Win One for Charity

March 20, 1994|By JEFFREY MARX

With the NCAA men's basketball tournament heating up, the television talking heads are constantly reminding us we are experiencing "March Madness," that annual affliction brought on by the combination of great games and huge hype.

The players and coaches love it. The fans and network executives love it. And why not? With all the excitement and money involved, everyone's a winner, right?

Time out. I think college basketball can create even more winners by acting on a simple proposal. Each NCAA school should be allowed to play one extra game a year to benefit a worthy charity.

Play one for the National Kidney Foundation or the United Negro College Fund. Play one to help cancer patients, a program for the homeless, a local library. Play one, for a change, for somebody other than CBS, ESPN or State U.

I'm not talking about a tournament game. That would leave most teams out, and logistics would be a nightmare. I'm talking about each of the 301 Division I teams playing a regular season game with net proceeds -- ticket sales and television revenue minus expenses -- going to charity.

The benefits would be immense and diverse. Needy nonprofit groups would be blessed with new resources and visibility. Student-athletes would be exposed to meaningful lessons -- about giving, about reaching out to help others. Schools would foster community relationships and forge new ties. And the NCAA would certainly score much-needed public image points.

As soon as this ink dries, however, some athletic-department bean counter will be the first to protest: Can't give away any money from a basketball game. We depend on that income to support our other, non-revenue producing sports.

That is precisely why I say one extra game a year for charity. Under current rules, a Division I team is limited to 26 games plus a conference tournament or 27 games without one. So raise the number to 28. Income from the extra game would be new money; if it's not in the budget now, why not give it away later?

A bit idealistic? Absolutely. And with good reason. As co-founder and director of a nonprofit group for organ donor awareness, I recently witnessed what can happen when a big-time college basketball coach eagerly shares the spotlight and resources of a major game with an important cause.

The game was Jan. 22, Louisiana State against defending national champion North Carolina in the Superdome in New Orleans and live on national television. The coach who made it happen is Dale Brown of Louisiana State, one of the winningest coaches in the country but a thinker and a doer before anything else.

As a newspaper reporter, I met Mr. Brown in 1986, and we have always kept in touch. Last year, upon hearing about my 26-year-old sister, Wendy, whose life had been saved by a liver transplant, and the nonprofit group we had formed to help others, Mr. Brown wanted to support our efforts.

"We should do a game for organ donation," Mr. Brown told me. "We can get publicity to let people know about the need for donors, and we can raise money for your organization."

Of course, collegiate athletics at the highest level is all about money -- 1 billion dollars from CBS to the NCAA over seven years to broadcast the basketball tournament and other collegiate events. In the past, more than a million dollars for a team making it to the Final Four. Tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for a home game during the regular season.

Mr. Brown's hands were tied. Much as he might have wanted to, he could not contribute game proceeds. The bean counters would not go for that.

Still, by securing corporate sponsorship and acting as host of a fund-raising dinner, Mr. Brown collected more than $60,000 for our "Dribblin' for Donors" program and the Wendy Marx Foundation for Organ Donor Awareness. Equally important, media exposure before, during and after the game enabled us to reach millions of people.

Now imagine the impact if the NCAA were to offer an incentive -- the extra game -- for other coaches to design and execute similar acts of kindness.

No school would be forced to play the extra game. If a particular coach or university president thinks his athletes are better off with a few extra hours of study hall instead of another game, fine. But at least the option would be available.

And I would argue that today's student-athlete, a product of the me-first generation, just might gain something -- something "educational" -- by participating in a well-conducted charitable program.

It was Mr. Brown who first mentioned the idea to me.

"As coaches, we do so much for ourselves and our teams," he says. "We really need to be doing more for other people. We're in a position to help, and most coaches would want to play another game anyway."

First, the NCAA needs to pass legislation allowing it. At Mr. Brown's request, an amendment has been drafted. Eight NCAA schools must now sign on as sponsors before the proposal could be considered at the next NCAA convention (January in San Diego).

Coaches often motivate young players by stressing the importance of being go-getters in all facets of their lives. Here is the perfect opportunity to emphasize the value of being go-givers as well.

Jeffrey Marx is director of the Wendy Marx Foundation for Organ Donor Awareness.

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