When Michael Rubin, billionaire entrepreneur and co-owner of the Philadelphia 76ers, first heard that his good friend Meek Mill had a hearing for violating the terms of probation for decade-old drug and gun charges, he assumed the rapper had nothing to worry about.
"I didn't really understand that there was real risk of him being incarcerated—it didn't even seem like a real possibility to me," Rubin tells Bleacher Report of his thinking ahead of the Nov. 6 hearing.
Rubin had been spending more time than ever with Meek (born Robert Rihmeek Williams) in the months before the court date, to the point that he was concerned: Why was the rapper, who'd just released his third successful album, Wins & Losses, spending so much time hanging around Philadelphia? "He was at too many games because he wasn't allowed to leave the city," says Rubin. "It didn't make any sense to me. His job is to perform, and the judge wasn't letting him perform. He was giving up millions of dollars."
Meek Mill has been behind bars since that day, when he was sentenced to a stunning two to four years without bail—his third prison term for the same conviction. His parole violations were so minor (a reckless driving charge and a fight, both of which he had pleaded out and performed community service for) that his parole officer and the district attorney both recommended he serve no time.
Rubin and many other members of the Philadelphia sports community have rallied around the rapper in the wake of the sentencing, using their platforms to push for his freedom. To them, this was not just a case of a rapper in trouble with the law—it was indicative of a multitude of systemic issues within the criminal justice system.
"The big thing for me was how much time he got, even though he shouldn't have ever gone to jail in the first place," says Eagles wide receiver Torrey Smith. "The time just flat-out didn't match."
Smith has been outspoken about the case on Twitter, and he attended a rally held in support of the incarcerated rapper in November alongside four of his Eagles teammates, Sixers legend Julius Erving and Rubin. He says it's been a major topic of conversation in the locker room, but his interest in Meek's case—and criminal justice reform—goes beyond keeping up with current events.
"It wasn't new to me. I've seen this kind of thing myself with my family members and people that I know," Smith says. "I was a criminal justice major because I wanted to be a lawyer so I could help fight against these types of things. I've been very aware of it for a while."
The weekend before the hearing, Rubin sought to use his status as one of the state's most successful businessmen to help Meek's case via a letter to the presiding judge, Genece E. Brinkley, who he'd heard had been difficult. "Anyone you ask—Nicki Minaj, Meek, people in his camp, lawyers—everyone talks about this crazy judge. I didn't really believe it," he says now. Meek and Rubin had first met at NBA All-Star Weekend about five years ago and had grown quite close. Speaking to the rapper the night before the hearing, he heard uneasiness in his voice and decided to attend. "Everything I'd heard about this judge was accurate," Rubin says.
"Had I not seen it in person, I probably would not have gotten to this point of feeling like I have to stand up for him because he's being treated so unfairly, and he can't do this on his own."
Rubin isn't the only member of the Sixers organization who's tied to the Philly hometown hero. He says Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz are all friends with the rapper. Embiid went to visit him just last week (he said, "It was scary"), and he and Simmons sported "Stand with Meek Mill" hoodies at Jay-Z's concert last week in Philadelphia. (Jay has also been outspoken about Meek's incarceration, penning an op-ed in the New York Times on the subject.)
"Meek is a diehard Sixers fan—they generally play his music for the intro," says Rubin. "He's a staple—someone the team cares a lot about, and someone that I personally care a lot about."
Beyond his allegiance to the Sixers, Smith sees Meek Mill's case as emblematic of the kind of systemic injustice that NFL players have been protesting all season long (to controversial effect). "It's all part of it," says the wide receiver. "Why has this individual been on probation for that long? Why are you wasting taxpayer money on this when there are a bunch of schools that could use that money?"
"I'm one of the biggest taxpayers in the state of Pennsylvania, and I'm paying for him to be in jail, which is a complete injustice," says Rubin. "I'm spending a lot of time trying to fix this wrong."
So far, his efforts—and those of Meek's team of lawyers—have been futile. Numerous appeals to all tiers of the Pennsylvania judicial system have been denied, along with a request for bail just this week, during which Judge Brinkley alleged he was a "danger to the community." On Wednesday, news broke that various social justice organizations were working to get the judge disbarred—this following reports of an FBI investigation into her conduct.
"The judge said that he's a danger to society? She's a danger to society!" Rubin says. He's planning to continue his work on behalf of the rapper until he's freed, which he's convinced will be soon. "I'm surprised that more people haven't picked up on this story. I'd like anybody who can make a difference to look at this and say they're not going to tolerate one bad character—this judge—to allow someone to sit in prison who has a six-year-old kid. It tells me that probation laws are completely broken in the state of Pennsylvania. Meek is incredibly appreciative of everyone's support. I'm underwhelmed by it."
Smith hopes Meek Mill's (re)imprisonment will encourage fans to reexamine their assumptions about the criminal justice system.
"People are scared to challenge it and talk about it because they're so into ‘law and order' or 'if you do the crime, do the time'—but if you look at it, it just doesn't make sense," he says. "Whether people like to admit it or not, they know someone who's committed a crime. It's just about fairness. I'm not making excuses for anyone, but there are a lot of things that lead to someone [being in that situation] and a lot of things we can do better."