Pro athletes often rookies at business of giving

A series of articles published in the Dallas Morning News earlier this year raised questions about inefficiencies and compliance issues at charities started by several Dallas-based athletes. In my experience working with professional athletes, I’m not surprised by the reported shortcomings of these well-meaning individuals. But I think the topic deserves some context.

A large number of NFL and NBA players come from poor, inner-city African-American communities. They often view sports as the only away out of the “hood.” They also view professional sports as a means to help other people still trapped in that environment.

When these star athletes suddenly they find themselves in a financial position to help others and fulfill their heartfelt obligations, they often open their wallets with little regard to sound fiscal practices. Some hire unqualified friends and relatives or even unscrupulous “professionals” to manage their money. They fail to plan for the sudden and substantial decline in income and status that commonly occurs when the career as a professional athlete ends.

These philanthropists-in-training are nevertheless philanthropists-in-deed. They serve a great need and provide great societal benefit. Often, athlete-based foundations are “niche philanthropies” that give back to the athlete’s community in ways that are usually overlooked by other charities.

Felix Jones is a great example. The Dallas Cowboys running back and former Booker T. Washington standout enjoys giving back to his hometown of Tulsa. He has personally given thousands of dollars to his high school, middle school and pee-wee league football teams for the purchase of such items as uniforms, equipment, class rings and travel expenses to a national tournament.

During his rookie season, he donated $10,000 to the ACT preparatory program at the local Boys & Girls Club to prevent it from closing for lack of funding. Next, Felix partnered with Tulsa’s annual MVP Charitable Weekend and raised another $50,000 for the ACT program. Administered by the Tulsa Salvation Army’s North Mabee Boys & Girls Club, the ACT program prepares 300 inner-city high school students each year for college entrance exams. The program also provides assistance with college applications, financial aid and scholarships.

Felix also started Running Back to Make a Difference Foundation, a 501(c) (3) tax-exempt organization with a mission to inform, inspire and empower Tulsa inner-city youth to become well-rounded and productive citizens of their communities through life skills and college preparatory training.

Felix is the 2011 winner of the NFL Alumni’s Spirit Award, which is given annually to a current or former NFL player who has demonstrated a commitment to youth and community service. He entered the league at only 20 years old with no formal business or philanthropic background. But with the guidance of his business advisors, he has filled voids that are often forgotten or overlooked.

Felix is proof that accountability and transparency are foundational to any start-up charity’s business plan. He sought partnerships with credible organizations and professionals to ensure his wishes are being handled properly. As a result, many young people from his hometown are reaping the rewards.


Article written by: Damario Solomon-Simmons

Appears as published in the March 3, 2011 edition of the Tulsa World