Upon Further Review: Athlete Charities Actually Do Better Than Should Be Expected

On January 16, 2011, some Dallas-based athletes and their charities came under scrutiny for allegations of inefficiency and waste in a Dallas Morning News article entitled, “Experts Say Pro-Athlete Sports Charities Could Do Better.”  In the article, writer Scott Farwell states that, among the twenty-two (22) athlete-based charities he reviewed, he found a “series of shortcomings,” such as spending “more on overhead than on charity,” being “out of compliance” with legal and tax obligations, and athletes starting charities just to “improve their public image and endorsement income.”

For nearly a decade, I have studied, lectured, written about, and worked with professional and collegiate athletes as a university professor, athletic department consultant, and attorney. Through my experience in working with athletes and their related business, social, and economic issues, I am well aware of and agree with many of the points raised in this article.  Further, while it is valid to hold accountable any charitable organizations use of donor funds and compliance with applicable regulations and standards, I have found athletes are more than willing to give back at the expense of their own personal wealth and time — if not more so than any other group of highly trained and overworked professionals (i.e., attorneys, doctors, investment bankers, etc.) in America.

 In my experience, both “status” and “branding” rarely, if ever, have been the driving force behind why an athlete wants to give back.  This is especially true of the vast majority of NFL and NBA players, most of whom come from poor, inner-city African-American communities, and unfortunately often view sports as the only away out of the “hood” and the only means to help others still trapped in those environments to achieve their dreams.  Therefore, I believe that the shortcomings addressed by Mr. Farwell have less to do with the heart and desire of athletes, and more to do with the larger issues that commonly hinder professional athletes when it comes to their business affairs.  Most athletes are prevented from maximizing their opportunities because of:

  • A lack of and/or disregard for business and financial knowledge;
  • T he hiring of unqualified friends, relatives, and/or unscrupulous “professionals” to manage their business and financial affairs; and 
  • Inadequate planning to deal with the likely reality of a sudden and substantial decline in income and status when their professional athletic career is over.

The reasons for these deficiencies are both predictable and understandable.  After all, most of the athletes who create these charitable private foundations are really still just young, inexperienced “kids” when it comes to business issues.    Then, suddenly, they find themselves in a financial position to fulfill their heartfelt obligations and give back to the community that gave to them — to help other young people in that community who wish to follow in their footsteps.  Let’s acknowledge it:  they have committed themselves to the business of being a professional athlete, which is a 24-7 job in and of itself!  And yet they also volunteer to undertake the demanding responsibilities of a philanthropist.

On average, neither these young professional athletes, nor their social or family networks, has any experience with, exposure to, or knowledge about the business, political and legal worlds into which they are literally thrust overnight, and they have no idea how to leverage their new found status to do long-term, sustainable good works.  Thus, oftentimes, they either rely on the assistance of well-meaning, but inexperienced family members and friends, or they hire the services of shady or unconcerned business and legal professionals.  Hence, their foundations may not exactly comply with legal and tax requirements and may have higher overhead for administrative and salary costs.   

But, these “philanthropists in training” are nevertheless probably still “philanthropists in deed.”   They do serve a great need and provide great societal benefit.  Oftentimes, these athlete-based foundations are “niche philanthropies” that give back to the athlete’s community in important charitable ways that are usually overlooked, untargeted, or unreachable by more established or mainstream charities.  At the same time, they provide a training ground for the highly successful professional athlete to become an influential philanthropic business person in their own right, as an extension of their professional career.

             Take, for example, third-year running back for the Dallas Cowboys Felix Jones — 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.  Since entering the league at only twenty-years (20) of age, with no formal business or philanthropic background, but a genuine desire to give back and listen and learn from his advisors,  Felix has provided countless hours of community service and donated thousands of dollars of signed memorabilia and game tickets to charitable causes.  He has personally given $5000.00 each to: a) his high school towards the purchase of Football State Championship rings, b) his middle school for the purchase of new football uniforms and equipment; c) his pee-wee team for travel expenses to a national tournament; and d) the Salvation Army for Christmas gifts for low-income families.  Felix also partnered with then-Tulsa Mayor Kathy Taylor to become the 1st Official Spokesperson for the City of Tulsa’s “Mentoring to the Max” program, and he created an annual free football and life skills academy for inner-city high school student-athletes. 

Additionally, during his rookie season, after being notified that the ACT preparatory program at the local Boys & Girls Club — that had helped him pass “the test” so he could accept his football scholarship — was going to shut down due to lack of funding,  Felix donated $10,000.00 to keep the program going.  Then, after his 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) was established in February of 2010, Felix partnered with the annual MVP Charitable Weekend and raised $50,000.00 for the ACT program.  Administered by the Tulsa Salvation Army’s North Mabee Boys & Girls Club, the ACT Program now will prepare 300 inner-city high school students for college entrance exams and provide them assistance with their applications for college, financial aid and scholarships over the next four (4) years.

  Felix a great example of why individual athlete charities and causes are important to support — they deal with special charitable niches that are often forgotten or under- the-radar issues, causes, and/or communities.  Additionally, however, Felix’s example shows how other individual athletes can ensure the success of their charitable endeavors — give back to causes that they are truly passionate about, seek partnership with established and credible organizations and people working in the space they are passionate about, and hire and heed the advice and counsel of competent and professional individuals to ensure their wishes are being properly handled. 

In closing,   I hope that Mr. Farwell’s article prompts athletes and those who work with them to pursue excellence and full legal compliance regarding their charitable endeavors.  But the fact remains that amount of time most professional athletes put in when it comes to charity is staggering.  The work so many of these young men give to charity is truly commendable and they should be lauded for their efforts. So, even with  many of the valid shortcomings discussed by Mr. Farwell, considering all that is not in their favor, athlete-based charities actually do better than should be expected.  More importantly, because the length of an average professional athlete’s career is less than four years, and (according to Sports Illustrated) eighty percent (80%) are bankrupt, jobless, and/or divorced within two (2) years after their athletic careers are over, I believe that we should contextualize and understand the underlying reasons why many athletes are not able to fully maximize their potential regarding all of their off-the-field  charitable business undertakings, rather than unfairly criticize the sincere efforts they do make.