estimates to California lawmakers.

The market could generate $250 million to $500 million in tax revenue for the state based on whether the tax rate is 10% or 20%, Gray said.

“It is clear that we are quickly heading in the direction of a well-thought-out, legal sports betting framework here in California,” Gray said at a hearing earlier this month. “We need to create this framework to ensure regulatory oversight and provide consumer protections to get this long-standing and emerging activity out of the shadows of the illicit or black market.”

A national wave of new gambling laws was triggered by a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down a federal prohibition on sports wagering. Betting on football, baseball and other sports is allowed in 14 states, including Nevada, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

In response to the court decision, Gray and state Sen. Bill Dodd (D-Napa) have each introduced legislation that would put a constitutional amendment on the statewide ballot as early as November to allow sports betting. To make the ballot, lawmakers have until late June to overcome the divisions in the state gambling industry over how to allow sports betting, and groups such as professional sports leagues and law enforcement are already weighing in.

California is home to the most professional sports teams in the nation, including four National Basketball Assn. teams and three National Football League franchises, as well as powerhouse university teams from UCLA and USC. Lawyers for the National Basketball Assn. and Major League Baseball have told lawmakers that they are supportive of the concept of a constitutional amendment, but want to make sure any new system protects consumers and the integrity of the games.

“Our view is that sports betting properly regulated can have benefits to bring betting out of the shadows and into the sunlight, to give us tools to allow us to monitor betting on our games and to protect the fans who bet on sports,” said Dan Spillane, senior vice president and assistant general counsel for the NBA at this month’s hearing at the state Capitol.

Pro league representatives said any system should include consumer protections, including the vetting of operators, age restrictions, gambling addiction programs and requirements that the sports leagues are the sources of data used to set odds and settle bets.

California’s system should also seek to allow betting over the internet and smartphones using state-licensed sites so the legal system can compete and reduce the black market, league officials say.

Because Major League Baseball has five teams in California, the most of any state, “it’s really important that California get it right, particularly because this will be the largest betting market in the country and it will be a state that other states look to,” Brian Seeley, a senior league vice president and deputy general counsel for Major League Baseball, told lawmakers this month.

Online gambling can also be lucrative for a state. New Jersey saw some $2.9 billion in sports bets at retail and online sportsbooks in the first year after it began allowing the wagering in June 2018, with 81% of the money wagered online, Grove said.

“It’s clear that if we truly want to take illegal sports betting out of the shadows, there needs to be an online component for those who won’t patronize brick-and-mortar outlets,” Dodd said. “Without that, it will remain largely unregulated, continue to pose the risk of fraud and fail to generate funds for education or help with problem gambling.”

Tribal leaders dispute that mobile betting should be allowed and their initiative would only allow betting at racetracks and at casinos, where patrons might be more likely to participate in other gambling activities as well.

Security and privacy issues have also been cited by opponents of mobile betting.

“Voters have very real and serious concerns about mobile sports betting and would be highly likely to oppose a measure that allows online betting,” said Jacob Mejia, a spokesman for the coalition of tribal casino operators, who added that the tribes don’t rule out allowing online betting in the future.

Legal experts say federal law regarding Native American tribes may be an obstacle to offering internet betting. The proposed initiative would also expand tribal-state compact powers to allow craps and roulette at tribal casinos.

The tribes’ initiative, which would put a 10% tax on gross gaming revenues derived from sports wagering, has a good chance of qualifying for the ballot given the deep pockets of tribal casino operators, who must collect valid signatures from 997,139 registered voters.

The tribes spent $33 million in 2004 to defeat a ballot measure that would have allowed racetracks and card clubs to operate slot machines.

Tribes and their lobbyists also have influence in the legislative process, having cultivated close relationships with lawmakers. Five of the biggest tribal donors pushing the initiative spent a total of $2.1 million on political contributions last year as well as $1.1 million on lobbying state government. On Thursday, several tribes co-hosted an annual party welcoming lawmakers back to Sacramento for the legislative year, offering cocktails, gourmet food and a live show by rapper Lil Jon.

The more than 50 non-tribal card clubs represented by the California Gaming Assn. are already gearing up to fight the tribal initiative and weigh in with legislators on the ballot measures proposed by Gray and Dodd, said the association’s president, Kyle Kirkland.

The initiative “gives the sports wagering just to the tribes with no real benefit for California,” Kirkland said, noting that mobile betting would allow residents in cities such as Los Angeles that do not have tribal casinos the ability to gamble without driving long distances.

Florida-based gambling industry attorney Daniel Wallach also has advised lawmakers that they should allow sports betting at sports venues such as Staples Center, home to the Lakers and Clippers basketball teams, if they want the most robust legal market possible.

“You take the activity to where the action is,” Wallach said.

He said he is convinced that the Legislature can legalize sports betting in California without going to the voters to change the state Constitution, but legal experts with the Legislature believe a ballot measure is required.

It will take a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to put a measure on the ballot, and some lawmakers at this month’s first public hearing had concerns and questions about the various proposals. Assemblyman Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove), a former sheriff’s captain, said he had “a bit of trepidation” about the promise of riches for the state treasury, noting that revenue projections from the legal cannabis industry and lottery have also fallen short of predictions.

The proposals are opposed by the California Coalition Against Gambling Expansion, which is especially concerned about allowing online bets.

“It basically puts a casino in the pocket of every youth potentially and every gambling addict,” said Fred Jones, the group’s attorney. “They don’t have to go anywhere. They have got it right there in their smartphone.”

Dodd, who is chairman of the Senate Governmental Organization Committee, argued the state and its residents are missing out by keeping betting illegal.

“Though sports betting remains illegal in our state, the fact remains that Californians have and will continue to wager billions of dollars every single year on their favorite sport,” Dodd said. “I for one believe we must bring sports betting out of the shadows in a manner that provides the best deal for the state of California and provides maximum protections for our constituents.”



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