Students mix March Madness with charity

Sports Staff Writer
Monday, March 14, 2011

As a senior in high school, Lex Rofes ’13 had an idea. Why not use people’s love for college basketball not as a way to make individual profit, but to help charity?

What began as a high school senior service project in Milwaukee has evolved into March to Health, a nationwide NCAA tournament competition led by three Brown students in which participants give money to enter a bracket pool and fight child obesity

“It came to me that you could use the fact that people enter pools for college basketball tournaments as a motivation for them to actually donate to charity,” Rofes said. “There are a lot of people out there that feel uncomfortable gambling with their friends. But if you turn it into a situation where they’re donating to charity, all of the sudden they feel a lot more comfortable and not like they’re dirty while doing it.”

Hoping to expand March to Health when he got to Brown, Rofes turned to Allison Galer ’11 and Jeff Lipton ’13, a Herald sports columnist. Galer was the marketing consultant for Marie Ferdinand-Harris, a two-time WNBA All-Star with the Phoenix Mercury, who worked with ‘nPlay, a non-profit organization committed to fighting childhood obesity. Galer suggested partnering with ‘nPlay and Ferdinand-Harris for March to Health.

“Their message is what my message is about — to educate and help kids and adults make healthy choices,” Ferdinand-Harris said. “Living a healthy life and exercising daily I think are the two messages that are very important to be spread with youth, but also with adults.”

March to Health also offers a unique opportunity for athletes at Brown, who are prohibited from entering into pools because of NCAA restrictions banning gambling. But since there is no prize for winning and all entrance fees go towards charity, collegiate athletes are allowed to enter the charity contest.

“This is a great opportunity for student-athletes to be able to enter a bracket pool because they are not normally allowed to,” said Lipton, a student-athlete. “What’s great about this is not only do they get to enter a bracket pool, but it’s also for charity.”

The partner organization ‘nPlay — which encourages schools to offer healthier food and more opportunities for exercise — features a coalition of 30 athletes including Kenny Anderson, Paul Pierce, Jennie Finch, Grant Hill and Evander Holyfield.

“Professional athletes have the unique ability to reach a large audience pretty easily,” Galer said. “With that, the athletes will communicate this project and our goals in such a way that would get a lot of people involved to help fight childhood obesity.”

“When you’re getting so much exposure on television and everybody’s looking up to you because you can dunk a basketball, shoot a three-pointer or cross somebody over, a lot of kids like that,” said Anderson, the second overall pick in the 1991 NBA draft. “They want to become that. So it definitely comes with the territory that you’re a role model. When you get a certain amount of exposure and you’re out in the limelight, your words carry a lot of weight.”

Anderson said the burden of being a role model is hard for many athletes. When sponsors for junk foods or other potentially harmful products come to them with multi-million dollar endorsement deals, it can be hard to turn down the money in favor of maintaining their ideals.

“It’s a Catch-22 situation,” Anderson said. “The marketing guy wants to make money by advertising what they want to advertise, but at the same time, kids might get the wrong impression when you’re trying to say, ‘Hey, eat healthy’ and you’re sponsoring fast food restaurants.”

But Rofes said he believes March for Health is one way in which athletes and college students alike can remedy their image to the rest of society.

“I think there is a lot to be said for an effort that is run largely by college students,” he said. “Just like athletes, college students are being painted by a large portion of society as a group of people that don’t really care. I just disagree. I think it’s a fact that, at least on our campus, people do have their causes that they care about very dearly. We really want this to be a college student-run program. We would like to look back on this and say, ‘Wow, look at what all of these students have contributed.'”

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