March Madness is an opportunity for basketball fans to give back. They won’t be alone.

In the four short days between the announcement of the field for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, aka March Madness, and the opening tip-off, an estimated 37 million Americans will fill out tournament brackets and contribute $10, $20 or $50 into their friendly pools. I say contribute, because picking a winning bracket is so unlikely most are just giving their money away.

That’s why this year’s March Madness is a perfect opportunity to reflect on the state of non-profits in the pandemic, and to consider matching your basketball contribution with an actual charitable donation. It’s a fitting combination, because many charities have struggled mightily since the onset of COVID, and sports fans are demonstrably more charitable than the rest of the public.

The history of charity among athletes

During the brief timeout between the “Elite Eight” and “Final Four,” former NFL player Mark Pattison will stop watching hoops and board a plane bound for the Himalayas. Should his ensuing attempt to summit the world’s highest peak succeed, the 59-year-old former Raiders, Rams and Saints’ wide receiver will join mountaineering’s elite Seven Summits club, becoming one of far less than 500 people to have topped the highest peaks on every continent. But there’s more: for a climbing twist on the two-point conversion, Pattison plans to descend part of the way, cross a mountain saddle and immediately ascend neighboring Lhotse, the world’s fourth highest peak, becoming the first NFL veteran and oldest of just a few dozen alpinists believed to have summitted two 8000-plus meter peaks within 24-hours. 

But should he fail, one thing won’t change – Pattison’s effort will raise more than $80,000 for charity. Before rescheduling his Everest climb due to the pandemic, he had brought in $29,029 – a dollar for each foot of the mountain – for the Epilepsy Foundation in honor of his daughter Emilia. After deciding to add Lhotse, he set out for another dollar a foot, this time $27,940 for Higher Ground, a charity in Sun Valley, Idaho, where he lives and trains, that helps civilians and military veterans overcome cognitive and adaptive issues. The Raiders got behind it, and thanks to enthusiastic sports fans, the separate Emilia’s Everest-Lhotse Challenge fund goal was increased to the combined heights of 56,972 feet and has already climbed above $50,000. When he climbed Africa’s Kilimanjaro, the fourth highest of the Seven Summits, with former NFL coach Jim Mora, the duo raised $47,000 for WaterBoys to build a well for a Tanzanian village.   “That really exposed me to being involved in not just raising money, but going there and doing something,” Pattison told me. “When they turned the spigot on the well we built, something went off inside me.”

Mickey Mantle on March 21, 1951, in Los Angeles. (Photo: AP)

WaterBoys, which has provided clean drinking water via solar powered deep borehole wells to almost 400,000 residents of East Africa, was in turn the work of 2-time Super Bowl winner Chris Long, who has recruited over three dozen fellow pro football players to his cause. “I realized the platform I had as an NFL player to affect change is something you need to take advantage of. I thought about the best way that I could change the world, and I think the easiest and effective way to do that is clean water.”

While Pattison’s climbing feats are very impressive and unusual – NFL players are more famous for taking up golf after retirement – his fund-raising efforts are simply par for the course. Today just about every prominent athlete has his or her own foundation, and most teams and leagues support several. But ultimately, it is the fans who pony up. And when sports fans give back, they give more.

During four years of research for my new book about the mostly beneficial impact of sports fandom on us as individuals and as a society, one of the most overlooked advantages I found was a higher rate of charitable giving, volunteerism and community service by fans.

After Hurricane Katrina, former New Orleans Saints star quarterback Drew Brees’ call for donations quickly raised roughly $2 million for local relief — mostly from fans. Tennis great Roger Federer organized exhibition charity matches before the 2011 Australian Open to help flood victims in Queensland. Taiwanese Taekwondo competitor Su Li-wen auctioned her Olympic uniform to help typhoon victims, with a fan bidding over $20,000.

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But no example in sports has been as stunning as that of NFL star Justin James “J.J.” Watt, formerly a defensive end for the Houston Texans. Unable to return to a city ravaged by Hurricane Harvey following a 2017 away game, Watt impulsively launched a fundraiser on his smartphone. His goal was $200,000 and to kickstart things, he put up half himself. With no charitable infrastructure, Watt enlisted his mother to handle the relatively small number of donations he expected. But his request quickly went viral, and within a year he raised nearly $42 million — a feat his foundation now claims is “the largest crowdsourced fundraiser in world history.” 

Sports fans are generous in numerous ways

Sports fans are generous, and they give more than cold hard cash. Pro teams often host blood drives at stadiums and arenas, usually with better responses than non-sports efforts. After the One October Las Vegas massacre, players from the Golden Knights NHL team went around urging fellow citizens to give, and many did, with players attending blood drives.The massive Denver Broncos donor event at Mile High stadium has made it an annual tradition for many fans to roll up their sleeves. As Allie Engelken, the team’s Executive Director of Community Development, told me, “One of our largest and most treasured traditions is the Drive For Life, the largest single day blood drive in the state of Colorado. Giving blood is the most selfless thing that someone can do. It doesn’t cost any money, it just costs an hour of your time. We host it here at the stadium and have for 20 years.”

Consider the strange case of Mickey Mantle. Regarded by many as the greatest switch hitter in baseball history, he not only replaced Joe DiMaggio in center field when the Yankee Clipper retired, he arguably outshone the legend. By any standards, Mantle was a giant of the game and automatic Hall of Famer. The three-time MVP won seven championships, and still holds numerous World Series records, including home runs and RBIs. He nabbed the most prestigious offensive title in baseball, the Triple Crown, and in more than six decades since, only three others have managed the feat. 

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But The Mick was also an alcoholic who openly told fans he was a role model of someone not to emulate,and years after retiring, went into rehab and remained sober for the rest of his life. In 1995, hard drinking and unrelated liver cancer forced a liver transplant, which was not enough, as cancer had spread through his body. It was only in death that the impact of fandom became apparent: in the “normal” week before Mantle’s very public transplant in Dallas, area hospitals saw a grand total of twelve requests for organ donor cards. The following week they got 700. 

So, as basketball once again provides us with a much-needed distraction, and the chance to clap, cheer and smile again after a painful year unlike any other, it’s worth thinking about doing what sports fans do best, which is giving back.

Larry Olmsted is a, award-winning journalist, TEDx speaker and New York Times bestselling author, whose newest book, Fans: How Watching Sports Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Understanding, was released in March 2021.

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