Arthur Ashe Jr. Sports Scholars Awards
uring basketball season here at Northeastern University’s Matthews Arena, a group of youngsters ages 8 through 13 can be found watching the action from a section of floor seats known as Reggie’s Corner.
The corner is named for former Huskies team captain Reggie Lewis, who passed away suddenly in 1993 at the age of 27 — having also played basketball for Dunbar High School in Baltimore and later for the National Basketball Association’s Boston Celtics. Lewis left behind a legacy of giving that continues to benefit Northeastern and the other communities he lived in.
Across campus, at the John D. O’Bryant African American Institute, a technology center serves students as well as the surrounding community. It was funded by the Reggie Lewis Foundation and is an example of the kind of philanthropy that more and more professional athletes are practicing.
“It’s a brand new ballgame,” says Richard Lapchick, executive officer of Northeastern’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society.
Other spectacular donations from Portland Trailblazers guard Steve Smith and New Jersey Nets center Jayson Williams have created a momentum that Lapchick says will induce a lot of athletes to give. “This is the beginning of something very big and very important,” he says.
Today, as players’ salaries skyrocket, as colleges and universities discover clever ways to get at them and as athletes realize the notoriety that comes with educational philanthropy, more and more institutions are benefiting from the largess of the athletes they helped develop.
In the Name of…
Ask an athlete to give in a loved one’s name, and it’s hard for them to say no.
At Michigan State University, for example, Smith, a former Spartan basketball All-American, and his wife, Millie, donated $2.5 million to help build the Clara Bell Smith Student-Athlete Academic Center, named for his mother.
The $6 million education facility features two computer labs, 62 work stations, a 210-seat auditorium with each seat wired for computer access, two study halls with capacity for 75 people each and 10 tutorial rooms. It also offers a support system for student-athletes with learning disabilities and a career development system to prepare student-athletes for life after graduation.
“He was looking for a way to pay respect to the memory of his beloved mother,” says Howard J. Soifer, one of Steve Smith’s attorneys. “Michigan State is where he had his basketball ability displayed for the whole country, if not the whole world. It gave him the vehicle to become the outstanding NBA all-star that he is and he felt that because Michigan State was a very important part of his life, he wanted Michigan State to benefit as well as to show his complete devotion to his mother. His sense of loyalty, devotion and character is without a doubt of the highest level.”
But Soifer is reluctant to characterize such generosity as part of a trend.
“It can’t be forgotten that this donation by Steve was announced in 1997 and we haven’t seen anything like it since,” he says.
That is, until Jayson Williams, who now plays for the Nets and attended St. John’s University in New York, donated $2.1 million to his alma mater recently to set up a scholarship fund in the name of his college coach, Lou Carnesseca.
“It’s Jayson’s desire for this to make sure that Lou’s name is never forgotten here at St. John’s — not that it ever would be. But Jayson just wanted to ensure that,” says St. John’s spokeswoman Jody Fisher.
Lapchick, who also sits on the board of the Giving Back Fund — a Boston-based non-profit that packages foundations for athletes who are looking for charitable outlets — says the current wave of giving is unprecedented and deserves recognition. “Athletes are using their phenomenal resources for things we haven’t thought about before.”
And professional women athletes may have the same desire to contribute as their male counterparts. However, the only sports in which these athletes are earning enough to even consider serious philanthropy are tennis, golf and basketball. Even then, the earnings are only a fraction of what the men get. Nonetheless, the women give.
Jennifer Gillom of the Women’s National Basketball Association’s Phoenix Mercury “has donated a significant amount of money to her alma mater, University of Mississippi,” says Tracy L. Anderson, a spokeswoman for Gillom. In return, the university is constructing The Gillom Sports Center in her honor.
Spreading the Wealth
The generosity of some professional athletes continues even after their professional careers are over. Northeastern University officials know that they can rely on former Green Bay Packer Sean Jones to provide help. Jones retired from the National Football League in 1997 after a 13-year career as a defensive end.
“Sean Jones has been giving back to Northeastern for years in a very quiet way,” says Dr. J. Keith Motley, dean of student services at Northeastern. “If I call Sean and ask him for something for these students, it’s here.”
“A tremendous part of my success, outside of my parents and my family, came from the five years I spent at Northeastern,” says Jones, who now runs a brokerage firm in California. “Charity begins at home and [Northeastern is] home for me.”
Somewhat embarrassed by the praise he gets from Motley, Jones prefers to do his charity work quietly: “I’ve always felt that giving is a personal thing. It’s more important that things get done and it doesn’t matter who gets the credit.”
Motley says institutions of higher education can provide professional athletes a way to give back.
At the University of Notre Dame, spokesman Dennis K. Brown, says Black alumni athletes have contributed more than $1 million combined for endowed scholarships. Those who have contributed include retired Chicago Bear and Washington Redskin Chris Zorich, St. Louis Ram Todd Lyght, San Francisco 49er Bryant Young, Pittsburgh Steeler Jerome Bettis and Atlanta Hawk LaPhonso Ellis.
Brown notes that most of these funds are directed at academic scholarships for use by the general student body. They are not for “athletes or the athletic department,” he says.
Then there’s Rice University graduate Courtney Hall, who played pro football for the San Diego Chargers, and is now in law school at the University of Chicago. According to Margot Dimond, a spokeswoman at Rice, Hall has given the university $100,000 to set up the Courtney Hall Foundation, an athletic scholarship fund.
But professional athletes’ giving to higher education also extends beyond the institutions that the athletes attended. For example, last year, Detroit Pistons star Grant Hill and his family gave $84,700 to historically Black Dillard University to set up a scholarship fund in his grandfather’s name, even though Hill never attended Dillard and his grandfather never went to college. Hill had already donated $100,000 to the Divinity School of Duke University, where he played collegiate ball and graduated in 1994.
“The gift is far-sighted and exemplary of African American philanthropy,” says Dr. Michael Lomax, Dillard’s president.
Jones and officials from the Lewis Foundation share the tendency to downplay the exact extent of their largesse while providing scholarships, grants and financial support to individuals and schools other than Northeastern. In recognition of Lewis’ generosity, the state of Massachusetts named a $20 million track and athletic center after him and placed it on the campus of Boston’s Roxbury Community College to honor the charitable work he did in that community and for that institution.
And it appears that individual athletes may even donate more of their money to charities and philanthropic causes than the professional franchises that employ them. One survey of 12 foundations linked to professional team franchises, conducted last year at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Sports Philanthropy Conference, reports a combined giving of $2 million dollars in 1998. The mean amount awarded per foundation was $300,000; however, allocations ranged from $52,000 to more than $700,000.
The mean number of awards per foundation, according to the report, was 35, ranging from 13 to 70. In all, 206, or 9 percent of the projects sponsored by the teams that participated in the conference, were funded from more than 2,200 requests. Roughly one-fifth of all sports philanthropy grants go to support academic and educational services.
In comparison to the franchises, “African American athletes are being extremely generous,” says Dr. Tom Kowalski, director of student-athlete enhancement programs at DePaul University in Chicago.
Hard figures on total or even average contributions made by athletes aren’t easy to come by. That’s because so much giving is done quietly and without fanfare.
Contributions by individuals also are made in forms other than cash sometimes.
San Francisco 49er Jerry Rice, retired Buffalo Bill Willie Totten and Atlanta Falcon Ashley Ambrose, for example, have each donated personal items for silent auctions to their alma mater, Mississippi Valley State University, says campus spokeswoman JoAnn Hattix. The array of items includes “things like autographed baseballs, footballs, photographs and [team] jerseys,” she says.
Such gifts are no less appreciated by the colleges and universities that receive them. To honor the accomplishments of Rice and Totten, Mississippi Valley has renamed its football stadium Rice-Totten Stadium.
The Appeal of Postsecondary Giving
Directing philanthropy to postsecondary institutions can enhance the status of a person’s charitable contribution, says Jose Massó, chief operating officer of Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society.
“The advantage of giving to an institution of higher education is the integrity of the gift,” he says. And if a simple gift can garner so much prestige for the donor, imagine how much more prestige an endowment garners.
Donating money for a specific program has a short-term shelf life, he says. But an endowment extends into perpetuity.
Massó points to David Robinson’s gift to the Carver Community Cultural Center in San Antonio as an example. “The [director, Jo Long] just asked for a modest sum [for the center] and David and his wife Valeria decided they wanted to make a $5 million investment. Essentially what he was saying is: ‘This is going to go on beyond my lifetime.'”
Massó says that if more athletes were approached and educated about the benefits of perpetuity gifts, more would give back. “They really don’t know how to siphon off the multitude of requests that they get. What they want to know is: ‘How does my dollar really impact'” the community or the organization that is getting it.
De Paul’s Kowalski says athletes also can help institutions attract donations from the corporate world, other athletes or people in the entertainment business.
“[Reggie Lewis would] set up these celebrity basketball games with professional players and entertainers,” says Motley. “And he would only charge $5 for admission because he wanted to make sure as many people in the community as possible got to see the show, not like those other celebrity events that cost hundreds of dollars to attend. Then after the game, the entertainers would perform. The community got to see both a game and a concert without spending a lot and whatever the organization was [that was benefiting from the event] got a nice little bit of money.”
The Matter of Degrees
Even student athletes who fail to graduate sometimes come back to the schools they attended as significant donors. Golfer Tiger Woods, who spent just a year at Stanford University, gave the California institution $100,000 through the Professional Golfers Association for a golf learning program.
“Around 40 percent of the players in the NFL have degrees — less in the NBA,” Kowalski says, adding that the league is encouraging its players to complete their degrees.
According to Kowalski, 455 NFL players went back to school last year. And he says NFL players, usually a year or less away from a degree, are generally closer to graduation than the NBA players.
But even athletes who have never attended an institution of higher learning have been generous. Two-time former heavyweight champion boxer George Foreman has never attended college, yet he has given $250,000 to Texas Southern University’s law school to start a sports and entertainment law program.
Reggie Lewis was among those who gave back even before he graduated.
“He was one class away from his degree when he passed away,” Motley points out, adding that Lewis was posthumously awarded a bachelor’s of science in criminal justice and a doctorate in the humanities.
“Many would say Reggie’s ability to shoot long-range jump shots and drive to the basket was a gift,” Northeastern President Dr. John A. Curry said at a press conference after Lewis’ death. “But the real gift Reggie Lewis shared with us was his sincerity, compassion and grace as a person. His smile lit up the city, his character helped unite it and his generosity helped feed it.”
For a historical perspective of charitable giving by Black athletes, a list of Giving Back Fund foundations established by athletes of color and a glossary of words to give by, visit the Black Issues Web site at www.blackissues.com.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com