There is a ubiquitous shot on Thanksgiving weekend football coverage showing teams celebrating the holiday by giving back to their communities. Be it serving a meal, donating time, or visiting service members, it’s the rare televised example of charitable giving and humanity, sometimes awash in a sea of criticism and negativity. Some events get great attention, like Cam Newton’s annual Thanksgiving Jam, which feeds 1,200. Some happen under the radar and only come to light later, like Mookie Betts delivering meals to the needy after Game 2 of the World Series.
Players and teams alike have their own initiatives. The New York Knicks provided over 250 Thanksgiving meals to families in need from the NYC Department of Homeless Services yesterday. The New York Rangers will have a similar event Dec. 4 for the Supportive Children’s Advocacy Network. Both are part of The Garden of Dreams Foundation, a non-profit organization that works with The Madison Square Garden Company and MSG Networks to help children facing obstacles.
New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman slept on the streets of Manhattan to raise awareness for youth homelessness. Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon had his own turkey giveaway yesterday.
The Chicago Bears organization donated $813,850 to five local social justice organizations (By the Hand Club for Kids, Kicks 4 the City, SAGA, YWCA Lake County and My Block, My Hood, My City). They are the first team to take advantage of the NFL’s social justice initiative. The NFL Players Association has four charitable partners (St. Jude’s Hospital, Fisher House, Wounded Warrior Project, and Active Minds).
It’s natural that focus turns to these efforts around this time of year. The season facilitates a spirit of giving. But in speaking to some of those in professional sports who spearhead charity, it’s clear that this is something that takes place throughout the calendar.
“We understand that those holidays are important but there’s things outside of the holidays that people are still in need, they’re still hurting and hungry,” Bears linebacker Sam Acho said. “So what we try to do is spend our time throughout the year with who are poor or oppressed or hurting.”
Acho, who said his background of service was formed by his missionary parents, saw the impact he could have early on in his professional career by observing the actions of veterans on the Arizona Cardinals, like Larry Fitzgerald, Adrian Wilson, Carson Palmer, and Calais Campbell.
“There were so many veterans, Pro Bowlers, making tons of money yet on our off days, they’re waking up at 6 a.m. to feed the homeless and no one knows about it. I saw a correlation between success and serving, and I said ‘that’s got to be the secret.’ Some of the best players I’ve been around have been the best servants.”
“People [in the community] care about more than just football, that’s what get’s people really excited,” he said. “But it’s cool to see people care about what you do off the field as well.”
“If the public doesn’t hear about it then they think it just didn’t happen,” NFLPA communications manager Brandon Parker said. “Some of these guys go out of their way to to make sure it doesn’t get reported because they don’t want it to be seen as ‘they’re doing it for publicity.’ They want the heart of it to come through, they want to help out people.”
“I’d say 90 percent of what players do to help out goes unreported or under-reported,” he said, adding that most players wouldn’t have it any other way as long as their passions and causes are being addressed.
Parker said that many players’ experience with tough economic situations growing up propels them to address those struggling as soon as they’re capable.
“The first thing you see when they get their contract is they’re looking for ways to not only help out their own families but they’re looking to help out the people back in their own communities.”
This is just the tip of the iceberg, which is a good way to think it, and something to think about when the reliable television bumper makes an appearance this weekend. The athletes are out there doing work — and actual good — whether you see it or not.
It’s easy to forget that, or not think about it at all. It’s easy to fall into the trap of a cynic, thinking they are doing it for the exposure or public relations. Perhaps that energy is better channeled by letting it be a catalyst for greater good. This time of year and every other month.