I'm a trained reporter, so I know how to ask questions. Open-ended questions that elicit answers. Simple follow-ups like "What do you mean?", which lead to deeper information. My kids are, hands down, my toughest interviewees -- especially when asked how school went today -- managing to respond to every question with one-word, dead-end answers. Not so last Friday, when my teenage son and daughter couldn't wait to tell me about a former NBA point guard who talked to their entire Connecticut high school that day about drug abuse.
Maybe you're familiar with the story of Chris Herren. They weren't. They learned about his eye-popping talent, how it, and every penny he made, was squandered in a blur of addiction that started with what he thought was innocent marijuana use in ninth grade and escalated to binges of cocaine, oxycontin, crystal meth and heroin. They and their classmates were riveted, some of them sobbing, others raising their hands and sharing personal demons brought forth by Herron's sincerity in wanting to keep teens from following the same self-destructive path.
After listening to Herren, the weekend house parties in town were canceled. Voluntarily. That's influence.
"He's an athlete," my 16-year-old son said, when I asked why his classmates responded so powerfully. "He's cool, popular. He's someone we can relate to."
Now imagine you're a pro athlete today who wants to improve lives. You're the best point guard in the NBA, and you have far more resources -- money, fame, credibility, networks -- than Herren has or ever had before getting bounced from the Association in 2001 after two seasons. How do you best put those assets to use while not short-changing your day job?
This is the challenge facing five-time NBA All-Star Chris Paul, who took the time to talk with me recently about what's fair to ask of athletes as part of a featured conversation with the Aspen Institute's Project Play. The goal of the project is to convene thought leaders and explore ideas that can help stakeholders build healthy, active communities through sports, a topic Paul is familiar with as a member of the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition.
We're sitting on stools in the Los Angeles studios of ESPN, discussing results from SportsNation polls that show most fans say athletes should do more in their communities and those who do are viewed in a highly favorable manner.
"For me, it's all about who you are," Paul says. "Some [athletes] may feel a responsibility. Some may not. One thing I've talked with my family and team about is doing more. Trying to make an impact."
When he arrived in Los Angeles in 2011, advisers told him he could be the next Magic Johnson. Not on the court. In the community.
The Magic Johnson Foundation started in 1991 with a focus on HIV/AIDS prevention and expanded into educational and other programs that address the needs of ethnically diverse urban areas. The effort helped build Johnson's credentials as a civic leader and open up doors that would extend his relevance well beyond his playing days. Paul was told that no L.A. athlete since Magic has had that social footprint.
"Magic is just a symbol for excellence in giving back and impacting the community," he said. "What better role model could I have?"
But for an athlete of Paul's prominence, capitalizing on such an opportunity -- and meeting public expectations -- is not a matter of just diving in and writing checks from the new $107 million contract extension he signed in July that will keep him in L.A. through at least the 2016-17 season. It requires strategic focus, measurable results, sustainable funding and the patience of a point guard who understands how to let a play unfold.
Experts in athlete philanthropy suggest Paul has gotten at least a few things right. Their suggestions of best practices for athletes in their community giving:
1. Find a cause you're passionate about
For Herren and Johnson, their respective causes were handed to them in the headlines, born from crisis. Addiction and HIV, respectively, set them on their course. Paul might have had more discretion, but his choice to focus on kids and families still came from a meaningful place. In honor of his late grandfather, his "best friend," who was murdered in 2002 in his North Carolina hometown, Paul established the Nathaniel Jones Scholarship Fund, which annually sends two students from his county to his alma mater Wake Forest. The full rides are made possible by an $800,000 endowment, which Paul made the final payments on this year, said Carmen Wilson, who coordinates his community outreach efforts.
Increasingly, he's dialed into the epidemic of physical inactivity in low-income areas. "It's unreal that one out of every three kids is obese," he said. In some communities, no more than one in five kids plays sports, a hard number for some people to get their minds around given the growth of organized sports in more affluent areas that can better afford the travel-ball circuit. Growing up, Paul said, his father sacrificed his entire 401(k) savings to keep Chris in the AAU pipeline.
"Some kids have more of an opportunity than others, and that's why we have to try to get into those communities in different parts of cities and give those kids a chance," he said. "Because, at the end of the day a lot of times, kids feel like, 'No one cares about us.' They're like, 'We see what you're doing over there, but nobody cares about us.' We have to show those kids we care."
Three years ago, in his final season with the New Orleans Hornets, Paul established the CP3 Afterschool Zone, which provides sports and academic enrichment activities for kids in an underserved area of that city. He continues to support the program, even as his attentions turn more toward Los Angeles.
2. Don't go it alone
In late September, on the eve of the NBA preseason, Paul hosted the CP3K Walk for Kids in Carson, Calif., at which he encouraged 3,700 kids to step away from the video games, get outside and develop healthier habits. While the event had his name on it, it was conducted in partnership with a local charity, LA's Best Afterschool Program, which already had deep roots in the community.
In October, he appeared at a Kaiser Permanente event to encourage Californians to sign up for a healthcare plan enabled by the Affordable Care Act. These are the kind of pairings that experts increasingly encourage, in which athletes lend their celebrity to an established organization that is already focused on a given cause.
"Rightly or wrongly, athletes are role models," said Marc Pollick, president and founder of the $3 billion Giving Back Fund, which helps athletes and celebrities make charitable investments. "They can do so much more than a regular person. They can galvanize a fan base, just like celebrities. There's no better example than Michael J. Fox, who has raised $200 million for Parkinson's [disease]."
Paul has his own charity, the CP3 Foundation, but it is set up in a manner that allows him to more seamlessly partner with organizations. It's part of what is called a "donor-advised fund," the same kind that Pollick runs, a third-party umbrella charity staffed by professionals who get paid a fee to administrate the charity -- everything from taking in donations to filing tax forms. The arrangement is touted as a way to avoid the mismanagement common among standalone athlete charities, as reported in March by Paula Lavigne of "Outside the Lines."
Through a donor-advised fund, the CP3 Foundation has refurbished basketball courts, distributed Thanksgiving meals, hosted holiday gifting parties, supported Make a Wish kids in North Carolina and partnered with Chase Bank on the CP3 Afterschool Zone in New Orleans. Annually, the Professional Bowlers Association donates for his appearance on a celebrity invitational tournament that airs on ESPN on Super Bowl Sunday. Paul has also found time to serve as ambassador for not just the President's Council, but for a national group that aims to prevent child abuse. "A lot of times, people think the best way to give back is monetary," Paul said. "Money is all good and well -- it's good to donate -- but I think the most valuable thing we all have is our time. Our time. Kids really know when you're spending genuine time with them."
3. Be creative
Ben Roethlisberger gives a dog to a police or fire department in every city in which the Steelers play. He's supplied 109 so far, plus the vests and training, at a cost of $1 million, along the way currying favor and fans on the road. Another example of innovation: Metta World Peace raffled off his 2010 Lakers championship ring, raising $650,000 for mental health. "It was brilliant because a player who earns a championship ring can get it replaced for $10,000 or $15,000," Pollick said. "You can turn that into so much money. It's a very simple thing to do."
Tony Hawk sends the used decks of top skateboarders to famous musicians with a note, "Please write the lyrics to this skater's favorite song on his skateboard, and we'll use it to create more skateparks for kids." Pairings have included Jamie Thomas and Bob Dylan, Mike Vallely and Tom Petty and Hawk and Paul McCartney. The boards get auctioned off at BoardsandBands.org for serious cash. In September, the Tony Hawk Foundation won the annual Steve Patterson Award for athlete philanthropy, as handed out by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. It's helped fund more than 500 public skateparks in low-income communities.
Doug Flutie welcomed the public into one of the most famous moments in college football history. For a $1,000 donation, fans were invited to have lunch with him and former receiver Gerard Phelan at Boston College's stadium. Then, they went on the field and, one by one, got in a huddle with Flutie, who called the Hail Mary play just as he did in November 1984 against Miami in the Orange Bowl. You know what happened next: videotaped and set to a customized version of the "He did it! Flutie did it!" call of the game announcer.
That was 12 years ago. "Throwing 75 passes was a lot on his arm," Pollick said. Still, a clever way to raise $75,000 for autism at close to no cost.
4. Aim for retirement
"Build it slow," said Alisha Greenberg, director of the sports philanthropy program at George Washington University. "Don't think you're going to change the world in a day. It's a business, and businesses are not created overnight. Sometimes, athletes get excited to make a difference, but they're not realistic."
The fact is, most active athletes are distracted. They have short careers, small windows to maximize their value as performers. They often are better positioned to make a difference once they have retired and have the time, maturity and resources -- if they planned right -- to devote to a cause. Most of the Magic Johnson Foundation's work has been done since its founder stopped playing.
"Too many of these guys put money in and spend it all," Pollick said. "It's better to put the money in and just give away the interest each year so it goes on forever. Then when you retire, you can be associated with whatever cause it is." Pollick points to the examples of Andre Agassi and David Robinson, who created schools in Las Vegas and San Antonio, respectively, and stayed in the news because of their foundations. "Their brand continues," he said. "It's not one-and-done."
On top of his various community and national engagements, Paul was elected president of the National Basketball Players Association in August. He keeps finding bandwidth.
What's next? His answer suggests he knows there are personal limits.
"Great question," he said. "What's next for me is basketball. I'd be crazy if I didn't know the platform that has even given me this opportunity. That's how I make my living, from basketball. Making sure I'm ready to go for my team, my teammates, and doing as much as I can do for the Los Angeles Clippers. After that, I'll talk about it, and I'll work on it, but, now, basketball is my focus."
It is Paul's way of saying that not all requests are granted. The high school auditoriums of America will have to wait. Some of them, at least.
Project Play is a thought leadership initiative the Aspen Institute's Sports & Society Program. Partners include ESPN, which hosted the Chris Paul conversation at its Los Angeles studios and captured public opinion on expectations about athletes and leagues charitable efforts through a series of SportsNation polls.