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Volume 22 No. 44
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Big leagues, big support: Causes they care about

Josef Martinez of Atlanta United showed off support for one of MLS’s signature programs.
Photo: getty images
Josef Martinez of Atlanta United showed off support for one of MLS’s signature programs.
Photo: getty images
Josef Martinez of Atlanta United showed off support for one of MLS’s signature programs.
Photo: getty images

The biggest team sports leagues in North America are increasingly making corporate social responsibility a greater part of their mission. While each has multiple programs they are engaged with at any one time, we asked each league to highlight a program or two in particular that are having the desired impact.

MLB

The MLB All-Star Game goes to Los Angeles next summer, and it is MLB Vice President of Social Responsibility Melanie LeGrande’s job to ensure that when the final out has been played, the event’s influence will continue. Enter MLB’s All-Star Legacy program, founded in Cleveland in 1997. In 2020, MLB and the Dodgers will partner to contribute approximately $5 million to community enrichment projects that will affect thousands in the greater Los Angeles area.

MLB focuses on brick-and-mortar facilities, renovations and refurbishments, typically partnering with the Boys & Girls Club to promote youth baseball and softball and with local military charities to provide updated facilities for veterans. They also support initiatives chosen by the local club, like mobile vision and dental vans, making sure kids have access to vision tests, glasses and good oral hygiene.

In July at the 2019 All-Star Game in Cleveland, MLB renovated a playground, named for Indians legend Larry Doby, that they had built during the All-Star Legacy program’s kickoff year. They also built a digital arts suite, complete with a music studio and 3D printing lab, at a local school, and turned a single-family home at Baldwin Wallace University into a newly renovated Student Veterans Center. Los Angeles projects will be announced in April.

“Each All-Star Legacy initiative is a 12- to 18-month process of engaging the host club, deciding how much money to invest and what kinds of projects to support,” LeGrande said. “We like to make sure the club has a say, so our work will matter to the staff and local elected officials.”

LeGrande’s department is just three people strong, so they work hand-in-hand with partners on the ground, but they are involved in the tiniest of day-to-day decisions, from paint and carpet colors to the type of technology installed on donated computers.

“We always know we’re going into a club that is very committed,” LeGrande said. “All that changes is what we do and where we do it.”

MLS

This September marks the sixth year that Major League Soccer will turn its focus to tackling pediatric cancer through its Kick Childhood Cancer initiative. Throughout the month, the league will be “going gold,” as teams use golden soccer balls and wear gold-accented apparel to benefit the Children’s Oncology Group Foundation.

Kick Childhood Cancer originated in 2013, after MLS President and Chief Administrative Officer JoAnn Neale and the rest of her four-person team at MLS WORKS realized just how many of the league’s teams were already working with children’s hospitals. All of them, to be exact.

Kevin Love has helped spread awareness about mental health among athletes, a banner taken up by a new NBA Cares platform.
Photo: getty images
Kevin Love has helped spread awareness about mental health among athletes, a banner taken up by a new NBA Cares platform.
Photo: getty images
Kevin Love has helped spread awareness about mental health among athletes, a banner taken up by a new NBA Cares platform.
Photo: getty images

“They were doing lots of visits to pediatric cancer hospitals and bringing patients to games, so we thought this was an area where we could all align around a partnership and make it something more cohesive,” Neale said. “That’s how it started, and since then, we’ve continued to really grow the element from a national level, but also our clubs can activate and partner with local organizations that are relevant in their community.”

Each of the league’s 24 active clubs will host its own Kick Childhood Cancer game with unique promotions — like wearing apparel customized by patients or shaving the heads of Montreal Impact front-office members during halftime.

“They have the flexibility under the Kick Childhood Cancer umbrella to expand upon and do some unique activations in their own local markets,” Neale said.

As a part of the campaign, FC Dallas signed 10-year-old soccer player Brynn Moore from Diamond Wishes Children’s Charity to a one-day contract with the team on Aug. 31. Moore served as a co-captain for the match against FC Cincinnati. 

Kick Childhood Cancer is one of the four pillars MLS WORKS focuses on throughout the year. The others include Greener Goals, a campaign in April focusing on environmental issues throughout the soccer community; Soccer For All, an initiative spanning from May to June that emphasizes diversity and inclusion in the sport; and a number of youth enrichment programs. — Zach Goins

NBA

“Your mental health matters.” 

That was the message of an April 2018 PSA released by the NBA and featuring Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan and Cavaliers forward Kevin Love, both of whom had spoken recently about their own battles with depression and anxiety. “Everyone walks around with something that you can’t see,” Love said. “The best thing that I did was to come out and say, hey, I need some help.”

To provide that help for its players, the NBA now requires each team to have one mental-health professional on staff and to have a written action plan for mental-health emergencies.

To provide help for the public, a new mental health platform, entitled NBA Mind Health, now sits under NBA Cares, which has been the league’s primary social responsibility platform since 2005. The NBA has partnered with the JED Foundation, which is focused on mental health and suicide prevention in teens and young adults, and with the mindfulness app Headspace to provide meditation and mindfulness training to all NBA players and league and team employees. In addition, NBA fans can get 30 days of Headspace for free with the code “NBA.”

Mental health programming also has been integrated into the Jr. NBA and NBA FIT programs. At the Jr. NBA Global Championship in August, which featured teams from 35 countries, the NBA included programming about depression, stress and anxiety. The league’s Rookie Transition Program also now places a greater emphasis on mental health.

“Some of the stigma around mental health comes from standalone programs, so we want it embedded in our general health programming,” said Todd Jacobson, NBA senior vice president of social responsibility. “If the doctor asked you questions about your mental health during your regular physical, we wouldn’t treat it so differently. It’s just like a sprained ankle, and it requires treatment immediately.”

The NFL held a Huddle Against Hunger at the draft in April as part of its effort to inspire 100 million minutes of volunteer service this season.
Photo: courtesy of nfl
The NFL held a Huddle Against Hunger at the draft in April as part of its effort to inspire 100 million minutes of volunteer service this season.
Photo: courtesy of nfl
The NFL held a Huddle Against Hunger at the draft in April as part of its effort to inspire 100 million minutes of volunteer service this season.
Photo: courtesy of nfl

NFL

In honor of its 100th season, the NFL is inviting fans to partner with them, players and teams in an initiative called Huddle for 100, with the goal of inspiring 100 million minutes of volunteer service. Fans choose any cause that resonates with them, donate 100 minutes of their time, then share their volunteer experience with the hashtag #NFLHuddlefor100 to ensure their minutes count.

“This is a very large-scale project, and it’s very different than many of the programs we work on, mainly because it is cause-inclusive,” said Anna Isaacson, NFL vice president of social responsibility. “We spend a lot of our time on social justice, military support and fighting cancer, but the Huddle for 100 welcomes all causes.”

While a personal Huddle with one’s charity of choice is the easiest way to volunteer, the NFL will be holding national Huddles; the first, the Huddle Against Hunger, at the draft in Nashville, was a statewide food drive and food packaging event aimed toward fighting hunger in Tennessee. All 32 teams will be organizing local Huddles and the league has partnered with DoSomething.org, an online platform that guides young people in giving back through volunteer service, which will create four Do Something Huddles. The initiative will run through Super Bowl LIV in Miami on Feb. 2, 2020.

Isaacson’s team is managing Huddle for 100 with help from all NFL departments and clubs. It’s also the first time the NFL’s social responsibility department has partnered with an outside agency to ensure program effectiveness. The Philadelphia-based strategic firm Athena Global Advisors is handling everything on the initiative’s back end and ensuring all minutes are counted, but there are no monetary goals for the campaign.

“It is a one-year project focused on rallying our fans to give back, but we didn’t want to ask our fans for money. Huddle for 100 is something we can all do together across the country in a unifying way.”

NHL

Hockey Fights Cancer is the NHL’s longest-standing signature cause marketing campaign. Founded in December 1998 with initial donations of $50,000 from both the NHL and NHLPA, the program was officially introduced at the 1999 All-Star Game in Tampa. The initial goal had been to raise $500,000 by that All-Star press conference, but with the help of teams, players and sponsors, Hockey Fights Cancer raised more than $900,000 by January 1999.

Now, entering its 21st year, Hockey Fights Cancer has partnered with both the American Cancer Society and Canadian Cancer society and has raised over $20 million to support the families of those battling the disease. “Hockey Fights Cancer has been fully embraced by every club in the league and has extended to merchandise and fundraising support,” said Kim Davis, the NHL’s executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs. “It has created a pretty significant brand in the hockey community, not just at the NHL level but up and down the hockey spine.”

Davis’ three-person staff helps clubs manage a monthlong activation each November during which every team hosts a Hockey Fights Cancer Awareness Night. Players wear lavender jerseys and fans can buy lavender gear, hold up “I FIGHT FOR” placards and share their own stories on social media with the #HockeyFightsCancer hashtag.

“When you’re able to find a cause people can really relate to and feel passionate about, it makes for a very successful cause-marketing campaign,” said Davis.