10 Sports Stars That Shine Through Their Charity Work

David Beckham UNICEF
  • Article by Amy Bradney-George
  • June 12, 2015 at 10:55 AM

From courts to racetracks, fields to boxing rings, sports stars are known for their elite skills, tough training schedules and massive paychecks. But how they use their money can really set these famous athletes apart from one another.

While there are sports stars known for spending a lot of money on things like flashy cars, mansions and big night’s out, there are also those that put both their money and their energy towards charitable causes.

In some cases, it’s a way for sportspeople to acknowledge where they have come from – particularly if their careers have been helped along by scholarships – while in others it’s a way to support causes that are close to their hearts. Whatever the reasons, there is no doubt that sports stars that do charity work how the power to make a huge difference.

So here we take a look at 10 big sports stars that put their money and their spare time into charitable causes.

1. Andre Agassi

Andre Agassi was a star of the professional tennis world in the 90s and 2000s, winning the Grand Slam eight times, the Australian Open four times and earning a gold medal at the 1996 Summer Olympics.

As well as often being considered one of the greatest tennis players of all time, Agassi is one of the most charitable sportspeople ever. In 1994 – a year before the Association of Tennis Professionals ranked him number one in the world – Agassi established the Andre Agassi Foundation for Education (AAFE) to help improve public education in the United States.

Initially the foundation offered grants to support educational, recreational and social service programs across the US. As well as putting his own money into the charity, Agassi launched the Grand Slam for Children tennis event in 1995, with a star-studded lineup that included Sir Elton John, Oleta Adams, Michael Bolton and Robin Williams, raising $1.8 million in the first year, and much more since.

“Since the inception of the Andre Agassi Foundation for Education in 1994, more than $180 million dollars has been raised to benefit the mission of the Foundation including $118 million from the Grand Slam for Children fundraising event,” the website says.

In 2000, Agassi turned his focus towards education and started development of the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy in Las Vegas. AAFE says he was “driven by [the] belief that education is the key to opportunity for children”, and put a whopping $35 million into opening the school, which is now the cornerstone of the charity and has improved the lives of thousands of young people.

2. Muhammad Ali

Probably the biggest boxing star in history, Muhammad Ali’s story is an inspiration for many people around the world. As well as being a world champion boxer, Ali has devoted much of his life to humanitarian efforts both big and small.

Over the past 30 years, Ali has travelled the world as an ambassador for peace, securing the release of hostages in Lebanon and Iraq, making goodwill missions to Afghanistan and North Korea and even met Nelson Mandela when he was released from prison on South Africa.

He’s also donated over $1 million in medical aid to Cuba, helped organizations including the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Special Olympics, and founded the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center and the cultural and value-focused Ali Center.

While very humble about his charity work, Ali has also acknowledged how much his boxing success has helped him achieve his greater goals, and is quoted as saying:

“I’ve always wanted to be more than just a boxer. More than just the three-time heavyweight champion. I wanted to use my fame, and this face that everyone knows so well, to help uplift and inspire people around the world.”

Over the years, Muhammad Ali has become an icon for both his sports and humanitarian efforts. He’s been named sports person of the century by both the BBC and Sports Illustrated and is GQ’s Athlete of the Century, and has also earned a Lifetime Achievement Award from Amnesty International and a Presidential Medal of Freedom. So, as US President Barak Obama puts it: “He is, and always will be the champ.”

3. David Beckham

There might be other soccer players that can now “bend it like Beckham”, but it’s hard to find any that support quite as many charities as this former Manchester United star.

Beckham has been a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF for 10 years and has recently launched 7, a joint program with UNICEF to “help protect millions of children from danger”. Playing on the footballer’s lucky number, the fund focuses on seven different initiatives in seven different countries, raising funds and awareness for vulnerable children in the process.

In 2005 Beckham and his wife also founded the Victoria and David Beckham Charitable Trust (now known as the Children’s Charity), which helps fund and support initiatives that are aimed at decreasing poverty, promoting education, and reducing homelessness and has raised millions of dollars over the past 10 years.

Beckham also helped found Malaria No More, and has supported charities including the Elton John AIDS Foundation, Unite for Children/Unite Against AIDS, and war veteran advocacy group Help for Heroes.

In a video for 7: The David Beckham and UNICEF Fund, Beckham says he’s proud that he’s about to tell his children about this part of his life.

“My life has been not just about the football, it’s been about helping others as well,” he says.

“I always felt that I should be doing more. I wanted to help in a much bigger way, a different way, a way that has never been done before.”

4. Jeff Gordon

Race car driver Jeff Gordon has racked up an impressive 92 wins as a NASCAR driver and earned a lot of money from the sport: in 2013 he earned US$12.7 million racing, and an additional $5.5 million in endorsement deals. He also became the first NASCAR driver to reach $100 million in winnings back in 2009.

But by then, Gordon had been giving back for over 10 years. He created the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation (JGCF) in 1999 to support cancer treatments, research and support programs for children.

“The vision of the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation is that there will be a day when no child will face the uncertainty of cancer, and that successful treatments will not result in negative, long-term effects,” the JGCF website says.

Since its establishment, JGCF has raised over $15 million for children’s health organisations and has extended its efforts globally to bring paediatric cancer care to Rwanda, Africa. It’s also established and supported hospital facilities for children with cancer, including the Jeff Gordon Children’s Hospital, Dell Children’s Hospital, Levine Children’s Hospital and the Children’s National Hospital.

Gordon is also one of the founders of Athletes for Hope – an organisation that encourages and helps professional athletes to get involved in charitable causes – alongside others on this list including Andre Agassi and Muhammad Ali.

5. LeBron James

Basketball legend LeBron James has had an illustrious career both on and off the court, with huge wins for his teams and a number of lucrative endorsement deals to his name. The 30-year-old athlete earns an estimated US$20.7 million per basketball season, and has an accumulated wealth of $450 million (so far), which could be set to rise significantly after the next NBA season.

But James has used both his fortune and his fame for charitable causes over the year. In fact, he used a television special following one of the biggest decisions of his career (what team he would sign in) in 2010 to raise $2.5 million for the Boys and & Girls Clubs of America. He also supports a number of other charities focused on children, including After-School All-Stars, Children’s Defense Fund and ONEXONE.

James’s commitment to charity work began back when his career was just taking off. In 2004, he and his mother established the LeBron James Family Foundation (LJFF), which aims to “positively affect the lives of children and young adults through education and co-curricular educational initiatives.”

“Mom and I wanted to create a foundation that, regardless of where I was playing, would be dedicated to giving back to the community by enriching the support system that helped us along our journey. And today, we’re still all in,” he says on the LJFF website.

6. Dikembe Mutombo

Like LeBron James, Dikembe Mutombo is a basketball legend. He had 18 seasons in the NBA before retiring in 2009, and his reputation for humanitarian work is just as impressive as his records on the court – if not more so.

In 1997 Mutombo established the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation, committed to improving health, education and quality of life for people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he was born. Through the foundation, Mutombo donated over $15 million to open up the Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital (named in memory of his mother), which has treated over 100,000 men, women and children in the Congo.

But even before this, Mutombo was committed to giving back, with the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation website outlining his involvement with a wide range of charities since 1991.

“As a former spokesman for CARE, the international relief agency, Mutombo visited the Somali refugee camps in Northern Kenya in 1993 and traveled with NBA Commissioner David Stern and Georgetown colleagues Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning to Cape Town and Johannesburg,” it says.

“He is the first Youth Emissary for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and he also served on the Advisory Board for the Fogarty International Center at the National Institutes of Health. He presently serves on the boards of the National Constitution Center, Opportunity International, Special Olympics International and on the National Board for UNICEF.”

Mutombo has also served as an advisor to Freeport McMoRan and to Hewlett-Packard, and even paid for the Congo’s women’s basketball team’s trip to Atlanta for the Summer Olympics games in 1996.

7. Albert Pujols

Baseball player Albert Pujols has hit over 500 home runs in his sports career so far, but is just as committed to his actual homeland: The Dominican Republic.

While Pujols moved to the United States in 1996, his charity work has helped “improve the standard of living and quality of life for impoverished children in the Dominican Republic through education, medical relief and tangible goods”.

This is one of the aims of the Pujols Family Foundation, which he set up with his wife Deirdre in 2005. The foundation also supports children and families who live with Down syndrome and aims to provide “extraordinary experiences for children with disabilities and/or life threatening illnesses”.

“We did not choose Down Syndrome. Down Syndrome chose us,” the Pujols say, explaining that they have a beautiful daughter with Down Syndrome.

“Our goal is to promote awareness, provide hope and create supportive and memorable events for the families and children who live with Down syndrome.”

The foundation also says that it strives to provide “extraordinary experiences for people with disabilities and/or life threatening illnesses” through all the work that it does.

8. Serena Williams

Tennis superstar Serena Williams is considered by many as the greatest player of all time, smashing numerous records throughout her career on the court. But she has also won a raft of awards for her charity work, including an Avon Foundation Celebrity Role Model Award for her work fighting breast cancer, a Big Brothers Big Sisters Young Heroes Award and a Family Circle and Prudential Financial Player Who Makes a Difference Award.

In 2008, Williams opened the Serena Williams Secondary School in Matooni Kenya, in partnership with non-profit organisation Build African Schools. In the opening speech she says she is honoured to be able to open the school because “education can bring you so far”.

“Actually this is the best achievement I think I have done in my life.”

She has gone on to open another secondary school in the region, and has also supported relief efforts after natural disasters including the 2010 Haiti earthquake and Hurricane Katrina. She’s also been a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador since 2011.

9. Tiger Woods

Widely considered one of the best golf players in the world (and one of the most controversial), Tiger Woods has amassed a huge amount of wealth throughout his professional career and regularly makes it onto lists of the highest paid athletes. While the media has reported on many of his expensive personal escapades, he has actually put lots of his money and time into charity work.

Like many of the other sports stars here, Tiger Woods set up his own charity – The Tiger Woods Foundation – aiming to “break the cycle of poverty through education. Since it was established in 1996, the foundation has given out over $30 million in grants, scholarships, internships, and other aid.

In 2006, Woods and the foundation also opened the Tiger Woods Learning Center in California, which has programs for school students of all ages, with an aim to get young people thinking about their futures.

“Since its inception, the 35,000 square-foot education facility has reached students through its hands-on classes — ranging from forensic science and aerospace to robotics, biotechnology, video production and graphic design,” the foundation website says.

The school reportedly cost $50 million to build and now has satellite locations in D.C., Virginia, Philadelphia and Florida. The Tiger Woods Foundation says it’s inspired over 130,000 young people in the US so far.

10. Kristi Yamaguchi

US figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi has had a sensational career in the sports arean, winning gold at the 1992 Olympics, and taking out the World Figure Skating Championships in 1991 and 1992 among other achievements. She’s now a US Olympic Hall of Famer, but has also been working hard to improve children’s literacy through her Always Dream Foundation.

Established in 1996, Always Dream’s mission is to “inspire underserved children to reach for their dreams through innovative reading programs and by advancing the cause of early childhood literacy.”

The foundation now runs a wide range of reading events, supports schools in the Bay Area around San Francisco and has provided many schools with access to e-reader tablets, computers and other 21st century reading technology.

“All the athletic glory and honors are wonderful,” Yamaguchi says on the Always Dream Foundation website.

“But sometimes I come face-to-face with a disadvantaged child or with a struggling mother or father, and I am grateful for my gifts. And I rededicate myself to doing whatever I can to help someone in need.”

“The good feeling I get rivals anything I felt on the Olympic stand in Albertville.”

When it comes to stories about sports stars, the focus is usually on their professional performance, scandalous personal lives or how much they earn. But these 10 athletes show that they put as much commitment into charity work as they do into their sports, which is often more inspirational than the many wins they’ve had in their athletic careers.

Images: David Beckham doing work with UNICEF, source: UNICEFUK (YouTube); Kristi Yamaguchi reading her children’s book at an Always Dream event, source: Always Dream Foundation on Twitter.

Kristi Yamaguchi Twitter

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