How NBA athletes are aiding the fight against racial health inequality

By greatbritton

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

When prominent athletes under the leadership of an iconic venture capitalist partner with a leading cancer-fighting organization great strides can be made to create a healthy future for all. 

Enter NBA All-Stars Devin Booker, D’Angelo Russell, and Charles Barkley; media legend Michael Wilbon; and Jim Reynolds, founder of Loop Capital — the largest minority-owned investment banking firm in the United States — owners of Coco5, an all-natural low-calorie alternative to sugary sports drinks. The sporting legends under the wing of Reynolds have joined forces with the American Cancer Society in a multiyear collaboration — the Fuel the Fight initiative — pledging to donate a portion of all Coco5 proceeds (.05 per bottle with a minimum commitment of $300,000) to address cancer initiatives in underserved communities. This includes funding vital services like health screenings, educational programs, and 24/7 support for cancer patients. 

This partnership arrives at a pivotal moment, as cancer rates remain stubbornly high in Black and brown communities, due to a lack of access to quality health care, proper screenings and affordable health insurance, which leads to preventable cancer deaths. According to the American Cancer Society, Black men are more than twice as likely to die from prostate cancer than their white counterparts, and Black women have 41% higher breast cancer mortality than white women. Early detection with screenings and regular visits to a health care professional has been shown to reverse these rates. A University of Michigan study in JAMA Oncology looking at data from 306,100 men — including 54,840 Black men ages 59 to 71 from the Veterans Affairs system — found that Black and white men of similar age, socioeconomic status, and tumor characteristics, such as prostate-specific antigen (PSA) levels, stage and grade of cancer (markers of cancer’s aggressiveness) — had comparable rates of death when they had similar access to care and standardized treatment, underscoring the importance of routine screening and access to quality resources. 

Reynolds, a native Chicagoan and a board member of the University of Chicago medical school was surprised to learn about the vast health disparities that existed in his hometown. Naturally, he sprung into action. 


“A dean at the medical school asked me a question … he said Jim, do you know where the sickest population in the United States resides? My first thought was somewhere in the Deep South — maybe Appalachia, or Mississippi or Alabama — but to my surprise, it was South Side Chicago. I couldn’t believe it. He said in the South Side of Chicago we overindex on every major disease that kills you including cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, lung disease … everything,” Reynolds said. “That sparked my awareness of health disparities. This partnership with the American Cancer Society is one where I am clear about the mission and they want us to work on getting Black and brown people screened earlier for cancer.” 

Through this collaboration, Reynold hopes to elevate cancer prevention, screening,

and awareness in traditionally underserved communities, harnessing the power of

storytelling, social and sporting gatherings, and athlete engagement to help make a difference. 

“We talk about wealth disparities, financial disparities, even educational disparities but what we don’t talk about is health and early detection. I bet you dollars to donuts that you probably know someone who died of cancer that was probably curable. Everybody’s been touched by it so now we’re talking about it,” Reynolds said. “Information is power. So much of the information doesn’t reach the people that we want to reach in a manner that they will receive it best and a lot of that has to do with the messenger. People will listen to Michael Wilbon, Charles Barkley and Devin Booker who they see on TV every night.”

The Fuel the Fight initiative exemplifies a radical shift in sports endorsements. It prioritizes athlete ownership and social impact over pure profit. Athletes are actively challenging the outdated “shut up and play” mentality that has dominated sports for too long. By leveraging their platforms, athletes are driving positive social change. Fans and consumers have a responsibility to keep these crucial conversations about health equity and racial disparity going. Recognizing the power of partnerships, social movements, and even sports gatherings can fuel real change.

Reynolds and his team recognize the need for a long-term commitment to health equity, setting their sights on increasing Black and brown participation in clinical trials. However, Reynolds acknowledges significant hurdles that need to be addressed before this goal can be fully realized.

“They used to do clinical trials on us back in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s without our permission or knowledge and I think some of that embedded suspicion still exists amongst Black people,” Reynolds said. “But as more people gain knowledge and trust and realize that this is something that’s ok to do, [that] this is something that’s good for you, I think we’ll see a turn.”

This collaboration is not a replacement for the dream of healthy equality. It is something more — a powerful ally. Systemic change is still desperately needed. Transparency in health care costs, increased availability and access to health care professionals that look like us, and a path to universal health care — these are the ultimate goals. But in the meantime, partnerships like these are a welcomed sight to medical and public health professionals who are weary of beating the same drum, with little response. It signals that others are willing to join the fight, amplify the message, and reach a whole new audience. And maybe, just maybe, with these influential voices by our side, the drumbeat of health equity will finally start to break the defining silence of a government and corporations that have chosen profit over people.

Dr. Shamard Charles is the executive director of graduate studies in public health at St. Francis College and sits on the Medical Advisory Board of Verywell Health (Dot Dash-Meredith). He is also host of the health podcast, The Revolutions Within Us. He received his medical degree from the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University and his Masters of Public Health from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Previously, he spent three years as a senior health journalist for NBC News and served as a Global Press Fellow for the United Nations Foundation. You can follow him on Instagram @askdrcharles or Twitter @DrCharles_NBC.

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