Why Professional Athletes Can Be Prime Candidates For Big Campus Giving

It's almost March Madness again, which means more bracketology, the "yeah, babys" of Dick Vitale, and nonstop collegiate basketball goodness. It's also the time of year when we examine the merit of student-athletes, and whether college athletes should be paid. All of the madness underscores the significant role that intercollegiate athletics plays in American life.

On the philanthropic end, we can also talk about the huge sums that donors regularly give to college and university athletics programs. These big-time donors mainly consist of wealthy alums and/or sports fans. As a recent example, in late 2015, University of Mississippi's athletics department received $25 million from Gerald "Doc" Hollingsworth, an Ole Miss graduate who became a successful businessman and surgeon. Hollingsworth is a steady Ole Miss football supporter, and served as a team doctor for several local Florida high school teams.

While Hollingsworth is the kind of donor we often come across in this space, these donors aren't the only kind of people development officers should prospect. Here's one more group of people that fundraisers should keep on their radar: professional athletes.

Why? Well, let me explain.

Many of our country's top athletes are earning more than they ever have before, not just through lucrative deals in the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL but also through endorsements and other supplemental forms of income. Nine American athletes made over $50 million in 2015. One of them, NBA superstar Lebron James, turned to philanthropy in a big way last year when he announced a partnership between University of Akron and the LeBron James Family Foundation, one which would fund college scholarships for qualified Akron Public School students.

Related: Return of the King: About That Big Lebron James Gift for Scholarships

Apart from King James, fellow NBAer Draymond Green, 25, of the Golden State Warriors recently gave $3.1 million to Michigan State University Athletics to endow the men’s basketball program and help pay for a strength and conditioning center. Green's gift is the largest ever given to Michigan state athletics by a former player, and according to Forbes, it's also the largest donation ever made by an active professional athlete to their former school. (Note, Green's gift even surpasses fellow Michigan State Spartan Magic Johnson, who gave the university $3 million in 2012.)

Part of the story, here, is timing. Green, fresh off a championship run, re-signed to Golden State for a cool $82 million over five years. Green's gift to MSU comes on the heels of this deal. Another factor is that Green spent a full four years at Michigan State, a somewhat unusual case, as many top basketball prospects leave for the NBA after a year or two. Green developed a strong relationship with MSU Athletic Director Mark Hollis, and kept in contact with him, offering him suggestions about the athletics program. Of his whole experience at MSU, Green says, "I went to Michigan State as a boy, a boy who really didn’t know where life was going to take me, really my own identity... I left Michigan State a man.”

Like Lebron, a component of Green's gift also involves scholarships, which might be of special interest to certain athlete donors given their background and personal story. As Green says, "Can any of us play if there is no scholarship for us? No. So coming from Saginaw, I know how important it is to have a scholarship."

Besides Green, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees and his wife Brittany recently donated $1 million to the football program at Purdue University. In the past, Brees gave $2 million to his alma mater Purdue, where he was an All-American quarterback. Other campus gifts by professional athletes include NFL player Ndamukong Suh who gave $2.6 million to the University of Nebraska, and Mets player Curtis Granderson who gave $5 million to the University of Illinois at Chicago.

I'll close by bringing up a point I mentioned in my Lebron James piece, which is that I believe many athletes don't want to be pigeonholed as athletes. Philanthropy offers another way to make a mark, and impact lives. Nike billionaire Phil Knight, well-known Oregon State sports benefactor, ran into Green when Oregon was playing MSU. Green told Knight he had a long way to go. Knight replied, “It’s a lot more than I did when I was 25 years old.”

Related - Campus Cash: Athletics