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The Business of Sports

Athletes Give Thanks, Give Back

As Thanksgiving Day looms once again, with the prospect of overindulging tempered by spending the entire day cooped up with your in-laws, sports fans across America can rejoice in the Detroit Lions’ annual Turkey Day game—indeed, all three of Thursday’s NFL matchups—for being not only watchable but potentially downright delicious.

Regardless of game-day feast or famine, America’s sporting community continues to give back in droves to its heartfelt causes. Normally in this column in the days leading up to Thanksgiving and the accompanying retail bacchanal of Black Friday, we reveal our hottest holiday gift suggestions for the rabid sports fan.

This year, however, in the spirit of ’tis better to give than to receive, we’d like to pay some long-overdue attention to organizations and athletes, both pros and amateurs, who are giving back in ways large and small. We’re all familiar with the good works of large-scale athlete foundations, such as those created by Lance Armstrong, Magic Johnson, Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf, and Tiger Woods. Today, we present a cornucopia of lesser-known contributions that are every bit as meaningful.

When Hunger Strikes an Ace

Thanksgiving is a time when many focus on the issue of hunger—this week, for example, the New York Giants are working with Stop & Shop and the Food Bank for New York City’s Community Kitchen in West Harlem to help prepare and serve Thanksgiving dinner to 700-plus New Yorkers in need, while the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats are in the middle of a 10-day campaign to fight hunger, nine events capped by their annual Hoops for Hope Dinner at Charlotte’s Strike City sports and entertainment complex.

On the courts, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has found a longer-term way of distributing food, funds, and supplies to some of the world’s neediest children.

The WTA announced in early November that it made a donation of $25,000 to USANA Health Sciences’ “Ace Out Hunger” program. All the funds raised for Ace Out Hunger will go to Children’s Hunger Fund, a global nonprofit organization fighting hunger in impoverished regions around the world.

USANA Health Sciences (USNA) is the official health supplement supplier and official partner of the WTA.

“WTA players applaud all of USANA’s efforts and support Children’s Hunger Fund. … We are glad to be able to make a contribution to assist in the fight to rule out hunger,” says Stacey Allaster, the WTA’s chairman and chief executive.

The one-time donation is not the only arrow in the organizations’ quiver. Starting at Wimbledon, USANA has donated $10 for every ace served at a WTA event—more than 3,500 to date.

“USANA is a company that takes a very personal interest in providing essential resources to suffering children all over the world,” says Dan Macuga, USANA’s vice-president for Marketing, public relations, and social media. “Working with the WTA on the Ace Out Hunger program isn’t just about business. Instead, it’s about utilizing our resources and the WTA’s talent to help make the world a healthier place.”

Healing on and off the Ice

Four days before America observed the 10th anniversary of the World Trade Center terrorist attacks, an all-too-familiar scenario had struck the hearts of the world’s hockey community.

On Sept. 7, news spread of a plane crash in Russia whose passengers were the coaches and players of the KHL’s Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team. The crash took the lives of 44 people and forever changed the lives of family, friends, and on-ice foes.

One of the many people deeply affected by that day was Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin, who was born in Magnitogorsk, Russia, and lost many friends in the crash. “When I heard the news, I can’t explain how I felt after,” Malkin says. “I wanted to help support their families.” In the ensuing weeks, Malkin has been the driving force behind numerous initiatives to help benefit the victim’s families.

After consulting with Penguins general manager Ray Shero and head coach Dan Bylsma to ensure he had the team’s support, Malkin reached out to his fellow countryman and longtime rival Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals. From there the rival teams worked together for a greater cause.

For starters, the two teams wore jerseys with commemorative Lokomotiv patches in their Oct. 13 contest at Consol Energy Center. The jerseys were then autographed and auctioned off, with all the proceeds going to Lokomotiv players’ children and families. Remembrance bracelets were also sold.

More recently, Malkin hosted the Flight Team Lokomotiv Benefit at Bossa Nova in downtown Pittsburgh. Along with Big Dreams Children’s Foundation, the benefit raised money for the widows and children of those lost that September day. Malkin also has the support of Penguins players, including team captain Sidney Crosby, who donated autographed merchandise for auction and attended the event to show solidarity with their teammate.

A Blind Golfer’s Vision

Going blind opened Jeremy Poincenot’s eyes to many opportunities.

The Carlsbad (Calif.) native, who’s now 22, found out firsthand that people who are legally blind can still participate in cycling and distance running. Most incredibly, he learned that he could still be a successful golfer—and help other people along the (fair)way.

Poincenot inherited a passion for the game from his golf-industry parents and played every weekend. At age 19, however, Poincenot, by then a student at San Diego State University, noticed blurry vision first in one eye, then the other within a matter of weeks. After a frustrating series of inconclusive tests and unnecessary treatments, he was told he had Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy (LHON), a rare genetic disorder that strikes mostly young men. LHON has no treatment and no cure.

Poincenot today describes his vision as “something like a doughnut,” with no vision in the middle but clear peripheral vision. Even with the obstacles created by his LHON, Poincenot still found a way to participate in his favorite sport when his mother told him about the U.S. Blind Golf Assn.

Poincenot found that once he got his feet lined up correctly and was verbally advised on the distance to the hole and course layout, he was able to play 18 holes successfully. At his first tournament in September 2009, he placed second in his sight category. Since then, he has won several tournaments, including the 2010 World Blind Golf Championships in England and the 2011 U.S. National Championships in Georgia. He was also invited to play in events in Japan and China to raise awareness for blind golf.

There’s a lot more to Poincenot than his 15 handicap. He has run a half marathon, and three years ago he and a friend founded an annual bike ride from Santa Barbara to San Diego called Cycling Under Reduced Eyesight (C.U.R.E.), which has raised more than $50,000 for LHON research to date.

Hearts Racing

When a couple of all-American sisters decide to go racing through the desert dunes of Morocco, it’s much more than an elaborate ploy to get away from their husbands and kids. Alpine (N.J.) resident Amy Lerner and her sister, Tricia Reina of San Diego, entered the 2011 Rallye Aicha des Gazelles—the only all-women, multiple-day, off-road motor sport event in the world—not only to challenge themselves, but also to help effect change for women at risk.

“The Rallye Aicha des Gazelles has been called a life-changing event,” Lerner says. “Being so immersed in a place completely outside my normal comfort zone was incredible. I rediscovered my competence and ability to face and conquer the unexpected.”

The Rallye draws 200 women from all over the world, including the princess of Morocco, celebrities, and professional athletes. The event and its charitable arm, Heart of Gazelles, are supported by Morocco’s royal family and the Moroccan government. In 2011, Lerner and Reina were two of three Americans participating in the race. The 2012 Rallye will feature five U.S. women, and American participation is expected to increase thereafter.

While Lerner and Reina were busy testing their driving and navigational skills as they traversed the rocky terrain and massive sand in southern Morocco with the benefit of only a compass and a map (no GPS), they were also representing the Girl Effect Fund, a charity that helps educate women in Third World countries.

“When we decided to do the Rallye, we knew we would get media coverage, and we wanted to use it to make some noise about an issue we felt strongly about,” Lerner explains. “We chose the Girl Effect because of its broad message. We were particularly struck by how much a seemingly small change in a girl’s life (i.e. one more year of school, one fewer child birth, delayed marriage) could have such a significant impact not only on that girl but on her family, her community, and potentially the world.

“After being in Morocco and seeing firsthand the work done by Heart of Gazelles and its positive effect on the people there, we knew we wanted to do something,” she continues. “The Heart of Gazelles had a plan to create jobs for single mothers in the city of Ouarzazate by helping them open a bakery. The project was in need of funding—we were able to provide what was needed, and the project is now up and running. Several of the women we met at the Rallye visited Ouarzazate in October and relayed to us how much it meant to all the women involved that they now had a safe place to provide a way to support themselves and their families without resorting to begging or prostitution.”

The sisters are currently preparing to go back to Africa for the 22nd annual Rallye, in March 2012, and plan to visit the Ouarzazate bakery after they cross the finish line.

Heath, Striving for Peace

Ten-year NFL veteran Heath Evans was a vocal advocate for children and families affected by sexual abuse long before “Jerry Sandusky” became part of the national conversation. His passion about the issue began as close to home as you can get, as his wife Beth Ann had been sexually abused when she was a child.

Evans was raised in Florida by parents who were determined to protect him from the dangers and pitfalls of life. They instilled in him strong Christian values, warning him to be aware of the consequences of the choices he made. At a very young age, Evans expressed a strong desire to be a good Christian. As he grew up, Evans continued to strive to do right by his parents and the teachings of his church, especially as he sought out a highly public life by playing in the NFL after a star turn at Auburn University.

Beth Ann was a woman who had all the qualities he admired in his mother and really seemed to understand him. Evans had never met anyone who made him feel so happy. And he was pretty sure he made her happy, too. But sometimes Beth Ann seemed sad and withdrawn, and Evans could not figure out why. One day she shared some painful memories that had haunted her since childhood. When she was in third grade, she had been repeatedly sexually abused by an older classmate.

At first she told no one but finally got the nerve up to tell her parents when she was in sixth grade. Still, her parents didn’t really know what to do, and she hadn’t gotten any treatment. The issue was swept under the rug. When Heath heard her story, he was filled with compassion, as well as anger at her abuser. He was shocked that she had had to suffer in silence all these years. He knew her parents loved her and realized that it was the culture of the times that had led to the secrecy that had made Beth Ann feel so alone for so many years.

When Heath and Beth Ann started the Heath Evans Foundation, their goals were to raise the curtain of secrecy on the subject of child sexual abuse and to provide financial assistance for therapy for victims. Beth Ann encourages children who have suffered such abuse to contact the foundation, which provides counseling and other services.

“I am grateful for Heath Evan’s dedication to supporting children who are victims of sexual abuse,” says author Chrissy Carew, who included Evans’ story in her new book The Insightful Player. “The Heath Evans Foundation is giving these children the love, hope, and healing that has not been available to them before. Thank you, Heath, for touching and saving so many young and innocent lives.”

Fight Like Dylan

Last week Russell Athletic announced the launch of the Fight Like Dylan Award, a $50,000 uniform and equipment grant honoring the late Dylan Rebeor of Columbia, Tenn., who lost his battle with colon cancer at age 16 on Dec. 3, 2010.

Rebeor was a wide receiver on Columbia Central High School’s football team, but he died just hours before his team won their first state championship in 58 years. Reflecting Rebeor’s character and his consideration for others, he didn’t ask for a trip to Hawaii or ask the Make-A-Wish Foundation for the opportunity to meet his favorite athlete. Rather, Dylan’s final, selfless desire was for his team to receive brand new uniforms and equipment for the 2011 season.

“People of Dylan’s exceptional caliber are extremely rare,” says Gary Barfield, executive vice-president of Russell Brands in Bowling Green, Ky. “When we heard his story of courage and strength, Russell Athletic wanted to honor him and the ideals he represented.”

To be eligible for the Fight Like Dylan Award, teams must post a submission on the Russell Athletic Facebook page explaining how they triumphed in the face of true adversity while embodying the spirit and courage of Rebeor in his battle against cancer. Entries will be accepted until Dec. 15.

Former Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy and Cleveland Browns starting quarterback Colt McCoy serve on the Fight Like Dylan Award selection committee, along with Dylan’s mother and Columbia Central head coach Vance Belew. The winners of the inaugural Fight Like Dylan Award will be announced at the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl at Chase Field in Phoenix, Ariz., on Jan. 3.

Rick Horrow is a leading expert in the business of sports. As chief executive officer of Horrow Sports Ventures, he has been the architect of 103 deals worth more than $13 billion in sports and urban infrastructure projects. He is also the sports business analyst for CNN, Fox Sports, and the Fox Business Channel. Karla Swatek is vice-president of Horrow Sports Ventures and co-author of Beyond the Box Score: An Insider's Guide to the $750 Billion Business of Sports (2010). Horrow is also the host of Sportfolio, a new program on Bloomberg TV that airs Wednesday nights at 9 pm ET.

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