Whether hurling slurs or throwing fists, as athletes misbehave this summer and draw financial slaps from league brass, those forfeited funds are being funneled to charity — whether the recipients know it or not.
The largest leagues each use a fining system that transforms bad acts into good works, a social-justice pipeline that disperses millions of dollars worth of sports karma. Some pro teams have copied that benevolent blueprint: On July 31 the Philadelphia Eagles fined Riley Cooper what the NFL receiver described as “a good amount of money” for his racial rant at a recent concert. The Eagles will donate Cooper’s cash to community groups, though the team has not revealed who will get the bucks, or how much he was penalized.
“It's an interesting way for the leagues to use their strength — introducing fans and players to organizations that are trying to change their neighborhoods for the better,” said Lindsey Spindle, spokeswoman for Share Our Strength, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit working to end childhood hunger in America. The group reports it has received nearly $500,000 from the NBA over the last several years.
“While we'd never encourage bad behavior to meet our goal, we are lifted by the league's vision for turning something perceived to be bad into a good that helps kids,” Spindle said.
The sports summer already has cooked up myriad more misdeeds that will eventually bolster people in need.
Major League Baseball dinged 12 on-field brawlers undisclosed amounts in June — money that will help retired ballplayers survive on life’s financial edge, according to Matt Bourne, vice president of business relations for MLB.
Also in June, the NBA seized $75,000 from Indiana Pacer Roy Hibbert for his profane public words — a fine that could ultimately help feed kids via Share Our Strength.
The NBA allocates all of its collected fine money to charities, including Special Olympics, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, said league spokesman Mark Broussard, though he declined to reveal how much the league collects and disperses each year or to offer a full list of charities helped by the NBA.
"The NBA is easily the least transparent league when it comes to the allocation of collected fine money," said Andrew Powell-Morse, a sports blogger and head of data, analytics and editorial content for Seatcrunch.com, an online ticket buying and selling service.
The NFL, in contrast, announces where the money is sent, Powell-Morse said. The league also releases a full description of that donation pattern in tax documents.
And lately, NFL fine money has been surging. While many football fans cheer the crushing hits of autumn, the league has been making its players pay up for illegal, helmet-to-helmet blows. During the past four seasons, on-field infractions have generated about $4 million per year for distribution to charitable groups, said Michael Signora, an NFL spokesman.
“Money collected from player fines is used to support the NFLPA Players Assistance Trust and charitable initiatives supporting youth, education and sport-related medical research,” Signora said. “We think it’s important that fine money collected from players benefits worthy causes that we know are important to players.”
NFL players who are suspended for violating the league's drug and doping rules must give up game checks (usually four to eight games worth of their salary), but no funds surrendered by those players go to NFL-backed charities, NFL officials said.
The NFL Foundation, a nonprofit, serves as the league’s conduit for fine-money contributions. According to the most recent tax records the foundation has made public, the entity provided millions of dollars to more than 60 community groups during 2011.
This is where some of the gruesome guesswork may come into play for charities on the receiving end of that donated dough. For example: Who ultimately collected the $40,000 the NFL fined Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark for his head hit on Baltimore tight end Ed Dickson in November 2011?
During that same season, the NFL Foundation contributed $200,000 to the John H. Boner Community Center in Indianapolis. The money financed a sports field that hosts summer day camps for kids, said James Taylor, the community’s center’s chief executive officer.
“The $200,000 for the football field, I’m not clear what the source of that was,” Taylor said. “It could be infractions ... We’ve actually talked about that dynamic: Do we root for more bad behavior?”
Also in 2011, the NFL Foundation gave $174,541 to Tuesday’s Children, a Manhasset, N.Y.-based nonprofit organization created to support the healing of 9/11 families and children — and, more recently, to aid those around the globe who lost a loved one due to terrorist act.
“I have never heard (about) any penalties for bad behaviors that have gone to us,” said Terry Sears, executive director of Tuesday’s Children. “We have had meetings and phone calls and all that with the NFL over time. I am sure that some of that fine money goes to charities but I don’t know if any of that money came to us. That’s never been my understanding.
“If you’re asking me as a person, I think (the fine distribution policy) is great,” Sears added. “It’s similar to our mission: We try to turn tragedy or negativity or bad into good.”