The quintessential modern social media kerfuffle unfolded on Tuesday afternoon. It cast the most recognizable player in college football (Trevor Lawrence), a familiar bully (the NCAA) and enough twists, half-truths and Twitter pillow-fights to allow much of America to channel their angst from being cooped up at home.
Here’s the quick recap: Lawrence and his longtime girlfriend, Marissa Mowry, attempted to start a GoFundMe page to raise money for two charities – Meals on Wheels and No Kid Hungry – amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Good!)
They were told nearly a day later by Clemson compliance officials that they needed to take the page down, as it could potentially have been in violation of NCAA rules. (Bad!)
Some version of this information was reported via media outlets. The re-reporting of it played up the role of the NCAA as the boogeyman, which it often is but didn’t happen to be in this case. The outrage, social media bullying and typical vitriol that accompanies these “NCAA IS EVIL” stories unfolded in predictable fashion.
The truth emerged by Tuesday evening. The NCAA put out a statement that it didn’t shut down the fundraising page. It also told Clemson that it will essentially allow university discretion on charities that support the community during the crisis. (Yay!)
And amid the anger and legalese, the red tape and vitriol, the whole point got muddled along the way. Trevor Lawrence, golden boy of a billion-dollar sport, decided to use the power of his platform to help the neediest during this crisis. Whether he realized it or not, he took the baton from former LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, the face of the sport in 2019, and attempted to mimic the benevolence that Burrow showed in his epic Heisman Trophy speech.
Burrow raised nearly $500,000 for local food banks in rural Ohio, where he grew up, just by mentioning them on Heisman night. Lawrence has similar charitable drawing power.
So instead of pointing fingers and trotting out the predictable NCAA criticism trope, here’s hoping that Lawrence continued a trend. How heartwarming is it that in back-to-back years the best players in college football have, without prompting, attempted to use their platforms to help feed the hungry? The rivals who dueled in the College Football Playoff title game are united by altruism. Instead of crowding beaches on spring break, they were crowdsourcing funds for the neediest.
Instead of the NCAA scrambling around to cover themselves on this messaging, they should be releasing a video of president Mark Emmert — he of the $3.9 million salary — praising Lawrence and holding an oversized check. Then he should assemble his staff to help encourage and coordinate any college stars — from any sport — who’d like to follow Lawrence’s and Burrow’s lead.
You think that Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger couldn’t raise money for the Central Texas Foodbank? You think Ohio State’s Justin Fields couldn’t raise money for Nationwide Children’s Hospital? You think Ian Book in South Bend, Bo Nix in Auburn, Chuba Hubbard in Stillwater and Brock Purdy in Ames couldn’t have the same outsized impact on their local communities? It’s easy to see the TikTok dances pleading for donations, isn’t it?
We are in an era of athlete empowerment, which has long been overdue on the college scene. So instead of the NCAA rushing to make sure it’s not cast as the devil, why not ask top athletes to use their names, image and likeness to follow Trevor Lawrence’s lead? To have the impact Joe Burrow did. These platforms are powerful, and they can be used for good.
This messy collision of star player and evil empire can be recast in the next 24 hours. What if the NCAA makes an effort to actively encourage athletes to follow his lead? Forget the awkwardly worded statements. Give college athletes guidance to follow the right channels through the compliance office and support their hometowns, their college towns or an effort dear to their heart. The NCAA should be shouting from the rooftops to find athletes to follow Lawrence’s lead.
It would be heartwarming to see the chain reaction of coaches jumping on board with donations to support the players’ causes. If there’s no gray area in star athletes using crowdfunding for charities, the NCAA should encourage athletes to test drive the power of their name, image and likeness for good before the inevitable/eventual moment where they can utilize it for personal gain.
I called up the folks at No Kid Hungry on Tuesday as the NCAA/Lawrence/Clemson tango was in full dance. They had no idea that Lawrence and his girlfriend had started the effort to donate money to them. (In truth, some explanation of Trevor Lawrence was required, which made this even more organic and wonderful.) They couldn’t have been more grateful, as Laura Washburn of No Kid Hungry told me that 22 million kids rely on free and reduced lunch. Those are obviously threatened, with schools closed nationwide.
“I think it’s a scary time for a lot of kids,” said Washburn, the interim chief communications officer. “Not only the health emergency that we’re in, but for kids who rely on school for a hot meal. When that goes away, it can be a very scary and uncertain time for kids.”
The situation for seniors also appears dire, as Meals on Wheels points out that “vulnerable seniors are at the greatest risk amid COVID-19.” There are looming issues in every corner of America, every age bracket, during this crisis.
The NCAA’s well-earned reputation as a buzzkill has, for once, actually done something good. It’s brought way more attention to Lawrence’s and Mowry’s benevolence than it would have likely received in the first place. Instead of their Instagram feeds, they received much bigger megaphones.
For the sake of 22 million hungry kids and countless needy seniors, let’s hope the efforts aren’t suppressed and the message gets amplified. And if the NCAA really wants something to take a victory lap about, it should encourage, enable and solicit candidates for similar charitable campaigns from its star athletes in all sports.
Trevor Lawrence has followed Joe Burrow’s lead. There’s no better time for the NCAA to make this trend continue.
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