Two months after announcing his intent to sell the franchise, former Rockets owner Leslie Alexander decided to donate money to the hurricane relief efforts of those impacted in Texas. What initially started as a $4 million donation has now increased to $10 million by Alexander, currently the highest contribution by any one individual in sports.
Gabriel Vargas has lived in Houston for 17 years and found his house ravaged, flooded by four feet of water. Like many of those affected by Hurricane Harvey, Vargas is now depending on financial aid from FEMA to help him and his family, if he receives it all. Despite the gratefulness towards athletes and franchises, he is among those who do not feel as if it should be an obligation to donate.
“I think they should if they want to,” said Vargas, “but I don’t want them to feel obligated just because they work (play) in Houston. If it comes from the heart, yes; all major professional athletes make more than the average person. If not, there’s no point.”
A fair debate is brought up by such a situation. Is there any sort of obligation for athletes or the very valuable franchises that they play for to donate to relief efforts? As local franchises announced their donations, a sort of pressure quickly built up for the teams that were among the last to make their announcements, for it was suddenly expected of them to donate or it would be bad publicity. Some viewed the worth of each franchise as a sort of guide for what franchise should be donating more than the other, while others criticized the size of donations.
Vargas, who doesn’t believe there’s such thing as donating too little, did put into perspective the financial issues households are facing. “With what I’m going through, I think if a household gets as little as $1000 for materials, it can be a big help.” He added, “Obviously we need more than that, but anything at this point helps.”
The highest contribution from one entity will be made by the fund of J.J. Watt, a defensive end for the Houston Texans. Watt, personally, has contributed $100,000, but has created a crowd-sourced relief fund partnering with YouCaring. The relief fund, largely marketed by Watt on social media, first began with a goal of $1 million. However, since it began, it has received more than $28 million from over 190,000 donors.
“I’ll be honest; I have never really been too caught up with celebrities, but with seeing what they are doing—from tweets about prayer to the massive donations—it’s brought tears to my eyes,” says Jason Walker, a 34-year old lifelong resident of Houston. “I don’t think [players] have to, but I do feel that owners should. They are making money directly off of the city and we are the bodies in the seats at their games. Showing you care about your customers goes a LONG way.”
Other players and franchises have also donated for a combined total of well over $40 million as of Sept. 7th, including the donations of Watt and Alexander. The most fascinating thing about Alexander’s donation is the fact that the Rockets were recently on the market for sale. Valued at $1.65 billion by Forbes at the start of the season, the Rockets came in as the 8th most valuable franchise in the NBA, playing in the 4th most populous city in the country. Alexander, who bought the franchise 24 years ago for just $85 million, just sold the team for $2.2 billion, but not before giving back to the city that has nurtured him for so many years.
“I’m never really a fan of owners, but I have been down with [Alexander] since he took over. He has consistently and constantly donated money and resources to the community, especially the inner city. It has always been evident that he cares,” recalled Walker. “I wasn’t shocked by his donation. I am a fan for [Alexander] the same way I am of James Harden.”
Harden’s newest teammate, Chris Paul, was also among the donors to J.J. Watt’s fund, donating $50,000 to the efforts. However, many bashed Harden for not donating in the immediate aftermath, despite signing the largest contract extension in NBA history. Harden will earn $228 million through the 2022-23 season and many were either surprised or disappointed that he had not announced a donation.
It was very possible that Harden may have had donated money and simply chose to not come out publicly with it, as his boss Alexander has with the $10 million—the $10 million donation was reported by a source close to Alexander. Both of them may have had elected to take the high road and donate because it was what they feel is right in their hearts rather than for the publicity. Or perhaps Harden had not donated at all. Nonetheless, Houston's biggest basketball star eventually announced a $1 million donation to the relief efforts.
Are athletes morally obligated to donate some of their money during these times of need?
Rodriguez is a senior editor and social media producer at the Hoops Inquirer. He covers national NBA news and WNBA news. He covers St. John's University's men's basketball for SB Nation's Rumble in the Garden. Rodriguez also covers New York City high school basketball for the Bronx Times, TimesLedger and Brooklyn Daily.