University of Pennsylvania alumna Joanne Pasternack has spent the bulk of her career working in the realm of sports social responsibility and philanthropy. She spent 12 seasons leading philanthropic efforts for professional sports franchises in the NBA and NFL, including serving as vice president of community relations for the Golden State Warriors, executive director of the Warriors Community Foundation, and vice president and executive director of community relations for the 49ers Foundation. She runs social impact consulting firm Oliver+Rose and co-founded Athletes’ Voices at Harvard, helping amplify the voices of some of the nation’s top athletes.
We recently spoke with Pasternack about her career, the state of athlete activism and philanthropy, and perhaps most importantly, her favorite sports movie (surprise: it’s not “Rudy”). Here are some excerpts from that discussion, which have been edited for clarity.
What do you think about the philanthropy and activism of athletes today?
It’s interesting. I think that athletes have always had a platform that can amplify their voices around a cause with a much broader audience than your average individual, or even your average influencer. We look upon athletes as heroes and godlike figures sometimes. What I’ve really enjoyed seeing over the last, maybe, 10 years is an evolution where athletes are not only acknowledging that they have a platform and they should use their voice, but they’re really thinking more deliberately about how they want to elevate their voices and what causes are most important to them.
It’s far more personal. It’s less about the performance of going out and serving food for a Thanksgiving meal. It’s more about, “I’m going to serve food for Thanksgiving meal because I experienced food insecurity as a youngster, and I want to bring visibility to that and destigmatize what it means to be in those types of situations.” To me, that’s been the biggest change.
Do you find there’s a difference in interests between professional sports leagues?
I’m really fortunate to be working with the Women’s National Football Conference and the Women’s American Basketball Association right now. And also with ladies who are affiliated with the WNBA. And I can tell you they are phenomenal. They know why they’re there. They know what they have to offer. The bravery and the boldness of speaking up and speaking out on a variety of issues is really inspirational to me.
For some of the other leagues, particularly the male leagues, the NBA, to me, has always been on the forefront of it—going way back to Boston Celtic Joe Lapchick and his son, Dr. Richard Lapchick, who led the American sports boycott of South Africa from 1975 until the end of apartheid, and was one of 200 guests personally invited by Nelson Mandela to his inauguration. Later, we have people like Steve Kerr, and how as head coach of the Golden State Warriors, he doesn’t shy away from the issues.
Even looking at vaccinations right now in the NBA—if you’re not vaccinated, you’re not getting paid. That’s a bold statement. But behind the scenes, they’re looking at what leads to vaccine hesitancy and what can be done to mitigate that by addressing cultural, historical and religiously aligned beliefs and values. They’re not negating those, but rather leaning into them and saying, “What can we do to educate and solve this problem?”
Overall, how do you think athletes go about finding the causes that they’re interested in, and who helps them?
It’s often just an issue of proximity. This is the cause that they’re closest to. Actually, I just published an article on LinkedIn [about this]. It’s usually some variation of being introduced to a cause at a team event, through what a teammate is doing, or something they’ve experienced personally—for instance, their grandmother had breast cancer or their brother was dealing with addiction. At Oliver+Rose and with Athletes’ Voices, we’re working with athletes to build out their individualized playbook for social activism so they can dig deeper and find the cause that means the most to them and to which they’re uniquely suited.
Speaking of Athletes’ Voices, why did you launch it?
We launched Athletes’ Voices because we wanted to make sure athletes were able to use their platforms and reach their intended audiences. We know that with social media, athletes are expected to comment on issues that are related to them immediately. And if they don’t, that’s also seen as commentary. So what we’re trying to do is work with individual athletes, and with teams and leagues, to identify the causes that are best aligned with their values or interests in their areas of passion and that are most authentic to them. In short, we want them to be able to say, “This is why I’m committed to this cause, and this is what I hope to do with my voice.”
We just completed the first season of our speaker series. We had 30 athletes and engaged 150,000 listeners. So clearly, there’s interest in hearing what these athletes have to say. On each of these webinars, athletes were sharing the stage with academics and seasoned practitioners. They talked about gun control. Mental health and wellness. Green sports. And more. But there was value in having the athletes, the academics, the practitioners, all sitting together and talking about this subject. We are doing our first in-person convening in March 2022. Our vision is that we have a few athletes in each sport coming together. For instance, a woman who is an Olympic badminton player, and you have a man who played in the NBA, both talking about domestic violence.
What are some of the issues you tackled through the Golden Heart Fund?
The Golden Heart Fund is looking at what life might look like for players after the NFL. What can be done to support someone who has spent their life dedicated to sports and now finds themselves on the back end of that with physical, mental, emotional and financial struggles? (Contrary to popular perception, many professional athletes experience financial distress not long after they depart or retire.) I worked with some of the most celebrated football players of all time. For them to say they were going through something, that they needed help, that they reached out and sought counseling or connected with friends and family, is really powerful. And when that fan sitting in his living room sees his idol in the football world doing it, it makes it OK for him to do it, too.
Who are some people who’ve had the greatest influence on you as a professional?
Two people, I think, outside of my father, who is my number one. First, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who founded the Special Olympics. She didn’t believe people with intellectual disabilities were incapable of participating in athletics. She was a “get stuff done-er.” I had the incredible fortune of working for her at the very beginning of my career at the global headquarters of the Special Olympics in D.C. And I was so inspired. She looked at me once in a meeting. I had no business even raising my hand. But I remember so vividly that she leaned across the table towards me and put her finger out and said, “Let’s see if we can’t find a way to make that happen.” That was really empowering as a 25-year-old young woman coming into this world.
The other person is [Golden State Warriors] Coach Steve Kerr, because he takes the same approach. Coach is one of the most collaborative, down-to-earth, passionate people. I’ll often say this: If you think because of what you’ve seen publicly of him that he seems like a great man, he’s, like, 10 times better than that. I just don’t know that I’ve been around many leaders who are more authentic and empowering and who keep their word like he does.
We’re working on something new related to sports voices. We recorded Kerr’s segment a couple of weeks ago and were talking to him about his stance around gun violence, police brutality, defunding police and so on. And he said very beautifully that he realized that people are listening and that he had a voice. He also realized that [he could] lean into the fact that he’s not going to get fired for using his voice, that he has a degree of protection because of white privilege. He told us: “If I don’t do that, what kind of person am I?” And that’s something you don’t hear that often.
What’s your favorite sports movie and why?
Wow, that’s funny. I was just talking about this with somebody and it changes all the time. But recently I said “Invincible,” based on the story of Vince Papale, a 30-year-old bartender from South Philadelphia who overcame long odds to play for the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles in 1976. I love the American dream scrappiness. Here’s a guy who’s been told what he can’t do most of his life. He’s like, I’m just gonna do it.
I’m really hoping that there’s going to be a movie that can tell the story of the Women’s National Football Conference, because I think that within that conference, there a hundred, maybe even more, “Invincible” stories—women who were always told what they couldn’t do and what they shouldn’t do. My client Patrick Willis, a former 49ers linebacker, and I were at their IX Cup Finals in Dallas in August. Pat turned to me and is like, “They’re ballers.” He has no children of his own yet, no nephews, but has eight nieces, and sees this as something they can grow up and aspire to be.