Nestled in amongst the NBA’s ritualistic end of season awards for Most Improved Player, the Most Valuable Player and so forth, is the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award.
This honours a player or coach who has made a superb effort to help his community. Past winners include thirteen time All-Star Kevin Garnett, who donated $1.2 million to hurricane Katrina relief charities, and two-time winner of the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award, multi-lingual Dikembe Mutumbo. The 7’2’’ Congolese seven time All-Star originally wanted to be a doctor, but instead he built a hospital.
Winners of the award haven’t simply attached their name to a charity, but have gone out their way to try and help. And what is particularly outstanding (or depressing — for a Briton) is that it’s not just the winners who are making a difference. A lot of NBA players are using their finances and their influence to do some good for the world that has treated them kindly.
But in England, we are treated to John Terry and Ashley Cole - two of the highest paid premiership footballers, two married England starters, using their money and influence to take advantage of women — and getting away with it. Not to pick on Chelsea, but when one of the best paid teams in the world doesn’t mind paying a 2500% mark-up on alcohol, but won’t give a day’s wages to nurses in this country, it shows they literally have more money than sense. England and America are both Western countries, so why the juxtaposition? Not to sound like Tony Blair, but the reason is purely down to education, and the motivation to have one.
In the NBA, in order to be drafted, players have to have graduated from high school. They need to be in University in order to be scouted, but must maintain high grades, or they face being dropped — as in the case of Coach Carter. While English footballers have a lot to gain by sacrificing class for practice, potential NBA stars have no choice but to juggle the two. Compare this interview with Duke educated British NBA star, Luol Deng, who has worked with The Lost Boys of Sudan charity, with this Ashley Young interview, who left school at 16.
Nicholas Hobbes believes, in the case of Jermaine Pennant, “schooling probably does not feel so important when you make your professional debut for Notts. County at 15, and are bought by a Premiership club for £2 million a year later”. Joey Barton, believes his fellow professionals "are so detached from real life it's untrue". NBA players don’t receive a pay-check until they’re least 19, whereas footballers can expect a wage in their early teens. Compare Wayne Rooney’s charity record, with Dwyane Wade’s - the current All-Star MVP, who gives 10% of his earnings to his church, has created Wade’s World Foundation, which helps children in need. Recently, he raised $800,000 for Haiti with former-all star Alonzo Mourning.
NBA players are not immune to scandal. Magic Johnson contracted HIV through his affairs, but reacted by setting up the Magic Johnson Foundation – to battle and raise awareness of HIV, and became a public advocate of safe sex. He’s even served as the UN Messenger of Peace.
Footballers need to learn a lesson from the gentle giants of the NBA.
(FYI — I would like to give praise to how the NFL also encourages humanitarian work with the Walter Payton Man of the Year award, but I simply don't know enough about the NFL to talk about it at length.)