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When Sports Really Matter: The Athletics & Philanthropy Connection

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge made headlines for "going viral" on social media sites, raising awareness of the neurodegenerative disease, and bringing in over $80 million in donations. ALS is much easier to say than its non-abbreviated name, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. And it is much easier to talk about while we smile as chilly water is dumped on our suspecting heads.


ALS is also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Gehrig was nicknamed “The Iron Horse” for his historic durability as a major league baseball player, playing in 2,130 consecutive games. For those less familiar with his baseball stats, he is best known for referring to himself as "the luckiest man on the face of the earth," as he was dying. Very few Americans had heard about ALS prior to Gehrig's illness. When he died before reaching age 38, he was younger than many sports superstars today, including Peyton Manning, Tiger Woods, Tim Duncan, and Derek Jeter.


Gehrig brought prominence to ALS and it now bears his name. Undoubtedly, Gehrig's experience with ALS and his death significantly elevated the public's awareness and funding for ALS research.


There is a strong connection between sports and philanthropic efforts related to researching, fighting, and curing disease.


Athletes have changed the way we think about and contribute to causes.


Gehrig undoubtedly transformed the public’s view of ALS. A more recent example of a sports star altering the common perception of a disease is NBA legend Earvin "Magic" Johnson and his management of HIV over nearly 23 years. Kevin Frost, CEO of amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research, said, "It made people notice, for the first time, that you can get infected with HIV without being gay, without being a drug user, without being a sex worker... A lot of people took notice, and that changed the perception of how people got infected, and who was at risk.” Magic has shown that anyone is susceptible to HIV/AIDS and that is it possible to live a long, successful, and active life in spite of being HIV-positive. The Magic Johnson Foundation has contributed to HIV/AIDS awareness, prevention, testing, and treatment for over two decades.


There are other stars who have brought attention to a cause following their first-hand experience, such as Muhammad Ali’s activism for Parkinson’s disease research, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s advocacy for leukemia-awareness, and Martina Navratilova’s inspiring battle with breast cancer.


Charitable sporting events motivate us to donate, fundraise, and participate.


Long before I jumped head-first into long-distance running in my 30s, I ran in an annual breast cancer research fundraising 5K in Washington, DC. Even after I had moved out of the DC-metro area, I would make a special trip down to the nation’s capital for the early-morning race. It was a feel-good event, with tens of thousands of participants and a chance to get some exercise while raising a lot of money for a good cause. I didn’t run any other 5K races during that period. So why was I so committed to this one? It turns out that I’m not alone.


A 2007 UK study entitled Motivations for Participating in Charity-Affiliated Sporting Events found that the main motives driving participation are not related to the actual cause. While “personal involvement with the cause” was one of the primary motivations, taking part in an active, healthy event, interest in the event’s specific sport, and interacting socially with other attendees, were also primary factors. There are many cause-based athletic events… from road walks and races, to spin challenges, to bike rides, and even dog sled treks.


I wouldn't have run the Boston or New York marathons without the option of entering as part of a charity program. Just last month, I didn’t win a lottery spot in October’s Boston half-marathon, and I registered to raise money for the Dana Farber Cancer Institute so I can participate in the race. Would I have signed up to fundraise for a charity without the benefit of getting into this race? I wish I could answer “yes,” but the truth is I wouldn’t have.


There’s a direct link between popular competitive sports and giving.


The V Foundation for Cancer Research is named for NCAA championship college coach and broadcaster Jim Valvano, who battled bone cancer and died two months after giving an inspiring speech at the 1993 ESPYs, where he famously implored: “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.” The NFL has “A Crucial Catch” campaign, better known as NFL Pink, which supports annual breast cancer screenings in partnership with the American Cancer Society. Each October, the NFL features players, coaches, and referees dressed in pink game apparel to increase awareness of the cause. Why is there such a direct link? Sports are about overcoming obstacles and working together to accomplish a common goal… it’s very similar to fighting a disease. It takes a concerted effort, it’s not easy, and there are clear milestones for success.


Although the precise origin of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is debatable, it's no surprise that sports have played an integral part in initiating its momentum. Professional athletes began to challenge one another to donate to charity or get doused with icy water. Golfer Chris Kennedy was the first to target ALS, and he was followed by Pete Frates, a former college baseball player (who has ALS), who challenged others. Four weeks later, here we are... A wetter, colder, and more aware group of philanthropists.


We'd love to hear about your experiences with sports and philanthropy. Comment below, on our Facebook page at, or tweet us at @flytefitness.


Be Flyte Fit,


Jeremy Greenberg

Co-Founder & CEO
Flyte Fitness

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