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Volume 21 No. 26
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When disasters hit, who helps athletes help?

“Do you see what’s going on?”

Wasserman’s Greg Lawrence can’t remember who said it. Maybe it was him, or maybe it was Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson. It was during a phone coversation between the agent and his client on an early October morning as wildfires were spreading all over Northern California, forcing residents from their homes.

“Klay said, ‘I really want to do something. Can we do something?’” Lawrence related.

A few days later, with the help of the digital and marketing teams at Los Angeles-based Wasserman, they had a plan.

Lawrence is not alone. Agents, players unions and others who work with athletes across the U.S., have similar stories.

They took action, without much of a template to work from, when a startling string of natural disasters hit, starting in August with Hurricane Harvey in Texas and continuing with Hurricanes Irma in the Caribbean and Florida, Hurricane Maria right behind it in the Caribbean and the California fires.

Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt drew national attention for his efforts to help Harvey’s victims in Houston. Watt, who started with a goal of raising $200,000, has crossed the $37 million mark, an astonishing figure that has received credit from all of society.

Watt and the other athletes have responded to the emergencies in innovative and personal ways, nearly always with the help of those who support them.

J.J. Watt became the face of athletes’ relief efforts after a recent string of natural disasters.
The Warriors’ Thompson came up with an idea of pledging $1,000 for every point he scored at Golden State’s three-game home stand later that month, and asking others to match.

He scored 69 points in three games from Oct. 25 through Oct. 29, and, with matches from his sponsors, like Chinese shoe company Anta, as well as small donations from fans, he raised $362,317 for the Redwood Credit Union North Bay Fire Relief Fund.

Finding the right charity to receive the money “was the most time-consuming thing,” Lawrence said. “We called firehouses. We called firemen.”

“It’s been an extraordinarily busy time,” said Sherrie Deans, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the NBA players union. “Harvey was an all-hands-on-deck. And it was the first of the three. … By the time Maria hit, we felt like we had been through a three-week storm.”

The NBPA and the NBPA Foundation fielded a raft of inquiries from NBA players who wanted to help victims of the disasters. “Hard to say how many calls we got,” Deans said. “Dozens is about as accurate as I can be.”

Deans and other NBPA Foundation staff helped the players find legitimate charities and matched their donations up to $20,000.

Separately, the NBPA Foundation made its own donations of $500,000 when Harvey first hit, and then increased it to $750,000 when Irma and Maria hit.

The Warriors’ Klay Thompson went online with his effort to raise funds for victims of the Northern California wildfires.
At the MLB Players Association, that union’s charitable arm, the Players’ Trust, donated $1 million toward disaster relief efforts. The first thing the MLBPA did when Harvey hit was send out a notice of “the do’s and don’ts” of charitable giving to all of the union’s members, said Leonor Colon, director of player operations. Colon and others interviewed said players want to be sure that donated money gets to the victims.

Colon has worked long days talking to more than 50 MLB players and more than 25 organizations, including helping players vet organizations assisting in disaster efforts.

“I have never seen a time like this, I don’t think anyone has,” she said. The MLBPA will match players’ donations to charities up to $5,000 each.

Because so many MLB players hail from Puerto Rico, the MLBPA sent five members of its own staff there after Maria hit. As of last week, the Hurricane was estimated to have caused at least 51 deaths and an estimated $72 billion in damage.

The MLBPA sent 1.5 million pounds of food, water and supplies to the island, accompanied by former MLBers and Puerto Rico natives Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez and Luis Alicea.

The hurricanes made landfall during the MLB season, and players were not able to do as much as they wanted to help victims, Colon said. Now that MLB is in the offseason, players are talking to the union about doing more. The union recently announced it would host a pair of events in Dallas on Nov. 29 featuring more than 50 current and former players to benefit victims of the disasters.

“I was really overwhelmed by the amount of support that our players gave to all of those affected,” Colon said. “It was like they weren’t even thinking about it. They were writing checks all over the place. It was something I have never seen before.”

Sports agencies all over the country were experiencing the same thing.

When Hurricane Irma devastated the Virgin Islands, Tandem Sports & Entertainment helped longtime client Tim Duncan, who was born in St. Croix, with his relief efforts. Tandem President Jim Tanner, Duncan’s longtime agent, reached out to Grizzlies Director Joe Abadi, who made an introduction to Memphis-based FedEx, which provided planes to fly relief supplies there. Tandem’s senior vice president of communications, Meredith Geisler, helped persuade the social media-shy Duncan, who does not have a Facebook or Twitter account, to publish a letter on The Players’ Tribune.

In the piece, which ran with the headline “Don’t Forget About the Islands,” Duncan asked for donations and agreed to match them himself, up to $1 million. So far, more than $3 million has been raised.

“Tim Duncan was the first athlete who came to us, and Carmelo Anthony, Jorge Posada and others followed,” TPT President Jaymee Messler said. The media company helped those three — Anthony and Posada were focused on providing assistance to Puerto Rico, while Duncan was helping the Virgin Islands — and others get out their message.

Tim Duncan asked readers of The Players’ Tribune to remember the Virgin Islands.
TPT has helped athletes with fundraising campaigns before. For example, it helped NBA player Jeff Green create a donation page to raise money for the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. But the media company had several months to get that done.

“For cause-related content that is a response to a disaster or tragedy, the biggest obstacle is timing and the ability to react quickly,” Messler said. “You can’t plan for a natural disaster and it takes time to set up a fund, donation page and potential nonprofit partner. That being said, we now have a robust template in place that allows us to react quickly to these types of events and circumstances.”

Many, if not most, professional athletes have a cause that they donate to on a regular basis, but Watt’s quick action and efforts in Houston inspired other athletes across sports to help out victims of Harvey and other ensuing disasters, agents said.

Watt got assistance from his foundation, the Texans, mother Connie and people across Creative Artists Agency, including people at the CAA Foundation and CAA Sports, where he is a client.

“The sports community is a community of giving, and athletes are encouraged very early on to give back,” said Natalie Tran, CAA Foundation co-director.

When Harvey hit, the CAA Foundation called on the people at SBP (formerly St. Bernard Project) to help CAA Sports client and PGA Tour player Patrick Reed, a Houston native, raise funds for hurricane and flood relief, said the foundation’s Fran Glasenberg. They came up with a plan in coordination with the Team Reed Foundation to contribute funds based on how many birdies and eagles he hit at the Dell Technologies Championship Aug. 31-Sept. 3 near Boston. The golfer’s sponsors, including Callaway Golf, Hublot, EMoney, Ultimate Software, the European Tour and TaxSlayer, among others, also pledged their support. The effort raised more than $110,000 for SBP.

Meanwhile, Excel Sports Management client Hector Santiago, who pitched for the Minnesota Twins last season but is now a free agent, has been a one-man army trying to help people ship supplies to Puerto Rico.

“Hector got the word out that he was going to pay for the shipment of some goods and services, and people sent all kinds of supplies to his dad’s home in New Jersey,” said Greg Bouris, MLBPA director of communications. “He paid for a cargo shipment to Puerto Rico. He personally rolled up his sleeves and was distributing these things.”

Other people throughout sports, both athletes and agents, came up with plans to help on the spur of the moment.

Athletes First, an agency that represents more than 100 NFL players, hosted a carnival-style party in October at its headquarters in Laguna Hills, Calif. It collected 18,000 pounds of furniture, home appliances and other supplies that were given to Goodwill and earmarked for people who lost homes, said Brian Murphy, Athletes First president.

Murphy knows what it is like to lose a home. His house burned to the ground in a California wildfire in the summer of 2016.

Lawrence, the Wasserman agent, loves what athletes are doing to help and how they are doing it.

“The J.J. Watt thing was awesome,” Lawrence said. “What made it so successful was it was J.J. Watt who was doing the videos, saying, ‘Let’s do this!’”

Meanwhile, the Warriors’ Thompson delivered a check for Northern California fire relief, but the story won’t end there. The rebuilding is going to take years, and Thompson is in it for the long haul.

“For Klay, it was really genuine,” Lawrence said. “It was him saying, ‘This is part of our community and they need our help.’”