Sports leaders unite to raise autism awareness

May 10th, 2016

NEW YORK -- Commissioners Rob Manfred of Major League Baseball and Adam Silver of the National Basketball Association stood alongside former National Football League Commissioner Paul Tagliabue during a cocktail reception before Monday night's "Lead Off for a Cure" fundraiser that raised $1.2 million for autism awareness and research at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

"You know, they're the only ones who know," said the evening's host, Bob Costas of MLB Network and NBC Sports, marveling at the sight of the trio standing for a photo opp on the blue carpet. "Paul Tagliabue has retired, but I saw him embrace Adam Silver. They're the ones who know. Rob Manfred. There's a poem that goes something like:

"Bullfight critics, row by row / Crowd the Plaza full / But only one is there who knows / And he's the one who fights the bull."

Indeed, there at The Met's grandiose Temple of Dendur exhibit -- the relocated ruins where Egyptians once worshipped their gods along the Nile -- some of the most powerful people in sports present and past were gathered for a unified show of force to help families who are living with the challenges of autism in ever-increasing numbers.

This "For a Cure" annual gala is rotated to a different sports league each year, and MLB hosted this one -- as it did last in 2012 -- along with Autism Speaks and The Gillen Brewer School. Funds raised Monday are split between those two organizations.

"It's an honor for Major League Baseball to be involved with two great organizations, Autism Speaks and the Gillen Brewer School," Manfred said during the reception. "It is our national involvement that you're looking at here tonight, but the clubs also do a great job with the local autism groups in their local markets."

The fundraiser was staged amid a fourth annual rollout of 30 Autism Awareness ballpark dates throughout the season, one at every ballpark, in partnership with Autism Speaks. The Cardinals' Autism Awareness game was Sunday, the Angels' home date is next up on Thursday, then it's Boston's turn on Saturday at Fenway Park, and the list goes on. Teams are able to create a safe and friendly environment to welcome fans who live with autism -- and to raise awareness.

"It's part of our social responsibility calendar," Manfred said. "I know it's a favorite among the clubs, and it's one that they work very hard at in order to make sure that each of them has a special day at the ballpark."

Autism is a general term used to describe a group of complex developmental brain disorders -- autism spectrum disorders (ASD) -- caused by a combination of genes and environmental influences. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by communication difficulties, social and behavioral challenges, as well as repetitive behaviors. About one in every 68 children has been identified with ASD, according to Centers for Disease Control. Worldwide, it's about one in 160, according to the World Health Organization.

"I think we're getting to the point where we understand some of the numbers, although I think you're going to see that the next round with the CDC (Center for Disease Control) is going to look closer to 1 in 50 than 1 in 68," said former NBC Universal chief Bob Wright, who founded Autism Speaks along with wife Suzanne after their grandson was diagnosed.

"That's three percent boys, because there are more boys than girls involved. You can't have a society where you lose connection to three percent of your male population. So we have to really make sure those boys and girls are given the chance to be as productive as they can be, given whatever their disability might be, or whatever their skill might be -- make sure that that skill doesn't get buried somewhere at ninth or 10th grade, so it comes out.

"Everybody can't work for Google and everybody isn't going to be a computer programmer," Wright continued, "but a lot are."

Event co-chairs included Manfred and Tagliabue; Mel Karmazin, board member and executive committee member of Autism Speaks; and Henry Schacht, managing director and senior advisor, Warburg Pincus LLC New York.

Honorees were JetBlue, presented to Dave Checketts, the Jetblue board member and former New York Knicks and Madison Square Garden exec, and Martin Lipton, founding partner of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Kratz.

Ryan Dempster was among several former baseball players in attendance. He and his wife are active with their Dempster Family Foundation, which helps raise awareness for 22q, a genetic disorder found in their daughter Riley. That disorder can contribute to autism, among other challenges.

"You have to realize that in life we are very fortunate," Dempster said. "Especially as athletes, not only the money we make and the things that are entitled to us, you have to take a step back and realize how fortunate we are. For me to be able to be here and support that and show how much I care about something like Autism Speaks is an easy thing to do."

Mets legend Ed Kranepool was also there, along with Mark DeRosa, Lee Mazzilli and Bob Ojeda. Kranepool has a foundation devoted to autism, after it was diagnosed in his grandson, who is now 11 and "doing fine."

"This is a tremendous charity and obviously anything I can do for autism, I do have an autistic grandson," he said. "The numbers have really come way down. The percentage of children who have autism and the different aspects of it is tremendous. It used to be one in 1,000 or 2,000, and now it's down to 1 in under 100. So you know it's prevalent around the country. We have to do something. These youngsters deserve a chance."