Group seeks to amplify Athletes’ Voices
Torrey Smith played in the Super Bowl twice during his eight-year NFL career, scored 41 career touchdowns, was nominated for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award and started the Torrey Smith Family Fund to work toward a more equitable society. But even Smith, a Black man, has had guns drawn on him by law enforcement on three separate occasions.
“I’m a guy that people considered clean-cut,” he said. “Well, it’s happened to me.”
Those experiences lend an unfortunate authenticity to Smith’s activism against systemic racism. That authenticity is key for athlete activists and something that Smith will underscore to those who join a new group that first gathered this summer called Athletes’ Voices.
The group will bring athletes together with leaders from business, philanthropic groups and Harvard academics to equip athletes with the tools and knowledge they need to effectively promote causes and combat societal issues of the athletes’ choosing.
“In today’s political climate, there is a lot of chaos and a lack of empathy in leadership,” said Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who is on the group’s athlete advisory council alongside Smith. “I think it’s important that we don’t just sit back and let things happen without speaking up and being a voice for change.”
Athletes' Voices Athlete Advisory Council■ Pau Gasol, NBA
Joanne Pasternack, the president and chief impact officer at the Oliver + Rose consultancy, is one of the creators of Athletes’ Voices. Her time working in community impact positions with the San Francisco 49ers and Golden State Warriors showed both the potential, and the limits, of the ways athletes’ names and brands are put to work for charitable efforts. One goal of Athletes’ Voices is to replace photo opportunities with more sustained efforts that lead to long-term positive impact.
“You can stand up and shout from the rooftop about a cause,” said Pasternack, “but without any action coming from it — leadership, movement and the effects that come from that — what are we actually creating in terms of momentum around a movement?”
Smith added that “it’s not enough to throw your money at a project or just show up and be there and be gone tomorrow.”
The plan, if COVID allows, is for 50 athletes to enroll in a certificate course next summer at Harvard. The 50 will first go through a screening helping them zero in on the cause or issue they want to tackle — Pasternack made clear that Athletes’ Voices is politically and cause agnostic. Harvard will then pair the athlete with its experts and academics, ensuring that they have a foundational understanding of the cause or issue.
“Gaining knowledge depth is important in thinking about how to deal with particular political issues or social issues,” said Stephen Ortega, head of the Global Sports Initiative at Harvard. “The partnership gives us a little more visibility for some of the work we’re doing and having that sort of scholarly research helps the athletes out in their quests.”
Organizers are still determining the cost for the certification course but scholarships and sponsors will help offset some of the costs. The application window will open in mid-January.
Pitch for Change Speaker SeriesAthletes’ Voices is holding two Zoom webinars in October, both open to the public.
Athletes’ Voices also leans on a philanthropic impact advisory council drawing from the corporate and philanthropic realms, ranging from Gibson Guitars and LinkedIn to Pixar and Deloitte. That council includes Caryl Stern, CEO of the Walton Family Foundation and former president and CEO of UNICEF USA. She’ll never forget when NBA player Samuel Dalembert handed her a $100,000 check for the Haiti earthquake relief effort during halftime of a Philadelphia 76ers game in 2010. Dalembert only spoke for a minute about what it meant to help his home country rebuild, but UNICEF had its biggest fundraising night of the entire earthquake response that night.
“In order to get the public to see the need, you need a voice they will hear and that they will respond to,” said Stern, “and that’s what is exciting about [Athletes’ Voices].”