In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Stephon Marbury openly wept at a press conference. The then-New York Knicks star joined fellow NBA Players Association members in a show of support, donating millions of their own money to the relief effort. Marbury, who said he was haunted by the images of dying children, pledged millions of his own, and other athletes from all sports followed suit with time and money. In the years since, athletes and leagues have gone from the lavish parties surrounding mega-events like the NBA and MLB All-Star Games to creating Days of Service, and tying in sponsors like Bank of America to assist in community projects in whatever city the game is being played in that particular year. Perhaps motivated by the perception of a public with less discretionary dollars to spend, almost every professional organization, from NASCAR to Major League Soccer, has undertaken community service as a regular activity for not just players but for staff and team officials as well. The personal pride and sense of fulfillment that comes across in these appearances seems very genuine and usually becomes a very humbling experience for the athlete, who normally does not get to see much of the down side of the transient towns he or she may live in during the course of a season. For whatever reason, the community service platform has been a very string one for teams, and has given many an athlete stronger community ties than ever before.
So now we arrive at mid January, and along comes the tragedy this week in Haiti. A nation that has long been swathed in poverty -- and in athletics -- is dwarfed in recognition by the nation it shares the island of Hispaniola with, the Dominican Republic. Will athletes rise up to meet the challenge again for our neighbor in the Caribbean like they did with Katrina, and will they be able to engage the public in mass humanitarian relief efforts like occurred in New Orleans, and continue to this day (read Peter King's piece in this week's Sports Illustrated on Saints' quarterback Drew Brees and his continued work in the city for an example of the sustained effort)? Yes there are elite athletes who have emerged from Haiti, like the Sixers center Samuel Dalembert (who has already taped a message to be played in every NBA city asking for support), former Red Bulls (now Hull) striker Jozy Altidore, and the great boxer Andre Berto. And there are a host of elite Dominican baseball players who should and would take up the mantel to help their island neighbors. But will that be enough of an assist in awareness for what could be one of the greatest mass tragedies the Western Hemisphere has ever seen? Yes, the American sports leagues and their partners will step up to the plate, as Major League Baseball and Bank of America did already, offering millions in assistance. But will Usain Bolt, the world's fastest athlete from neighboring Jamaica, step up to pull support? Will we see a rise in aid from the athletes heading to Vancouver, even though Haiti is not a real player in any Olympic Games, winter or summer?
It is early and the amount of damage is not yet known, but it is becoming clearer that this is a long range tragedy of horrific proportions, located less than 100 miles off the coast of Florida. It is not an American issue in a sense that it is not on American soil, but the soul of Haiti runs through many communities in the United States, including through some of the most populous and passionate areas of fan support in the world, places like Miami and Los Angeles and New York ()especially Brooklyn, which the Nets will eventually call home).
So will athletes realize the great potential they have been growing, and muster support and rally others, millions, in support of a very dire cause so close to America? It actually is tough to say at this point. The state of the world we are in today has pulled aid in so many directions, especially in the United States, where the specter of Katrina still looms large. The flippant attitude toward potential senseless violence (see Gilbert Arenas) and the ability to shun the spotlight (see Tiger Woods) because of the glare of the camera and the insatiable need for all personal details may drive some athletes away from a public stance from Haiti, for fear of overexposure or any exposure at all, to a fickle media and sometimes difficult public who may question one's motives (Russell Simmons' mention Thursday that Woods may donate millions for relief was actually met with some snickers and jokes in the blogosphere).
Even with those obstacles to cross and issues to face, the lure of athletes as public figures both big and small to draw interest and rally support has never been higher. Effective use of social and digital media, a huge opportunity for publicity in vertical channels and the coming Super Bowl, NBA All-Star Game, Daytona 500, World Cup and Olympics all provide the platforms for athletes to show that they now embrace the world's issues and can take a stand together to help those around them, especially in time of need.
Those tears that Marbury had for the deceased child post-Katrina can now be turned into tears of joy for fans and victims as athletes turn on their mojo for cause. Let's hope it happens, and inspires us all to step up.