SBJ/20100329/This Week's News

Athletes seeing strength in Hope

They lined up for autographs and photos like grade-schoolers, eager to meet their hero. At the San Diego Padres’ fan-friendly training complex in Peoria, Ariz., such sessions are hardly a rare occurrence. Except that this time the major leaguers were the ones waiting patiently, chatting nervously, paper or baseballs in hand. And at the end of the line sat Muhammad Ali.

Ali and his wife, Lonnie, visited the Padres camp earlier this month on behalf of the nonprofit organization Athletes for Hope. Founded three years ago by former SFX executive Ivan Blumberg and a group of highly visible current and former athletes that included Andre Agassi, Lance Armstrong, Mia Hamm, Tony Hawk, Jeff Gordon, Mario Lemieux and Cal Ripken Jr., Athletes for Hope aims to help individuals and teams make a positive contribution to their communities, and to society at large.

“You’d be surprised how many want to do good but don’t necessarily have the vehicle,” Blumberg said.

It seemed critical to include Ali. He constructed the template for social involvement by an athlete by refusing to serve in the Army during the Vietnam War, though it meant the loss of his heavyweight title and his license to box, and has spent the last two decades championing social causes. Fortunately, he agreed. “We didn’t have time to do this,” Lonnie said. “But it was too important not to.”

Athletes for Hope’s Ivan Blumberg joined
Muhammad Ali and wife Lonnie at
a recent gathering.

Athletes for Hope has 1,000 members across 50 sports, but the Padres presentation was the first time it had met with a Major League Baseball team. Ali was on hand to give it credibility, to capture the attention of players early on a chilly morning, and to provide an object lesson in what it can feel like for an ordinary fan to gain access to a favorite athlete.

When he entered the room, helped by Lonnie and an aide, the entire team stood and applauded. For the hour they spent in his presence, at least, none of these millionaire ballplayers seemed the slightest bit jaded or cynical. Instead, it was as though they were 9 years old again.

“It’s such a thrill,” said pitcher Mike Adams, who stood in line for 10 minutes for a photo with The Champ.

Ali is one of the tools that Blumberg uses to get athletes to engage with the idea of philanthropy. Another is an audience-participation exercise that has them move around the room in response to questions. Do you think that giving back to the community is an obligation for a major leaguer? If so, stand over here. Or is it merely an opportunity? Fine, stand over there. Can a rookie make as big an impact as a superstar? Is time less important, as important, or more important than writing a check?

“There are no right answers,” Blumberg would say later. “The beauty of the interaction is that the athletes come to their own conclusions. It’s not a workshop, it’s a conversation.”

Athletes for Hope’s immediate goal is to get athletes more involved in community service and charity work. Occasionally, it happens through their own foundations, though Blumberg discourages that. “The leagues would tell you that too many professional athletes have foundations but don’t operate them efficiently,” he said. “For 98 percent of the athletes out there, it’s a bad idea.”

Instead, he tries to match players with existing organizations in hopes of finding one that inspires a lasting relationship. “Most of our guys definitely want to do something,” said Bud Black, the Padres manager and a 15-year big leaguer. “I think finding that niche, something they feel passionate about, is the challenge.”

Athletes for Hope is fully funded by five revenue streams, including private and corporate donations and the seed money from the founding athletes. All Blumberg asks from a player is permission to have a staffer make a 15-minute follow-up call in order to create a database of his interests, as well as ways in which he feels comfortable contributing. After that, the organization will work — in conjunction with each team’s community relations staff, in the case of team sports — to unite him with an appropriate charity.

Padres players and staff were all smiles with The
Champ in attendence at training camp.

It isn’t always easy. Etan Thomas of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder started with a personal appearance on behalf of Kaboom!, which builds playgrounds in his native Harlem. Then he did poetry readings with kids and worked in prisons in Washington, D.C., where he was playing for the Wizards. All of those were fulfilling, but they still felt like obligations. It was only after Thomas underwent surgery to repair a leak in his aortic valve that he developed a strong interest in the American Heart Association. Athletes for Hope facilitated the match, Thomas filmed a public service announcement, and has since helped with fundraisers. If asked, he says he’d agree to be a national spokesman.

“I’ve worked for Athletes for Hope now with a lot of different things, and they’ve been able to make connections for me,” Thomas said. “It’s definitely not all talk. I would recommend them to anybody.”

In a few small but tangible ways, Athletes for Hope appears to be changing the culture of sports philanthropy. Soon after it launched, the organization pitched the U.S. national women’s soccer team. Hamm, Brandi Chastain, and the team’s few other celebrity names had long since retired, and the players who remained figured they weren’t famous enough to make much of a difference. Perhaps individually they weren’t, but Blumberg sold them on the value of the national team brand and the concept of doing charity work together.

Now each time the team travels, someone calls the Athletes for Hope staff asking to be paired with a needy local charity. That validates Blumberg’s contention that it isn’t just superstars who can aid a cause.

“Over time, we’ll have the ability to mobilize thousands of athletes,” he said. “The next time there’s a Hurricane Katrina or a catastrophe in a place like Haiti, the ability to communicate with and mobilize thousands of athletes will make a difference.”

His long-term goal is even more ambitious: to weave a sense of community responsibility into the fabric of youth sports. He’d like every Little League or Pop Warner season to include some service component, and for high school teams to volunteer regularly. That program is being rolled out this summer in six markets in anticipation of a national launch in 2011.

If it works, the next generation of major leaguers won’t need to see Muhammad Ali — or even Ivan Blumberg — to understand and appreciate the opportunities they have to make a positive impact on ordinary lives; they’ll have been doing it since childhood. “We believe that within a decade we’ll have moved the needle on that significantly,” Blumberg said. “Ultimately, we hope, it will be part of every sports team’s DNA.”

Bruce Schoenfeld is a writer in Colorado.

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