Current Events and Philanthropy / Philanthropy

Giving Athletes: Why Sports Philanthropy Deserves Our Attention

Editors’ Note: Sarah Fields spotlights the need for more scholarly attention directed to the history of athletes’ philanthropy.

Athletes are a complicated group. Sporting figures have long been celebrities, but they have not always been wealthy either as a class or as individuals. And yet they have long been involved in various ways with philanthropy and charitable works, both as givers and as recipients. For example, stories abound of athletes who, prior to their success, were reliant on charities and the kindness of strangers to make their way. Babe Ruth famously spent time as a child in an orphanage, and Michael Oher, a professional football player, lived in various foster homes until he was adopted by an affluent family when he was in high school—a story documented in the Oscar winning film The Blind Side (2009).

Beginning in the twenty-first century, a new trend has emerged, deepening the relationship of athletes to philanthropy. More and more college and high school athletes (and some even younger) have been encouraged, if not directed, to volunteer in their communities. Most college athletes are required either by their coach or their athletic department to participate in community service events such as visiting children in hospitals or speaking to students in grade schools. As a result, by the time they turn pro, many top-level athletes see the value of philanthropy both as a means of giving back and as a way of boosting their personal and their team’s brands. Not surprisingly in recent years, many of these athletes have made high-profile philanthropic donations to, or used their celebrity to help raise funds for, a wide assortment of causes. And yet given this trend, little scholarship exists about athletes and philanthropy. This essay offers some examples of this phenomenon, asking more questions than it answers in the hopes that it spurs additional research on the topic. It argues that the lack of attention athletes’ philanthropy has been granted is connected with the ways in which they have often been regarded as childlike and their commitments outside the realms of sport trivialized.

For over a century, some athletes have had all the trappings of celebrity—wealth, fame, privilege. All this because they can play kids’ games at a very high skill level. These celebrated athletes are usually men because society values men’s sports more and rewards it in cash: not one woman was listed on Forbes 2018 list of the 100 highest paid athletes between June 2017 and June 2018. (Serena Williams, the only woman on the 2017 list, and also a philanthropist, missed tournaments after the birth of her child in September of 2017 and so didn’t make the 2018 cut.) Although athletes are handsomely rewarded for their skills, society never quite seems to forget that they play games for a living, as reflected in their nicknames: the Detroit Pistons of the 1990s and early 1990s were the Bad Boys, and multiple boxers have been dubbed the Golden Boy, the Kid, or Prince (with very few ‘Kings’ in their ranks). The respect that the rest of us expect as our due as adults and global citizens are often withheld for athletes. When athletes speak out on politics and social issues, they have been told to “shut up and dribble” as if the short pants they wear to work put them at the kids’ table in matters of civic consequence. The fact that many of the most prominent athletes are racial minorities, with long histories of infantilized treatment by white society, only amplifies this lack of respect.

Some of the earliest sports celebrities in America were baseball men with a deep interest in philanthropy. Most Americans know Babe Ruth as one of the greatest hitters in the game. They may well be aware of his mythologized life of going from an orphanage to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Fewer Americans know that Babe Ruth left about $58,500 ($600,000 in today’s dollars) of his estate to his foundation, established about fifteen months before his death, which was intended to benefit underprivileged children. Similarly, many Americans know that Ty Cobb was one of the best all-around baseball players ever. They may also have heard stories of his racism and of his infamous mean streak (stories abound of him intentionally spiking members of the opposing team when sliding into base). Fewer Americans know that in 1945 Ty Cobb established a hospital in his hometown in Royston, Georgia, in his parents’ name, donating $100,000 (about $1.4 million in today’s dollars). Further, this man, who never attended college, valued education so much that he established the Ty Cobb Educational Foundation which has given over $17 million in academic scholarships to Georgia residents in need of financial assistance.

With stronger unions for professional team sports, vastly increased media coverage and money, and overt marketing of athletes as endorsers, more athletes towards the end of the twentieth century had access to relatively high incomes, and many donated some of that money to charities. In 1988 retired Football Hall of Famer and activist Jim Brown established the Amer-I-Can Program to help people reach their academic and human potential; the program focuses on gang members, ex-prison inmates, and at-risk children. In 1992 a children’s hospital in Florida renamed itself for baseball legend Joe DiMaggio after he helped raise millions of dollars for the facility. That same year, tennis legend Arthur Ashe started the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS. In a 2004 articleThe Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that tennis star Andre Agassi donated about $20 million to charities. The journal reported that between 2006 and 2008, over 500 professional athletes reported having foundations and about 200 of these foundations each year had official 501(c)(3) status with the IRS. What is not clear and needs further exploration is whether or not the increased charitable donations are simply a matter of scale, or if the sites of charitable work have changed, and if the motivations to donate are different.

Today’s most prominent athletes follow in this long, charitable tradition. LeBron James is one of the greatest basketball players who has played the game, and he has been very public with his support of those in need in his hometown of Akron. In 2003, he and his mother, Gloria, established the LeBron James Family Foundation (the LJFF), perhaps in response to Gloria’s life as a single 16-year-old mother who struggled financially while Lebron was growing up, even having to send her son to live with relatives during a challenging stretch. The LFJJ wants “to positively affect the lives of children and young adults through education and co-curricular educational initiatives.” The goals were originally modest: to give bikes to school-age kids so that they could get themselves to and from school every day. Over time, James decided he could do more, so the LJFF began the “I Promise” network in 2011, selecting 300 Akron public school students entering the third grade who were behind their peers and who needed extra support. In 2015, the LJFF and the University of Akron (UA) announced that any of the 1,100 students in the “I Promise” network meeting certain academic standards would receive a full scholarship to UA. In 2018, James founded a school for underachieving students; the school belongs to the Akron Public School District, but James’ foundation provides significant supplementary funding of at least $2 million per year. In a sense, James is doing the same thing, helping underserved children, that Babe Ruth did with his foundation in 1947. But we also must ask what has changed.

In fact, this is just a small taste of the history of athletic philanthropy, and more scholarship is needed to fully understand its significance and the nature of its development. No definitive book on the history of the subject exists; instead the stories are buried in individual biographies and brief articles, making it difficult to compare experiences and to look at any larger historical trends. For example, how do athletes’ philanthropic donations compare to others of comparable earning power or celebrity status? Are there differences in patterns of philanthropy between team sport athletes and individual sport athletes? What is the relationship between the giving patterns of athletes and of the traditions of philanthropy of the communities (regional, religious, ethnic or racial) from which they come?

Indeed, sports philanthropy provides a fascinating lens to examine the role of regionality in philanthropy more broadly. Athletes often donate to their hometowns, the areas in which they went to school, as well as to the cities and communities in which they play. Kurt Warner, Hall of Fame quarterback, is still active in charity work in northern Iowa, where he went to college, as well as in St. Louis and Arizona, where he played professionally. Some athletes, including football player Ndamukong Suh, have donated both to the athletic departments of their alma maters and also to their universities as a whole. This is worth further attention because the fundraising branches of athletic departments and universities do not often work in tandem and sometimes are forbidden to work together at all.

Further, athletes often seem to be involved in charities for kids, sometimes educationally such as LeBron James and sometimes with healthcare, such as Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis. Do athletes feel connected to children because of the games that they share or does the focus stem from the fact that they have been encouraged (or required) to perform prior charitable works with children? Or perhaps they gravitate to children’s charities because they seem safe, uncontroversial causes that would not alienate potential fans? Has this focus changed over time as the demographics of professional athletes have changed from overwhelmingly white to increased racial diversity?

Colin Kaepernick has taken a different charitable road. Essentially banished from the NFL in 2016 after kneeling during the games’ playing of the national anthem to call attention to racial inequality and racial violence in America, Kaepernick donated more than $1 million to a variety of non-profit activist organizations, including Black Veterans for Social Justice and Mothers Against Police Brutality. His donations matched his activism demanding social justice for African-Americans. The question then arises as to whether Kaepernick’s activist philanthropy should be considered a new trend in sports philanthropy or if it is a development within earlier traditions of sports activism.

Little consideration has been given to comparing the charitable works of athletes to that of non-sporting celebrities or old money families and foundations. Are athletes more charitable than non-athletes? Do athletes spend more time volunteering, because of their experience volunteering in college and high school? Which athletes’ foundations are most successful in terms of longevity, survival rates, and distribution of funds?  What role does race and childhood socio-economic status play in athletes’ donations, and how those donations are perceived by the public?

Also worthy of further investigation is the question of why some athletes’ philanthropic efforts succeed or fail. A 2013 ESPN report stated that many registered foundations of athletes had problems, reporting that 74% of athletes’ foundations failed to meet acceptable non-profit operating standards. The report suggested that charities suffered sometimes because of poor legal advice, sometimes because of misuse of funds, and sometimes out of athletes’ naivete and desire to hire or help friends and family members. Resources, though, do exist for athletes looking for philanthropic guidance. The Athletes for Hope Foundation was established in 2007 by a number of prominent athletes and was intended to help educate athletes about philanthropy and to connect athletes and sports organizations to charitable causes. An update to the 2013 ESPN report would be invaluable in determining what, if anything, has changed.

Philanthropy has long been a part of U.S. celebrity culture, and athletes, many of whom have benefited directly from the charitable donations of others, have joined in these efforts. Their work, however, has received little scholarly attention. Studying the history of athletes’ philanthropy tells a more complete story of the athletes’ lives; it also allows scholars of both sport history and philanthropy to find common ground in the stories they tell. The areas of study still needed in this field are broad, far broader than the few questions raised in this essay. Globally and over time, athletes have raised and donated millions, perhaps hundreds of millions, of dollars. As professional sports continue to grow and salaries continue to rise, athletes and organizers have encouraged and required young participants to give back to their communities. Scholarly examination of athletes’ philanthropy and charitable giving can help guide more efficient donations of time and money by future athletes. Perhaps just as importantly, such scholarship will give athletes’ philanthropy the attention that it deserves, acknowledging that the men and women who make their money from sport can wield their philanthropic power in ways anything but childlike.

-Sarah K. Fields

Sarah K. Fields is a professor of Communication and Associate Dean at the University of Colorado Denver. She is the author of Game Faces:  Sport Celebrity and the Laws of Reputation (University of Illinois Press, 2016) and Female Gladiators:  Gender, Law, and Contact Sport in America (University of Illinois Press, 2005).  She is the co-editor of Sport and the Law: Historical and Cultural Intersections (University of Arkansas Press, 2014).

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