It could be such a better world if more superstar athletes gave back as much as Washington Redskins Hall of Famer Bobby Mitchell does. Mitchell has used the platform he earned during his long NFL career to help fight blood cancer. After 22 years organizing the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s fundraising golf event, Mitchell will end his role as its honorary chairman following this weekend’s gathering at Lansdowne Resort.
At 77, Mitchell is ready to take a break from the gratifying-but-draining work that has brought him much more fulfillment than long touchdown receptions or Redskins victories ever did. “Man, when you see some of the same [ill] kids year after year, and you know the money you’re helping to raise is helping them, it’s an incredible feeling,” Mitchell said in a phone interview. “But now, it really is time for me to kind of step aside. It has been a great run . . . but they all end.”
Mitchell still plans to assist others. He’s slowing down but not giving up. As part of the small but influential group of former and current high-profile professional athletes who view charitable work as their responsibility, Mitchell intends to continue putting his effort where his mouth is “because so many people out there need help,” he said. “And the ballplayers are in a position to do so much.”
Superstar athletes are uniquely positioned to effect positive change in society. As global icons in a world with a 24-hour news cycle, they influence everything from the clothes we purchase to the food we consume. The most thoughtful among them believe that to whom much is given, much is expected. They’re eager to use their celebrity to help uplift others less fortunate and only seek successful results in return.
Mitchell, who spent 40 years as a player and front-office employee with the Redskins, has contributed to raising more than $8 million to help cure leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease and myeloma. Although Mitchell prefers not to discuss his behind-the-scenes role (“It’s not about saying, ‘Look at me,’ ” he says), others familiar with his commitment on behalf of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society say he travels 10 months a year, out of his own pocket, to seek funding and arrange the golf weekend.
By persuading other Hall of Famers to join him, Mitchell has “selflessly dedicated himself to the kids fighting blood cancer,” Gabrielle Urquhart, executive director of the foundation’s Washington area chapter, wrote to me in an e-mail.
“He treated LLS as his own foundation, fundraising for us and our mission, never asking for anything in return. We are forever thankful to him.”
Mitchell actually contributes to many charities, his associates say. He has been vocal about some of his work for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, however, in an effort to generate as much funding for research as he could. With most of Mitchell’s other causes, such as feeding the homeless, his celebrity is not as valuable as his time.
“When Thanksgiving comes around, you’re not going to read about us [Mitchell and his family and friends] feeding thousands of people. And you won’t see anything about it,” he said. “But those people we feed year after year, they know.
“You see, it’s not about the photo ops. It’s not about just putting your name on the event and showing up the day of the event. It’s about putting in the time all year to really make a difference. That’s what I wish more of the ballplayers would understand.”
Muhammad Ali heads the all-time list of athletes who do get it. For a half-century, Ali has used his celebrity for good. He has traveled the world visiting sick children and has served as a United Nations messenger of peace.
One could only imagine how many more lives Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente would have touched if not for a plane crash during his humanitarian mission to Nicaragua in 1972. Only 38 at the time of his death, Clemente was a leader in helping others during the 1960s and early 1970s, providing food and clothing to people in his native Puerto Rico and throughout Latin America.
Former NBA all-star center Dikembe Mutombo was celebrated for blocking shots. He should be praised more for building a hospital in Africa.
Once considered a bad boy on the court, tennis champion Andre Agassi has been a shining role model off of it through his educational foundation. The winner of eight singles grand slams titles, Aggasi says his foundation is more meaningful than all his championships combined.
Ali, Mutombo, Agassi — Mitchell is proud to be on the front lines with them. But with the U.S. unemployment rate still high, the world economy potentially on the verge of collapse and so much illness to cure, there’s an endless supply of people in need.
The concept of doing for others less fortunate shouldn’t only be limited to superstar athletes. Anyone is capable of extending a hand. It’s just that athletes have the ability to persuade more people to put theirs in as well.
“For a lot of ballplayers, especially the young guys, there’s a tendency to get hung up on the fact that they make a lot of money,” Mitchell said. “And making a lot of money, for some people, does not jibe with giving of yourself.
“But when you’re a star and you’re making money, you’ve got to give back. And not just with your money, but with your time. You’ve got to do it for one reason: It’s the right thing to do.”
Mitchell’s sleeves will remain rolled up. He’s hoping their conscience will lead more athletes to like the look.
For Jason Reid’s previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.