By Richard Pryor III
The recent government shutdown, the longest in this nation’s history, has had rippling effects across the country and world – including to the world of sports.
The Red Sox’s White House visit for winning the World Series was postponed. Schools like the University of South Carolina and the University of Minnesota offered free tickets to sporting events for affected employees and their families. Players like John Wall and teams like the Miami Heat have helped those in need in various ways over the last month.
The history of athletes and teams as philanthropists dates all the way back to Muhammad Ali, who made his first international trip to Ghana in 1964, in recognition of their role as the first sub-Saharan African country to win their independence. He later worked on various issues, but with a special focus on worldwide hunger.
55 years later, charitable athletes are an everyday thing. Groups like NBA Cares and the NFL Foundation, affiliated with the leagues themselves, offer opportunities for players to give back. And if a league doesn’t have such a group, you can bet that they partner with a wide-range of non-profit organizations. Awards like the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award and the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award are created to give recognition to these players as well (although they’re almost always discussed on the news).
We also saw, last summer, in one of the largest charitable gifts by an athlete of all time, the creation of the I Promise School in Akron, an actual public school supported by LeBron James and his Family Foundation which guarantees graduates a full ride to the University of Akron if they graduate high school.
While doing some sort of charity work is almost pro forma for pro athletes these days, you see people like James and JJ Watt who go above and beyond and work for their communities, both past and present. And while they are used as shields by some players (an Outside the Lines report from 2013 found that 74% of athlete charities had some ethical issues of one kind or another), in a world where picking oneself up by the bootstraps is a more popular idea than ever, these athletes provide a stark contrast from it.
In a video released on Twitter last year, James said in re the I Promise School – “I know these kids basically more than they know themselves. I’ve walked the same streets, I’ve rode the same bikes on the streets they ride on, I went through the same emotions, the good, the bad, the adversity. Everything they’re going through as kids I know and for me to be in a position where I have the resources, the finances, the people, the structure, and the city around me, why not?”
James’s recognition of his relationship with these students, that he was them 30 years ago, is powerful. Why wouldn’t we want to make life better for those that follow in our footsteps? And in age where the individual is one’s primary focus, now more than ever, these athletes remind us of our shared humanity and responsibility to our fellow citizens.