Ruth Riley led the University of Notre Dame to the women’s NCAA Basketball title in 2001. The 6’5″ center went on to win Olympic gold with the U.S. women’s basketball team in Athens in 2004. More recently she was named MVP in the WNBA finals as she led the Detroit Shock to the WNBA championship in 2003.
Dwayne De Rosario is a dynamic mid-fielder for Major League Soccer’s Houston Dynamo. As a Canadian citizen, he has represented his country as a member of his national team since the age of 16. He was recently named MVP of the 2007 Major League Soccer Cup, where he scored the winning goal.
Diego Gutierrez is an 11-year MLS pro midfielder for the Chicago Fire. He has been a member of five MLS championship-winning sides and received the Humanitarian-of-the-year award in 2007 from the U.S. Soccer Federation.
All three athletes are national spokespersons for the United Nations Foundation’s Nothing But Nets campaign, which is a partnership of faith based, sports, and business sector participants.
On a typically bright and hazy early Saturday morning in Bamako, we headed off to the Madibo Keita Stadium, a 1960’s Soviet-era construction to watch Ruth, Dwayne and Diego in action. Over 200 kids, ages 8-16, were already there decked out in appropriate athletic apparel and awaiting their instructions. The girls were guests of the Mali National Olympic basketball team and the boys were here with the National soccer coach. They represented a broad swath of Malian social strata and know they are among the few lucky ones to have been selected to the high honor of participating in a training clinic with the American athletes.
But before they are allowed to take the field for Drills, the excited, hyperactive, but timid group of kids had a price to pay – they had to sit still for a 25-minute World Health Organization standard malaria training module.
They were led through their malaria paces by Elizabeth McKee Gore, the head of the Nothing But Nets campaign. And the lead of our visitor delegation, Elizabeth can make cold liver oil go down like birthday cake, and predictably did.
The girls went off with Ruth to an indoor court and the boys with Diego and Dwayne to the outdoor field to engage in two hours of intensive drills and skills training. Ruth has a natural magnetic attraction with kids. They clearly regarded her with awe and reverence, and were probably asking whether they will ever be able to make lay-ups and fade-away jumpers with such casual assurance.
The boys were not surprisingly simultaneously more intense than the girls – evidence that they are part of a soccer-mad Africa abounds. Their jerseys had the names of Henry, Eto’o, Diarra, Essien, and Diof.
After the kids became strategically exhausted from the drills, the athletes gathered them in seated circles to deliver more malaria messaging. The kids are told that in able to become community leaders and robust athletes in Mali, they must not allow themselves to succumb to malaria. Prevention, recognizing early symptoms and getting rapid treatment are the keys. The kids attentively took it all in, especially because from the corners of their eyes they detected bundles of bed nets and a cornucopia of athletic goods that awaited them.
Throughout the previous few days of delegation travel, I had come to know Ruth, Dwayne and Diego. They are not only great athletes, but also exceptional human beings. And in Mali they were more than ambassadors of hope, but also a vital bridge linking the common interests of American and African people.
Diego and Dwayne are here with their wives, Ginna and Brandy, and the couples are away from each of their young children. They are actively aware of resource and opportunity disparities between the two continents and resolved to deploy their “star power” to do something about it. Ruth is in the same league. She has already been to Angola, Nigeria, and South Africa on similar Nothing But Nets and other outreach visits.
It is telling that all three picked malaria and Nothing But Nets as the platform for their personal mission and humanitarian zeal. I asked myself “why?” then I asked them. Their wisdom and heart shines through. They intuitively understand the importance of mobilizing a largely unaware American public to face into the devastating human scourge of which they know so little. And the athletes know that to have credibility with their legions of American fans, they must first confront that scourge face-to-face.
I observed that it was the three athletes in our delegation that found our local hospital visits to be the most emotionally stirring and physically shocking. Seeing malnourished and emaciated children, and some obtunded and glass-eyed with cerebral malaria is difficult for anyone. But for Ruth, Dwayne, and Diego this seemed an abstract nation until they were confronted with the harsh physical reality. So their messaging to the aspiring young Malian footballers and basketballers took on a more urgent and strident tone, as will the