The philosopher Immanuel Kant made a distinction between good intentions and good will, effectively explaining why the road to hell is paved with the former. No one who hosts a party wants a guest, who has had one or two too many, to wrap his car around a telephone pole on the way home. But the test of good will comes when the host has to decide whether he will pay for her guest to take a cab, allow him to sleep on the couch, or take away his keys. The latter can be a real socially awkward pain in the butt, but there is going to be hell to pay if your guest comes to harm because you did not confront him.
Most athletes who set up philanthropic organizations have good intentions. They genuinely want to share part of their good fortune and help others. But, as many recent news stories attest, it often goes horribly wrong. Hiring practices come under scrutiny, very little of the money ends of serving the worthy goal, the athlete ends un in PR hell, or even in trouble with the IRS. The athlete, who started out with the best of intentions, comes to regret the day he decided to help out, and at the same time serves as a warning to other athletes who may be considering whether to launch such a venture.
The difference between good intentions and good will, according to Kant, is that the latter requires summoning all the resources at one’s disposal to realize a goal. Again, think of the host paying for in inebriated guest’s cab fare. The problem. on the case of athletes, is that they are often not sufficiently educated about how to be a good philanthropist. They may not understand that you cannot hire family members or that there are complicated tax codes, or even that there is a big difference between charity and philanthropy.
Athletes certainly would be wise to educate themselves before they enter into such an endeavor, but the sports leagues and unions ought to think long and hard about how they can aid athletes in this educational process. These organizations should all have information on their websites about the dos and don’ts of philanthropy. They should consider adding a staff member that would be available to athletes for consultation. And they should consider creating an accreditation process, much like the one that some unions have for player agents, that would help steer athletes away from crooks and towards firms that specialize in setting up philanthropic programs.
Obviously, there would be a cost to setting up such an educational and licensing system, but ti would be a tremendous benefit to these athletes, who often lack the time to do all the research from ground zero, and it would save these leagues and unions a lot of unwanted bad publicity.
We love lionizing athletes, but we are also quick to tear them down. In a lot of instances, they have the latter coming because they have made very poor life choices. But, in the case of charity and philanthropy, that’s not true. They usually do have the best of intentions. They just lack the nous to turn them into good will. And that is where the leagues and unions should step in to aid that transition.
Doing so would be good for the athletes, good for the leagues, good for the unions, and good for society.