As a student at Yale in the 1950s, Joel Smilow was the sports director of the radio station and a “big fan and supporter” of all the campus teams. In the Ivies, he points out, there are no sports scholarships and athletes don’t live in parallel universes apart from other students. Sports complement the academic mission rather than overwhelm it. During college and in subsequent years in the workforce, where he eventually became CEO of the Playtex company, Smilow noticed that the teamwork, leadership, and unsentimental focus on hard measures of success that athletics inculcated in players stood them in good stead during later stages of their lives. Indeed, the lessons of sports stayed with Smilow himself longer than his academic course of study.
When he began to turn to philanthropy after his business career, his first major donation was $1 million in 1989 to endow the head football coach position at Yale. It was that university’s first endowment of an athletic post. The fund he created is now worth $10 million and yielding enough to support other coaching roles as well. Other donors soon followed his lead, and Yale now has 32 endowed coaching positions. Three of these were also created by Smilow—for the men’s and women’s basketball coaches, and the women’s lacrosse coach.
As a rule, Smilow doesn’t support endowments—he likes to see his donations put to use here and now. But these were special efforts that blazed a path to new places for an Ivy League school. Smilow has also made donations to revamp and expand the university’s field house to accommodate added women’s teams, and helped lead the fundraising to renovate the football stadium. His broader giving includes large donations to several leading medical centers, and a record grant to the KIPP schools of Washington D.C. (more than $4 million in 2015). But sports philanthropy is where he started.
Tad Taube also includes sports programs in his giving. He believes they have good effects on individual character, a philanthropic priority since ancient times. And sports philanthropy can help young people of all classes and ages.
A former owner of the Oakland Invaders of the upstart United States Football League during the 1980s, Taube has for decades given money to nonprofits that use sports to “convert kids from lives that are not productive to ones that are.” The programs Touchdowns for Kids, Hoops for Kids, and Goals for Kids—through which professional sports teams channel funds to children needing better opportunities in education, home-life, and recreation—and other organizations that collectively reach millions of children have been supported for years by Taube. Their recipients include Juma Ventures (which employs low-income teens as vendors in sports stadiums in order to teach business skills, speed college readiness, and provide income), Positive Coaching Alliance (which teaches coaches, parents, and children how to compete in ways that are respectful of others), and Playworks (which builds safe playgrounds in low-income neighborhoods). “Sports, generally speaking, build character. And people who have been imbued with good character are the future leaders,” he says.
Taube, who made his wealth in real estate and women’s apparel after earning both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Stanford, thinks that sports can have positive effects on all young people, not just those who grow up needy. He was for years chairman of the athletic board at Stanford, was a major contributor to the university’s football stadium, and gave the principal gift to create a new tennis facility. College sports teach kids useful lessons about the competitive world they are about to enter, Taube argues. “They are going to have to really hustle to get ahead, keep jobs, get promoted, and so forth. Athletics help to instill that in kids.”
This is one of five sidebars to John Feinstein’s feature article “The Passion and Pitfalls of Giving to College Sports”