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Sporting events large and small help power fundraising drives across the country. We need sports to spread hope, inspiration and action.

Like many Americans, I’m excited for the return of professional sports so we can partake once again in a pastime that sees us cheering on teams we love and players we admire. But there is another reason why I’m hopeful for the safe return of sports — without them America’s charities, including ours, will suffer.

This year marks half a century since Danny Thomas first lent his name to the Memphis Open golf tournament as a way to help raise awareness for the institution he founded there, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Year after year, it has been inspiring to watch the world’s best golfers compete under the banner of helping children with cancer and other life-threatening diseases at what is now called the World Golf Championship-FedEx St. Jude Invitational.

But like so many other in-person events postponed or canceled due to COVID-19, there was a moment earlier in the spring when we thought this year’s tournament might not even happen. As we grappled with the thought of this devastating global pandemic’s unintended impact on such an important event for our mission, I couldn’t help but think of a much smaller gathering nearly 700 miles from Memphis, and its future.

Outside of Grandville, Michigan, many people might not know about the Brian Bush Memorial Putt-for-Life Tournament, where for over three decades it has raised almost $770,000 for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Created by Brian’s parents as a way to honor their son, a former St. Jude patient who died in 1989 from a rare form of brain cancer, it is one of the thousands of yearly sports-driven fundraising efforts which supports the work we do to provide cutting edge care for patients at no cost to their families. 

And like all of our sports driven events, it galvanizes community for a singular noble cause. But what happens to our mission and the mission of so many charitable organizations in a world without sports?

A platform for doing good

For decades, professional sports have been a platform for causes to drive awareness to the biggest audiences. When the NFL introduces pink into their uniforms, we know why. When runners finish marathons wearing camo vests or colored ribbons on their bibs, we know why. When Major League Baseball players all wear the No. 42 for one game, we know why. When Major League Soccer teams recently restarted their season wearing jerseys with the names of slain Black Americans, we knew why. And when NBA coaches and sports announcers don our St. Jude pins, the world is reminded of our life saving mission; find cures and saving children’s lives. 

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Beyond awareness, sports drive critical fundraising. The PGA Tour alone has donated over $3 billion to charitable organizations since 1938; NBA Cares has touched over 15 million youth; the NFL Foundation has contributed nearly $370 million to philanthropic and youth football efforts. As COVID-19 began to spread across the U.S., the NFL’s “Draft-a-Thon Live” raised $6.6 million for Coronavirus relief while the PGA Tour’s The Match: Champions For Charity brought in $20 million for the cause. Meanwhile this year has seen individual athletes raising money on Facebook for food pantries, using Instagram to collect supplies for front-line workers, and Twitter to send goodwill messages to health care heroes in need of them.

With great care, professional sports have started to come back in the last few weeks. First overseas, then here in the United States with the PGA Tour, Major League Soccer, and the NHL and NBA in late July. Major League Baseball resumed, though the sport has struggled with coronavirus despite precautions. The NFL is also expected to resume.

While we’ve seen just how fragile their return can be, these events returning to our lives means thousands of causes can come back online and, through partnerships with charitable organizations, drive impact at scale thanks to the visibility sports provides.

Their broadcasts to local, regional, national, and global audiences help carry messages of hope, inspiration, and action. Media coverage tells the stories of the lives impacted. The games compel fans and viewers to get involved, whether by volunteering, donating time or money. And in some cases, these partnerships help by giving people a place to turn in their times of need.

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Yes, there will be new precautions, and for the time being, no fans. There will stops and starts. We will have to get used to empty stadiums, “bubbles,” artificial crowd noise and digitized fans. We will hold our breath when we there are the dreaded positive tests and outbreak scares, because of what it means for the players, the support staff, and also their families. But the fact that we are even talking about sports’ return — much less actually getting to see it — means that causes are seen and heard, individuals are helped and lives are saved.

The PGA Tour’s return to Memphis last week for the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational did not feel like any other week in this event’s great history. Our patients were not there and there were no crowds to cheer Justin Thomas to victory, but our stories and our work were shared with viewers tuning in, proving the power of sports.

As I watched along with others around the world, I thought about the smaller sports events that are also restarting and which will link communities online if not in person and yield impact. 

Unfortunately, the 32nd Brian Bush Memorial Putt-for-Life Tournament was unable to be held because of COVID-19, and postponed until next year. But guess what? It still raised over $3,800 and counting.

That’s proof of what the power of sports returning to our lives can do for others.

Richard C. Shadyac Jr. is the president and CEO of ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.

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