It doesn’t take long for Jordan Morgan to remember why he’s spending a gorgeous summer afternoon cleaning up an eyesore of a street in Detroit. Once homeless in Detroit, Morgan fought through poverty, malnourishment and hundreds of other challenges to star for the Michigan basketball team, earn two engineering degrees, and eventually go pro in Europe.
It doesn’t take long for Mike Martin to remember why he’s bussing kids in from Detroit to his free youth camp, either. Growing up in a single-mother household without a ride to practice, Martin had to find the drive within to not only finish his degree but lead Michigan football to the 2011 Sugar Bowl Championship.
It doesn’t take long to remember, because they didn’t get there alone.
Though both — among thousands of athletes worldwide — have incredible journeys to success, they are largely the product of volunteers, tireless coaches and family members and community events that kept their doors open and their spirits high.
“I can tell you that nobody gets where they are without the help of others,” Morgan said. “There are so many people that are so invested in me and my welfare, but there’s a high level of obligation for myself.”
This obligation sticks with Morgan, Martin and others that grew up disadvantaged. But at Michigan, even those that had an easier path feel the responsibility to use their capital, resources and abilities to give back to the community — that’s the easier part.
The hard part is making that desire to give back count. But with a new department solely focused on it, alumni leading the way, putting away the scorebook and opening the field to new resources, Michigan is close to fulfilling its athlete social responsibility.
When the term corporate social responsibility first was coined in the 1950s, few imagined the concept would make its way inside Michigan Stadium. Defined by Business Dictionary as “a company’s sense of responsibility towards the community and environment (both ecological and social) in which it operates,” it was designed to remind businesses that their job extended beyond financial shareholders to community stakeholders. Without the support of consumers, the community, family members, friends and all employees, a business would fail regardless of its financial know-how.
While “athlete social responsibility" hasn’t gained the same official recognition, the parallels are evident. Winning is important, but without the continued support of boosters, fans, local residents, media members and everyone involved with the team, even the most successful team on the field will fail.
To gain that support, student athletes embrace the pressure to make the first move.
“You definitely want to make it come full circle,” Martin said. “It’s hard to have success and not think about everyone in the community that helped you, and deserves that success too.”
Morgan and Martin are far from the first athletes to give back. Babe Ruth — arguably the first sports celebrity — was famous for visiting hospitals before games, then hitting home runs for the children he visited. Nearly every professional team has at least one foundation they contribute to, and most athletes do individual work as well.
Michigan’s first community service partnership began with football players visiting C.S. Mott’s Children’s Hospital 25 years ago — a practice that has expanded to all student-athletes and still occurs every Thursday.
Today, Michigan has 11 major community service partners, and its approximate 900 student-athletes conduct 8,000 hours of service per year, according to the athletic department.
“It’s something you’re proud of,” said defensive line coach Greg Mattison, who has coached for 41 seasons including eight at Michigan. “When we say ‘Michigan Man,’ a lot of that has to do with how you handle success and give back.”
Achieving 20,000 hours as a group and raising tens of thousands for charity, community service participation is at an all-time high with Michigan student-athletes. Still, some are skeptical about the motivations.
With the rise of foundations and community service came an equal rise in criticism of "savior mentality" among those participating in projects.
Jevon Moore, coordinator at the Office of Community and University Engagement, doesn’t blame people for thinking that way. Moore oversees all of Michigan’s community service endeavors. He’s happy with the strength and popularity of the Mott’s visits, but isn’t naïve of the celebrity mentality.
“For a long time, that’s what it was — just celebrity appearances,” Moore said. “Then people got turned off by that because it seems like it could just be for attention or for image.”
The seldom heard of office opened in 2013 after community service interest reached record levels.
And while Moore loved so many different organizations reaching out to the teams, coaches and Athletic Administrators, it became clear someone needed to arrange these in a unified way.
“We wanted to have one place where we could send potential partners and events and really put a plan in place to make something work,” Moore said. “We don’t want our athletes to just show up and be a celebrity face, we want them to be helpful in more ways, and for the experience to benefit them as well. We want it to be a two-way street.”
Moore had no problem finding partners that wanted to work with Michigan student-athletes. Food Gatherers, Ann Arbor Public Schools, the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System and plenty more expressed interest.
He also learned quickly that with a group of competitive and well-rounded individuals, he had no problem getting student athletes interested in helping, either.
In fact, slowing them down proved to be the toughest challenge.
The University Athletic Department established the Rachael Townsend Community Service Award in 2009. Hoping to push student athletes to carry that one more rep mentality into helping others, the idea was to reward the teams that performed the most community service throughout the year.
It worked, but with a cost. Hours and interest in service soared, but when Moore switched the award from a quantity-based team honor to a quality-focused individual one in 2013, Michigan was admitting it had lost what it was after.
“We found that everyone was so caught up in hours and putting up big numbers, the service wasn’t that effective,” Moore said. “We’d rather see fewer hours and participation than people just in it for the hours if it increases the value and impact.”
Michigan is the only school to Moore’s knowledge that no longer has an hours-based reward or quota, and taking the competition out of community service did come with a drop in participation. But the support was there.
“You can’t make these things mandatory, you have to really value it,” said Kinesiology junior Sophie DuPhily, a member of the lacrosse team who is also serving as the SAAC Community Engagement Chair. “It’s important to get people to find value in it themselves, not just add it to practice, school and everything else.”
Moore makes resources and events known and helps when needed, but has eliminated enforcements, counting on teams and student-athletes to motivate each other.
For DuPhily, whose team was all freshmen when the new system took over in 2013, the toughest hurdle is the first one.
“I was a little slow to start on community service,” DuPhily said. “We didn’t really have anyone to show us the way, but once I got started, I was hooked."
“We don’t make it mandatory, but I will try to get people who haven’t gone before to go with me. The first time is usually the hardest, after that they can’t wait to go back.”
In addition to the shift away from mandatory service, Michigan has tried to modernize the way its student-athletes go about service.
Reaching out to the Ginsburg Center, SAPAC and other campus-based resources, Moore has set out to increase the educational component of service. Though it's admittedly tough to manage full training and reflection sessions when balancing the priorities of student-athletes, Moore says it never hurts to get creative.
“We might not get hours with (the student-athletes),” he said. “But on the way to and from campus we can discuss why they get involved in the community and what they get from the opportunity through identification, through reflection, through exploration of themselves.”
While the service may be helpful today, the true impact will be seen down the road.
Once Martin’s bus pulls into the Pioneer High School parking lot to begin his youth camp, he’s at home. The Big House may be across the street, but as he’s greeted by over a dozen other NFL players volunteering their time, a wide grin covers his face.
That grin grows to make his 6-foot-2, 306-pound frame look small as the kids get off the bus and sprint to the field. Many hail from the area of Detroit where he grew up. Martin knows the impact his camp can have on the kids, because he once was those kids.
“We can relate to a lot of the things they’re saying because we know the area and a bit of what they go through,” said Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Brandon Graham, a former Michigan football player. “You might have gone to the same schools or know some of the same people. The conversation and connection is there because you’re from the same place.”
The same can be said for current Michigan athletes. When DuPhily and 30 other Michigan student-athletes volunteered at Camp Catch-A-Rainbow — a YMCA youth camp for current or former cancer patients — during spring term, many were reminded of times getting to know athletes in the past, and reminded why they go to Michigan.
“That’s our biggest goal, to find something for everyone,” Moore said. “Not everyone wants to work with kids, so it’s about finding what kind of work you do want to do — what you’ll get passionate about. Because when you have that passion, it shows.”
Despite taking away the scorebook, rules and trophies, Michigan student-athletes continue to give back. Despite everything else they have to worry about, the student-athletes feel socially responsible.
“I think there’s an obligation to give back,” DuPhily said. “You’re not getting a reward for doing it, but you’re a part of the Michigan family, and that does create a moral right to give back to the community and to strengthen that connection in any way you can.”