Some African-American athletes believe they have a duty to use the money they make to give back to the community.
By ROGER MILLS, Times Staff Writer
Published February 29, 2004
TAMPA - It is not enough, Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks said, just to pose for a photo, kiss a sick child or sign an occasional check.
Those are superficial gestures.
For Brooks - and other African-American professional athletes - the real commitment to give back to the community and, in particular, the black community, goes much deeper.
The motivation, Brooks said, should be desire and obligation.
"I don't want people to get my message mixed up," said Brooks, whose philanthropic endeavors have earned him state and national recognition. "I never wanted to be considered one that wrote a check or gave tickets away and you never saw me again. ... My program (Brooks Bunch) is a time-invested program, not a money-invested program."
Today is the final day of Black History Month, a tradition aimed at honoring African-American pioneers whose brilliance and dedication have impacted modern life.
To be certain, black professional athletes have and will continue to be part of that tradition. Right or wrong, they routinely will be measured as much by what they do on the field as by their actions and influence off it.
"I applaud the efforts of people like Derrick Brooks," said Delano Stewart, a prominent black leader and co-founder of the Tampa Organization of Black Affairs. "But I scold (the others) who have done nothing. We shouldn't have to harangue them for (donations).
"Our society as a whole is about looking out for No. 1. We have become greedy and selfish because of the capitalist nature of our lives. Those who give back are in the minority, not the majority."
Scathing as Stewart's comments seem, they reflect a longstanding sentiment in the black community: Black athletes are measured by the degree to which they give back.
"Among blacks, there is a deep sense of community," said Trevor Purcell, chairman of the Department of Africana Studies at South Florida. "The idea is that each member does not live only for oneself, but for the community. It is a tradition that goes deep in black American history (and back as far as African history). We're not defined as an individual, but as part of a society.
"There is a sense that if you do well, you do have an obligation to give back. If you do, you're accepted. If you don't, you're open to alienation."
Some understand that role and embrace it.
Bucs defensive tackle Anthony McFarland, who signed a five-year, $34-million contract extension in August, is entering the fourth year of his Booger's Bucs Can Wait program, aimed at encouraging middle and high schoolers to make informed decisions.
McFarland, 26, who recently spoke at a Children's Day Rally in Pinellas Park, said he is determined to make a difference.
"It's not that it's a mandatory thing, but a lot of guys that are leaning toward doing it do it out of the goodness of their hearts," McFarland said. "You've got to be able to take all the heat and then show what good you've been doing in the community. It's really up to us."
Just 22, Devil Rays outfielder Carl Crawford is blossoming into one of baseball's future stars. Entering his second full season in the big leagues, Crawford said he looks forward to becoming a person of influence in the black community.
"I do feel I'm obligated to do well to represent black people," he said. "We should all want to go out and play hard. When I go out and play hard, I can open doors for people behind me. From the area I'm from (in Houston), no one is going to go over there looking for talent, and there's probably all kinds of talent over there. It's up to me to perform well so that others will want to go there to look for talent."
Tampa resident James Blake, the most prominent African-American on the men's tennis tour, is deeply dedicated to the Harlem Junior Tennis Program, where he learned the game, and Shriners Hospitals, where he spent time as a child suffering from scoliosis.
"A lot of it is personal connections, and I feel very personally attached to these causes," Blake said. "With the efforts of Venus and Serena (Williams), we're trying to make a difference in the African-American community. To hear that there are so many who don't care is disturbing. Sometimes, it's not really that they don't care, but more that they don't realize what impact they have and how they can make a difference."
According to a study conducted by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, a University of Central Florida think tank that tracks the number of minorities in major sports, entering 2003, African-American athletes accounted for 78 percent of the NBA and 65 percent of the NFL, the two sports with the greatest following in the black community.
The overwhelming numbers, many believe, have contributed to high expectations and condemnation toward those who don't meet them.
"In the American context, where individualism marks the society, people will argue those expectations are too great," Purcell said. "In the black community, those expectations are too low. My sense is that if African-Americans want to maintain the sense of community, then our athletes have to contribute."
But are such expectations fair?
Women's tennis player Chanda Rubin, whose foundation, based in Lafayette, La., promotes youth tennis by sponsoring tournaments across the country, said her motivation isn't duty, but desire.
"For me, it's about personal feelings and journeys," Rubin said. "I don't feel any obligation because the black community has made me feel so. First and foremost, the way I'm looked on is based on the work I have put in. It's a pleasure to be able to do things I feel strongly about."
Magic guard Tracy McGrady, in the midst of a seven-year, $94-million contract, grew up in modest conditions in Auburndale and knows the rarity of his journey from an unknown to a person of tremendous influence.
McGrady said, like it or not, black professional athletes must acknowledge and live up to the expectations that come with status.
"It's not that it's fair. It's just how society is," McGrady said. "We have to deal with it. I feel like it's my job. It's my obligation. The truth is, I want to try to make a difference. I was the kid looking up trying to meet guys like Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan.
"I wondered what it would be like to be in their shoes. Now that I'm here, I want to be there for the little kids who want to be like me. It's only right that I do that."
Brooks, who has taken youngsters from the Belmont Heights and Ybor City Boys & Girls Clubs on educational trips across the country and to South Africa, said he embraces an even deeper burden.
"No. 1, we should be obligated to our families, our own sons and daughters," he said. "My first obligation is to raise productive kids. They are my lineage, my top priority. Then you can become a messenger to young African-American boys and girls."
Former NBA great Charles Barkley riled America in 1993 with his statement that professional athletes should not be considered role models, a designation left for parents. But while such a stand appears to be the unpopular view among black athletes, embracing role-model status does come with important distinctions.
"You are in the position of being a role model, so be the best you can," said Brooks, who earned a master's degree in business communication at Florida State. "I'm not encouraging people to put athletes or celebrities on any type of pedestal because we are human and we do make mistakes.
"That's why I spend time around these kids. They see me as a person and not see me as an idol. They can see when I'm walking, I trip over my feet and fall. They can see my emotion, see me getting upset when things aren't going right. They can see how happy I get when things are great."
Falcons running back Warrick Dunn, who spent five seasons with the Bucs, has been largely recognized as one of sports' most generous personalities. Dunn's Homes for the Holiday program, which provides the down payment and start-up furnishings for homes for single mothers, has put 45 families, including 120 children, in homes in the bay area, Atlanta and Baton Rouge, La.
"African-American kids today only see one side, and that's the money, the cars, the jewelry, certain lifestyles that everybody wants to live," Dunn said. "Sometimes, they forget that everyone can't live like that, that most of us need a helping hand. It's important to show that even though you have money and (influence), you're willing to try to help somebody else live a better life."
But Dunn, who is entering the third year of a six-year, $28-million contract, said the black athlete is measured by a different grading system.
"It's not fair," he said. "I don't think we look at white athletes the same way. Some don't do nearly as much as the African-American athletes. White athletes are not hyped up to live up to the same standards. The added pressure is on African-American athletes to go out and live certain ways and do certain things and to have that persona that I don't think white athletes have to deal with."
Rubin, 28, agrees.
"I think, in some ways, the black community puts different criteria on black athletes than white," she said. "Sometimes, we're harder on ourselves than on others. If something is done positively by a white athlete, much more is still made out of it. As opposed to if something is done (negatively) by a black athlete, much more is made of that."
In a similar vein, the black athlete appears more likely to face open criticism for a lack of financial, social and political support for his community once his career ends.
McGrady said there is good reason for the criticism.
"Magic (Johnson) is a prime example of someone who is doing a phenomenal job of giving back and being involved in the community (politically and financially)," McGrady said. "You have to respect the guy like that. But he might be one of the exceptions. Why can't we all be like that? We are all fortunate enough to have the things and do the things that he's doing. So why can't we just take what he's doing and do it in our own community?
While legends such as Johnson, Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali and Arthur Ashe parlayed their popularity into influential postretirement careers, it seems as if the vast majority of black athletes quietly slip away.
"Most black athletes have been taught, from when we were young, to get ours," the Rays' Crawford said. "No one's going to give me anything, so I have to get mine for myself.
"It's kind of like a selfish thing. It's like, "I have mine, so I'm set.' ... But coming from a background of not having anything is humbling. ... I don't want kids growing up feeling the same way. I'm going to try to help."
Part of the problem, critics say, is a distancing between the black athletes and their original communities.
"They are tied to neighborhoods that are not tied to the black community," USF's Purcell said. "They are living in areas that have very few black people. When their careers are over, they can't go back into the black community because they have very little in common with it."
The other issue is education. With more and more athletes forgoing college for pro riches, Purcell said athletes in general are missing a key ingredient that could make them formidable community leaders.
"Look at the people who have been prominent socially. They are people who have excelled educationally in some capacity," Purcell said. "Arthur Ashe was a scholar. Ali was a scholar (in his own way). The athletes don't see education as being important for themselves and their community."
Rubin, whose father is a judge and mother a retired teacher, said the lack of knowledge must be addressed:
"A lot of them are very young, and all of a sudden, you're putting money in their hands. And they are not as educated as others. It's a totally different terrain. There are a lot of guys who don't even know the history. They don't understand what many former athletes lived through, the issues, civil rights."
The bottom line, Blake said, is giving back shouldn't be an issue.
"At least not for anyone who has been fortunate to have a career that's lucrative," Blake said. "It is magnified a bit in the African-American community, where we don't have as many CEOs of companies and other professionals like that.
"But what I say is that without pressure, there is no opportunity. Sometimes, pressure is a good thing."
[Last modified February 29, 2004, 01:15:11]
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