Can athletes make a difference? Lisa Leslie hopes she can. As a four-time Olympic gold medal winner and three-time WNBA Most Valuable Player, arguably the WNBA's all-time brightest star and most transcendent personality, she is trying to shed light on a host of causes, some others have pitched passionately (like breast cancer awareness), and some which are looking for help (like her new partnership with Covidien to launch an educational program and Web site for liver cancer awareness).
All great and very noble, but how can she make a difference? We shall see.
Since its founding, the WNBA has struggled to grow market share with casual fans, while arguably doing some of the best work of any sport in community service and fan interraction. Leslie has traditionally been one of the WNBA's outspoken leaders both on and off the court, championing everything from the balance of being a working wife and mother (she took a year off to have her first child and returned to the Los Angeles Sparks) to the beauty and athleticism of women's basketball in a world where men's sports still grab a majority of the headlines and branding dollars.
Now Leslie takes on another challenge, helping to grow awareness for a disease that is close to her heart (her stepdad Tom passed away from liver cancer) but does not have the celebrity cache or the large funding pools for advertising that other causes have. "I have personally been affected by the disease when my stepfather Tom passed away in 2001," she said recently. "Once he was diagnosed, we were sent away from the hospital feeling as if nothing could be done. I hope to help people by giving back and letting them know they have more options and that they can get additional information about those options by visiting mylivercanceroptions.com."
Education is never an easy task. It isn't in women's hoops and it isn't in brand and cause awareness. The loss of NFL great Walter Payton to liver cancer did not spike awareness for the disease. Especially during the holiday season, the consumer is deluged by celebrities endorsing the charities that have deeply touched a chord in their lives. In most cities, sidewalk Santas and the Salvation Army look to raise any dollars for the homeless. Yet Leslie presses on, undaunted by the competition, fighting a recognition battle for a disease that needs awareness just as fiercely as she battled opponents on the court during her time at USC, with Team USA and in Los Angeles.
In the U.S., liver cancer is on the rise. A study published in the March 2009 issue of Journal of Clinical Oncology reported that the incidence of liver cancer in the U.S. tripled between 1975 and 2005, from 1.6 to 4.9 cases per 100,000 people. The latest estimates from the American Cancer Society show that an estimated 22,620 people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with liver cancer in 2009. Survival rates are improving, however, in part because more diagnostic and treatment options are available today than in 1975.
The odds for funding and mainstream acceptance by the public to support the cause are daunting, yet Leslie battles on. The belief that she can be a role model as a mother, a partner, a daughter, buoy her effort as much as her celebrity status, and it is that conviction which she hopes will ring true with potential support and donations. After all, the success of the WNBA in connecting with fans is as much because the athletes have the ability to connect on a very personal level as much as they inspire as elite athletes. So what's more important in an awareness battle like this, celebrity status or passion that connects on a base level with the everyday guy or girl on the street? Leslie provides an answer.
"I think we are all role models, and just because you are an athlete doesn't make you an exception to the rule," she added. "It is all of our responsibility to volunteer and give back to our community. You are a role model, even to your younger brother or sister, and with the role comes the responsibility to try and make a difference, even if it is in one life."
So with that positive and determined attitude, Lisa Leslie presses on, competing against a deadly disease that like the WNBA, is battling to gain big time donor recognition. There is no question she raised the profile of a sport and a game for a new audience. Now she hopes to do the same with the profile of liver cancer awareness, a battle just as tough and with much more at stake.
Can her elite athlete status help? Sure. But her personal conviction and drive is a much more valuable tool, and one which her adopted charity can hopefully ride to victory.