By Keith Green
There are pioneers in every field, from critical areas like medicine to economic engines such as pro sports. More than 15 years ago, I was lucky enough to be on the ground floor of a grassroots effort that combined the powerful world of sports promotion with a neurological disorder that very few knew much about or had been exposed to at the time- autism.
In the early 2000’s, I was the Director of Public Relations at Richmond Raceway, one of the most popular NASCAR and IndyCar tracks in the country. Working there was the type of fun, high-profile sports job I dreamed about as a kid, and I worked with many amazing people, companies and causes. One of the NASCAR drivers I worked with to promote our events was Hermie Sadler from nearby Emporia, Virginia. Sadler’s daughter Halie is on the autism spectrum and he called one day and asked track president Doug Fritz and me if we would be interested in possibly organizing a benefit event for a nearby school for children with autism. Knowing the type of people Hermie and his wife Angie are, we were delighted to help.
Sadler certainly didn’t consider himself a visionary at the time and I’m certain he’d scoff at the notion even now. But trying to draw attention to autism through sports was not common at that time. What nobody knew regardless if they worked in the medical field or not, was that in the coming years the autism diagnosis rate would skyrocket to breathtaking heights, and that the worlds of sports and autism would have a strong, symbiotic relationship.
About five years after the go-kart racing event we organized with Sadler and several NASCAR drivers to raise money for The Faison School in Richmond, I sent Sadler and his wife Angie an email. I was now living in New Jersey with my family and needed help. Just like Halie, my then two-year old son Gavin had been diagnosed with autism.
What followed in the years after that go-kart event were many autism-focused initiatives in the sports world designed to draw attention to the disorder and acceptance to those affected. Leading the way was Autism Speaks, which collaborated with Dover International Speedway for nearly a decade for naming rights for one of the track’s NASCAR Cup races. Later, the foundation organized Coaches Powering Forward for Autism with NCAA basketball coaches to wear puzzle-piece pins on designated weekends during the season. That program is still going and was inspired by coaches at Townson University and University of South Florida, both of whom have sons on the autism spectrum.
There are now countless other examples, including golfer Ernie Els who started the Els for Autism foundation in honor of his son, the New York Red Bulls which installed a sensory and autism-friendly suite for its games after being inspired by the daughter of the team’s general manager, and the Philadelphia Eagles, which started the annual Eagles Autism Challenge, a one-day bike ride and family-friendly run/walk. (Team owner Jeffrey Lurie has a family member on the autism spectrum).
But why do sports and autism work well together? The prevalence of the disorder is certainly a factor. It’s nearly impossible to find a friend, neighbor or colleague who somehow hasn’t been affected by or isn’t at least somewhat familiar with the disorder. Sports, at the same time, is a near-universal bond (even if we all don’t root for the same teams) that brings people together to often escape the daily challenges we all face in our lives. Couple those factors with a disorder that can be hard to describe and understand, has no cure, can be difficult to manage for educators, therapists and caregivers, and affects those diagnosed in a multitude of ways for their lifetimes, then it’s easy to see how a bond between sports and autism has formed and thrived.
There’s tangible proof that awareness initiatives have helped and inspired countless individuals and inspired thousands to choose a career path to work with individuals who have autism. But there’s a serious math problem. When my son was diagnosed in 2008, 1 in 88 children who were born in the United States would be part of that same statistic. That rate climbed to 1 in 68 from a study released in 2016, to 1 in 59 in 2018. When comparing the birth rate in the United States to a diagnosis rate of 1 in 59, that means that more than 50,000 children are diagnosed each year.
As a result, our society is in a race against time to find more educators, therapists, doctors, caregivers and programs to work with those on the autism spectrum and their families. That realization inspired me to start my own foundation focused on autism and education. Ironically-or perhaps not- the organization has a sports-inspired name, the Autism MVP Foundation.
Thankfully, for the last 15 years, the sports world has taken the lead to drive awareness for the disorder. I’m certain that the small grassroots event with the Sadler family and the many national programs that followed have positively impacted the lives of so many.
Keith Green has more than two decades of experience in PR, marketing and sales in sports and entertainment, including stops at the Philadelphia 76ers, Richmond Raceway and Guinness World Records. In addition to forming and running the all-volunteer Autism MVP Foundation in 2015, he has more than 10 years of experience as an adjunct faculty member teaching sports PR and marketing classes to graduate and undergraduate students at several universities.