It’s easy to be cynical and critical of the money machine that college sports has become. And it’s just as easy to cast a skeptical eye upon the players, coaches and the rest of the cast in our culture’s beloved sports drama.
But when somebody on this stage makes a big and positive difference, it should be noticed. One who has done that is Joe Burrow, the Louisiana State University quarterback who used his moment in the spotlight after being named this season’s top college player to stick up for his struggling hometown of Athens, Ohio.
Upon receiving the Heisman Trophy Dec. 14 in New York, Burrow said this: “Coming from southeast Ohio, it’s a very impoverished area. The poverty rate is almost two times the national average. There’s so many people there that don’t have a lot. I’m up here for all those kids in Athens and Athens County that go home — not a lot of food on the table, hungry after school. You guys can be up here, too.”
Nobody expected what happened next. An Ohio man set up an online fundraising page for the Athens County Food Pantry with a goal of raising $1,000. But within six days, as media reports about Burrow’s remarks increased, donations exceeded $470,000 — with most of them coming from Ohio and Louisiana.
The Athens food pantry also set up a link to The Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank in LSU’s hometown, and by last weekend it had received $64,000 in donations.
In Athens, a seventh grade teacher showed Burrow’s speech to her class, who then wrote him thank-you notes. One boy thanked Burrow for giving back to his hometown and added, “You have inspired me to not be embarrassed by my life story and work hard to achieve my goals.”
Athens County reportedly is the poorest county in Ohio, with up to 30 percent of residents living below the poverty line. It is home to Ohio University’s 23,000 student body, which surely helps the economy, but in recent decades its industrial base of timber, oil and coal has suffered.
Frankly, that sounds a lot like what many areas of Mississippi have gone through — a lot of poverty, too few job opportunities and the constant temptation to go elsewhere to try to make a decent living.
Burrow’s Heisman speech will provide immediate help to the food pantries in Athens County and Baton Rouge. But there are literally thousands of other communities across America — including this one — where too many adults and children face the same needs.
The president of the Athens County Food Pantry said the donations prompted by Burrow’s remarks were a Christmas miracle. But the real challenge is to keep this miracle going long past Christmas.
Hunger is a year-round problem, and it is somewhat dispiriting that it took a football player’s remarks to help more people see what they’ve been overlooking.
It would be wonderful if some of the generosity shown to two food pantries this month expanded to many others in 2020.