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At some point over the past two decades, as athletes' salaries skyrocketed to the level of Fortune 500 CEOs, it became standard practice for any self-respecting defensive back or second baseman to start his own charitable foundation. The foundation became an accessory, every bit as vital as the Bentley and the swim-up bar in the pool behind the mansion. Any agent worth his 4 percent demanded it: limited risk, big tax benefits, possible public-relations boost. What's not to like?
Predictably, the athlete's no-brainer decision to "have a charity" -- as the athletes put it -- ignores a question that arises from the public's perspective: Why would you be any more likely to trust their judgment on charity any more than you would on politics or religion or anything other than the sport they play?
In other words, why would you write a check to a cancer-research charity -- or, more correctly, an alleged cancer-research charity -- fronted by Lamar Odom instead of writing one to a longstanding, reputable charity? Why Odom and not the American Cancer Society?
That mystery was heightened by an eye-opening report on Sunday's "Outside the Lines," which found that 74 percent of 115 athlete charities investigated fell short of acceptable nonprofit standards used by the top three charity watchdogs. Odom's charity, named for his mother, who died of cancer when Lamar was 12, was highlighted as one of the most egregious offenders.
"Outside the Lines" investigated the highest-earning and most recognizable athletes from multiple sports who had nonprofits founded in their names. Many don't measure up to what charity experts would say is an efficient, effective use of money. Story »
The report is important for many reasons. Athletes use charities as shields -- nobody wants to question someone's motives, especially if they attach the charity's goal to the eradication of a disease that caused the death of a family member. More important, many people -- people without Bentleys and swim-up bars -- give money to athletes' charities, for predictable reasons: athletes have a forum and a fan base. Put those together, and sometimes strange things happen. People wait in line for hours to get an autograph. People paint their faces. People donate money.
Nobody should exploit that emotional relationship by starting a charity that claims to fund cancer research but instead funds an AAU basketball team. Nobody should, as Baron Davis was found to have done, use his status and influence as a multimillionaire NBA star to raise money for a charity that funneled the money to Davis' personal event-planning business. It's unconscionable, and yet it's also a weirdly natural byproduct of the culture we've created.
None of the money donated to Odom's foundation in eight years was found to have gone to a single cancer entity. Oh, it was advertised that way on his website. And presumably, it was donated that way. But most of the money, at least according to OTL's findings, went toward funding an AAU basketball team ($1.3 million) and paying a current Golden State assistant named Jerry DeGregorio a median salary of about $72,000 a year.
Perhaps the most cringe-worthy moment of the entire report was Odom's pathetic -- and, ultimately, unsuccessful -- attempt to articulate anything about his own charity. He fended off questions with non-answers that evaded both truth and reason.
There's a name for this: It's called graft. Whether the athlete knows about the deception is immaterial. Ignorance isn't a defense. A scam's a scam, and it's about time for a law-enforcement entity to take a look at how athletes are separating unsuspecting folks from their money. It might help the legitimate ones retain their good names.
If you have given or are planning to give to one of these charities, the OTL report on the fraud and inefficiency inherent in the vast majority of charitable foundations linked to athletes should change your mind. And that's sad, because it calls into question many deserving charities -- some run by athletes -- and throws a big cloud over every one of them. Not every athlete starts a charity to give his brother or his old coach a tax-exempt salary, but enough of them do to call all of them into question.
Many of the charities OTL reviewed failed on the basis of inefficiency, usually a failure to file paperwork. I don't know whether CC Sabathia's charity, which passes out backpacks filled with school supplies to underprivileged children in his hometown of Vallejo, Calif., filed the proper paperwork, but I do know you can see the end result: Every fall Sabathia's wife is standing there passing out the backpacks to kids who wouldn't otherwise have them. Giants reliever Jeremy Affeldt joined with an existing foundation -- "Not For Sale" -- and is now the co-chair of a group that fights sex trafficking. It hasn't been around the requisite five years to be rated by Charity Navigator, but when you hear Affeldt speak about it, it has the feel of a true calling. Many athletes do good, selfless work.
But too many do not, and the saddest part is this: That doesn't surprise you. The odds that a charity run by an athlete is fraudulent are probably accepted as a given. If you'd spent half a thought thinking about it, you would have suspected that the vast majority of these charities were either bogus or sketchy. Sammy Sosa won the 1998 Roberto Clemente Award from MLB for his foundation's work raising money for Hurricane George relief in the Dominican. News reports at the time mentioned little kids sending the foundation coins from their piggy banks. A year and a half later, the foundation was essentially bankrupt; Sosa hadn't donated a dime of his own money to it, but he did donate a building he owned so he could claim a huge tax deduction. One of his directors admitted to Fortune magazine that Sosa took foundation money to buy his brother a sports car. The Boston Globe reported in February that Alex Rodriguez's foundation, started in 2006, gave only 1 percent of its donations to charity before being stripped of its tax-exempt status.
Donor beware. From what we know about athletes and their finances, from Bernie Kosar's descriptions of his predatory family in 30 for 30's "Broke" to the endless stories of ridiculous spending that has led to bankruptcies for as many as 60 percent of former NBA players and financial stress or outright bankruptcy for 78 percent of NFL players within two years of retirement, you have no other choice but to let cynicism roam free.
It's unfair to some, sure. It's unfair that a lack of ethics among a large percentage of athletes should have a negative impact on charities that are doing good work or the many other athletes who have used their status to promote legitimate causes.
But really, how many athletes really have causes? Most athletes have precious little to say about social injustice -- just like most of the rest of us. They're either uninformed or afraid to voice an opinion that could have a negative impact on their personal brand. For them, it's OK not to start a foundation.
But if there's one quality we have in abundance, it's cynicism. (The best antidote for cynicism: volunteerism. Go sort vegetables at the local food bank or visit someone in a nursing home. Your time is more valuable than your money.) Unfortunately, cynicism is indispensable, even vital. In this case, it's what might keep people from being separated from their money.
Sadly, as we're reminded far too often, we have so much of it for a reason.