Superior Motives for Giving
Prestige may not be the only reason so many athletes are practicing philanthropy these days.“There is a spiritual sense that is innate in folks and when it comes out it sort of moves you in the right way,” says Dr. J. Keith Motley, dean of student services at Northeastern University. “You know how athletes get in this zone where they can’t miss and every aspect of their game just seems comfortable? Well, that stuff happens off the court, too. Athletes understand that connection.”Motley is a former Northeastern basketball coach and player. He also was an assistant dean in the Office of Minority Affairs, so not only was he former team captain Reggie Lewis’ coach, he was also Lewis’ boss for his work-study requirements. And, he is the man who convinced Lewis to take his old number 35 because he knew Lewis would make it into the university’s Hall of Fame and he wanted to see his number retired. That was before he ever imagined that he too would become a member of the university’s Hall of Fame, as would former National Football League player Sean Jones.“These athletes bring dignity to their job and they bring dignity to their giving. The way to stay connected to that is to be righteous and to maintain that spiritual sense,” Motley says. “[Reggie Lewis] was a very spiritual, family type of guy.”Portland Trailblazers guard Steve Smith, who had a Michigan State academic center named for his mother, brought a touch of that spirituality to the dedication ceremony of the Clara Bell Smith Center.“It’s a happy and sad day. It’s good that [the center] is opening up for student academics, but the sad thing is my mom is not here to see it,” he said at the time. “She’s still here in spirit.”Dr. Tom Kowalski, director of student athlete enhancement programs at DePaul University, has another take on the subject. For many, there is a very personal element to the giving. Take Warrick Dunn of the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who uses his money to build housing for single mothers.“His mom died when he was growing up. She was raising, I think it was, 10 kids on her own and when she died, he had to take care of them. I think he developed an appreciation for what his mother went through,” says Kowalski, who is also director of the Midwest region of the National Conference for Academics and Sports.And there is another trend Kowalski has noticed that dovetails with the increase in giving by professional athletes.“Sixty-five percent of the players in the NFL and the [National Basketball Association] are sociology majors. Remember when it used to be physical education or maybe business?” recalls Kowalski, who says that he has reviewed 80 percent of the college transcripts of professional athletes. “Now does that mean that they are more concerned with what is happening in society?” He leaves the query unanswered. “More of these guys than not want to be perceived as good guys and as doing good things for the community.”Smith’s comments at the dedication ceremony at Michigan State speak to the reasons many athletes believe it is important to include institutions of higher education in their giving.“I did this also to encourage everybody, not only as an athlete, to give back to the community,” he said, asserting that giving back is the only way the quality of the university and education can improve.
— Eric St. John
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