Today's top athletes can amass major fortunes—nine made over $50 million last year—but these stars have not been well known for their philanthropy. We see signs of that changing as new athlete donors come onto the scene—like NBA superstar Lebron James, for example, who, last year, made nearly $65 million.
In 2010, James took his talents to South Beach, leaving his home state, Ohio, and his underdog team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, to play four seasons with the Miami Heat. In the 2014-2015 season, Lebron returned to Ohio to lead his Cavaliers to the NBA finals once again.
Lebron has been busy this off-season, and not just with NBA-related stuff, either. The University of Akron recently announced that it would be renaming its teaching school the LeBron James Family Foundation College of Education. Along with the name change comes a partnership between the university and the foundation that will provide a free four-year college education to Akron Public Schools students who are enrolled in the foundation’s I Promise program or are expected to be added in the coming four years. To qualify, students will have to graduate from an Akron public high school and hit certain requirements in testing and community service.
According to ESPN, there are 1,100 at-risk children from Akron Public Schools currently enrolled in the LeBron James Family Foundation's I Promise program. To put that in perspective, a year’s tuition at the University of Akron is about $9,500.
While the exact numbers here are unclear, what's evident is that Lebron just made an enormous commitment to Akron's youth, one that is driven by the same deeply personal forces that motivate a lot of the higher education giving we talk about here.
Lebron was born to a teenage mother and single parent who often struggled to make ends meet in the rough neighborhoods of Akron, Ohio. His mother eventually decided to move Lebron in with a youth football coach, who introduced him to basketball. Later, he attended St. Vincent–St. Mary, a largely white high school, before making his leap to the NBA straight from high school. The rest is history.
Lebron's story is a common one in the NBA. Professional players past and present have used basketball as their ticket out of the inner city. But there's another component here, too; for every NBA hopeful who gets to live his hoop dream, many more never do. This is where education comes in, and provides another kind of future.
As Lebron puts it: "as a kid growing up in the inner city and a lot of African-American kids, you don’t really think past high school... you don’t really know your future. You hear high school all the time, and you graduate high school and then you never think past that because either it’s not possible or your family’s not financially stable to even be able to support a kid going to college.”
This kind of gift makes perfect sense for a guy like Lebron, who has always worn his story, hometown and state as a badge of honor. The Lebron James Family Foundation's partners include the City of Akron and St. Vincent-St. Mary High School.
Also, as an NBA fan, I couldn't help but notice that Lebron is one of a handful of NBA superstars remaining who made the leap straight from high school to the pros. Kobe Bryant is another. These days, with the higher league minimum age, most players go to college for at least a year. That new age requirement and several other changes (including a dress code) were an attempt to clean up the league's image after an ugly brawl that spilled into the stands last decade. To some, these changes seemed excessive, an attack on players' autonomy and self-expression.
Many NBA stars haven't taken these changes quietly. Writers have noted how players like Lebron James have taken their careers into their own hands in an unprecedented way, even at the risk of upsetting managers and owners. Meanwhile, Lebron and others have suited up in "I Can't Breathe" apparel in the past year, referencing the broader discussion about police reform.
What exactly does all of this have to do with Lebron's philanthropy?
Well, I think on some level these actions reveal that these athletes don't want to defined solely by the athletic realm. Some players have, perhaps, realized that despite making it big in sports, there are other ways they can make their mark.