*Whether you like them, or you can’t stand them, athletes are held in high regard in today’s society. Though they’re often labeled as being selfish, arrogant and sometimes ignorant, many athletes make it a point to give back to their respective communities and to causes that are close to their hearts.

Ray Lewis

But one man can only do so much by himself, despite some athletes donating millions to certain philanthropic special interest groups. It is with that idea in mind that the United Athletes Foundation was formed 3 years ago. Our Lee Bailey spoke with Baltimore Raven’s star Ray Lewis, triathilon runner Shad Ireland and retired NFL player Reggie Howard about what the UAF is all bout.

“The UAF’s mission is to empower athletes to come together to better our communities,” Lewis explained. “To go back with all the knowledge that we’ve learned to our communities to reeducate, to rebuild and give them the opportunities that we need in our world. We need togetherness, we need to define what the causes are that we are trying to help. We’re partnering with Shad on this first one. These are just one of the many things that are haunting us a country. ”

What they’re partnering with Shad on is an initiative to educate those dealing with Kidney Disease and dialysis, but the UAF isn’t just about health issues.

“When you talk about UAF, we’ve built a powerhouse of over 150 athletes who get that anything we do together is possible,” added Howard.

“Our cause is just to empower our youth with the things we think our youth should know and we have vehicles to do it now,” said Lewis of the UAF’s overall mission. “We have people like Shad, we have people like Reggie, who is definitely committed with time because it takes time to see real change. The bottom line is together we can do all things, individually we die.”

Reggie Howard is a former defensive corner back who played with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He was known as a merciless hitter, but now he’s turned that into compassion through this ground-breaking philanthropic mission.

“I’m a board member, a founder and executive director of United Athletes Foundation,” he explained. “I think what makes this organization great is everybody has a passion. Everybody wanted to do something great for the community, but so many of us have been trying to start foundations on our own without understanding how true philanthropy is accomplished.  Through this organization we’ve actually had the opportunity to increase our awareness as to what we’re trying to accomplish as far as our goals of empowering these days.”

Reggie Howard

“I started my foundation in order for one person to give back,” continued Howard. “I had a consultant who advised me that, in order for my foundation to be sustainable, you had to start going away from doing the events and getting into more of an initiative model. I was just doing things that I thought were the right things to do from a heart standpoint, but once I got behind the scenes and started understanding how the non-profits worked from a business standpoint and understanding how to create endowments and programs, then I saw those things we wanted to start giving out to our athletes … the resources and the understanding of how to make true impact in their communities.”

Many athletes have been attempting to give back to the community for their entire careers, but the UAF’s model appears to be far more sustainable. It isn’t just about one guy giving back.

“Some of these athletes have their own non-profit organizations and some of them don’t,” said Howard. “Basically, UAF is a resource for them.  If they want to go down the road of working with a donor-advisement firm, or if they’re looking into starting their own nonprofit organization, then what we do is provide an organization and foundation to help them accomplish those goals.”

“Right now we’re working with the Shad Ireland Foundation,” added Howard. “Shad Ireland came in, explained what he was trying to accomplish with bringing more awareness to the leading causes of kidney disease. We knew with UAF, and our ability to attract a mass audience, we knew that we could get more people to understand his story and came behind him with some of the celebrity athletes that we have attached. Then we could use that leverage to get more access, more media coverage, to get more of this information out through technology. With Shad talking about being on dialysis, with Ray talking about health and family wellness and myself talking about growth and leadership. It’s all about coming together and forming teams in those certain categories so that you’re not going at that thing alone or putting yourself in a situation where you might get taken advantage of or you’re making a lot of the front end mistakes.   It’s like a networking circle where we actually put guys in position to accomplish things that they’re trying to do.”

Shad Ireland

Kidney disease is something that we all have heard about, and many of us may suffer from it or know someone who does. Contrary to what some may believe, it doesn’t just strike those that abuse alcohol or other substances.

“My grandmother has been on dialysis for years now,” said Lewis.  “She’s been fighting this kidney disease. She’s a soldier though and that’s why I’m speaking with Shad and looking at his situation. It’s very close to my heart. Engaging in this cause was a easy pitch for me. Are there many issues out there? Absolutely! We’re not trying to solve everything at once, but if we take one step, then two turns to three and three turns to four and that’s how you keep the process going.”

“Some of it you don’t control, but a lot of it you control and you can prevent a lot of these diseases from hitting you if you took care of your temple,” he continued. “You’re a 3 part being: mind, body and spirit.   We have an opportunity to affect people.”

Shad Ireland was diagnosed with chronic kidney disease at age 10. He went on to become the first dialysis patient to complete the grueling Ironman competition. Let us break it down for you: a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike race and a 26.2 mile marathon. All consecutively! He offered this advice for those suffering from CKD to help alleviate its symptoms.

“If they have obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes they can go to their doctor and get their GFR checked,” he explained. “That will tell them if their kidneys are damaged and are not working. If we can get people that information sooner then it could stave off the progression of the disease and it could really impact people’s lives. Nutrition, excercise, modification. If they’re in what they call CKD stages 1, 2, 3 or 4.  Stage 5 is when they need dialysis. But what we’re seeing is modification of the diet and incorporating some cardiovascular exercise in their daily life can stave off progression.  It can give them more time. Cutting salt out of their diet and all of those things can really make a significant change for your family member.”

These days the financial failings of once affluent athletes is plastered all over the news. We wonder how this might affect a potential monetary donor’s mindset. Does he keep giving or does he sit on his wealth.  Part of the UAF’s mission is to help prevent the financial ruin of athletes and to teach them how to protect themselves from “homeboys”.

“The thing that we’ve noticed and that people come to us about is why is it that 78% of these (NFL) guys go bankrupt, get divorced and are unemployed two years after they retire?” said Howard. “Why is it that 58% of the NBA guys doing the same thing within 5 years after retiring? I think the problem is that you’re put into a position of substantial wealth at a very young age when you really don’t understand how all that money operates, what type of earnings you’re getting off your percentage rates and how to make sure that people aren’t taking advantage of you. What we have is loyalty to the people we came up with and we turn that loyalty over to the person.  Sometimes that person might cut a side deal with somebody else just to have that business, now (you’re) put into a situation where somebody is taking advantage of them. What we want to do is put them in a situation where we can start to help these guys.”

“We’re trying to put these guys in positions where they understand what’s going on with their finances and understand why they need to go get business development courses,” continued Howard. “So that they’re prepared to go and get a job after football or the damage that a divorce actually does to you from a financial and emotional standpoint and how it affects your family as well. We’ve noticed these issues and a lot of times guys give away their trust to individuals that that put them in bad business deals or find ways to make money off the relationship they have with that guy and they’re generally more concerned with building their own personal brand than they are in helping their friend after he transitions from sports.”

Though there are certainly many perceptions, and it’s impossible to come up with statistics, but most of us want to see people we grew up with do well. We want to see our business associates do well too. Howard offered a cautionary scenario tale of the cold nature of the business and how one should be about their business if they want to stay in business.

“Right after I left (football) I never heard from my agent again.  This is a guy who came in, used my name to go out and recruit other athletes, building his brand up. But at the end of the day you’re left on the outside trying to figure out where to go from here. Our organization is trying to figure out a way to put (the player) in a better situation. Also, I think depression is something else that is overlooked in this circumstance as well. You go from having the spotlight on you … things being given to you and all that, then when you leave the game it’s like the lights get shut off. A lot of guys are left wondering what to do now. Do they chase these crazy financial deals where it’s ‘Oh, you’re gonna make 12% on this deal’ and go out and invest in a project you don’t really understand?  A lot of these guys are in businesses where they don’t even understand what the business is all about. We’re trying to use the power of positive peer pressure to get these guys to come in and understand that it’s their responsibility to get this education.  When you lose your money you can blame it on this guy scamming you, but at the end of the day it’s your responsibility to come and get this education.  If you did then you wouldn’t have the need to put that trust in another individual.”

The UAF was partially founded by Ambassador Andrew Young, Hammerin’ Hank Aaron and Julius “Dr. J” Erving and is constantly making moves to broaden their reach and get more athletes under their umbrella. For more information on the UAF, log on to www.unitedathletesfoundation.org. For more on Shad Ireland, log on to www.shadirelandfoundation.org.