In the world of professional sports, multi-million dollar contracts are the norm for star players. However, some athletes have chosen to go against the grain and turn down huge paydays in order to give back to the small communities that raised them.
Though leaving millions of dollars on the table, these nine professional athletes prioritized civic duty and charitable giving over maximizing their salaries. By taking more modest contracts, they enabled themselves to invest more time, money and energy into improving their hometowns.
Their selflessness provides a refreshing counter to the media’s focus on exorbitant athletics salaries and serves as an inspirational reminder of the importance of giving back. This article will highlight the noble sacrifices that these nine sports stars made in order to better the lives of others in their small communities. Though they may have passed on riches, their lasting legacies will be the positive impacts made possible by their generosity.
When Jason Brown signed a 5-year, $37.5 million contract with the St. Louis Rams in 2009, he looked poised for a lucrative NFL career. Yet just three years later, the center shocked the football world by retiring in his prime at age 29. Walking away from further millions, Brown pursued a radical career change – from professional athlete to full-time farmer.
After shifting his family from a 10,000-square-foot mansion to a modest North Carolina farmhouse, Brown founded First Fruits Farm on land his grandfather had worked. There, along with his wife and kids, the former NFL star now spends his days wrestling 1,000-pound cows and driving tractors. It’s a far cry from the glitz of pro sports, but Brown says he’s never been more fulfilled.
The majority of food grown on Brown’s sprawling 1,000-acre farm is donated to local charities. His program “Wisdom for Life” has provided thousands of meals for needy families across North Carolina. Brown says his Christian faith compelled him to “feed God’s people” – a calling that now sustains him more than football glory ever could.
Though some call him crazy for leaving millions on the table, Brown firmly believes he made the right choice. A decade after his shocking career change, the ex-football star continues to embrace his new life mission of service on the farm.
- Basketball star David Robinson turned down a massive $90 million contract in 1996 to facilitate a trade from the San Antonio Spurs to the Orlando Magic. This enabled the Spurs to clear salary cap space to sign other top players like Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins and eventually Tim Duncan, helping transform San Antonio into a basketball powerhouse. Though it was a huge risk, Robinson was rewarded with two NBA titles in 1999 and 2003, cementing his legacy as a Spur. He donated over $11 million to launch the Carver Academy in San Antonio to provide education opportunities for underprivileged children.
- NFL quarterback Warren Moon had better contract offers from other teams when he became a free agent, but he repeatedly took less money to stay with the Houston Oilers throughout his career. He fell in love with the city after being scorned by the NFL as a black quarterback and wanted to repay their loyalty. Moon started several charitable foundations in Houston, including donating $100,000 to create the Crescent Moon Foundation in 1984 to help underprivileged minority children stay in school and off drugs.
- Cycling legend Greg LeMond rejected a $5 million endorsement contract offer from a tobacco company in 1996, even though he was nearing retirement, because he felt that promoting cigarettes would send the wrong message to young cycling fans who looked up to him. Though it was a huge amount of money to turn down, LeMond remained steadfast in his principles. It emboldened him to later turn down more money to race exclusively in Europe in order to compete more on the American circuit and help grow the sport domestically.
- Legendary golfer Arnold Palmer declined over $1 million per year in appearance fees and endorsements from sponsors during his lifetime. He once said “A man has to make his own decisions. I never wanted to step away from my fans just to take another dollar.” Palmer contributed over $40 million to charitable causes in his hometown of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, including revitalizing the local hospital which now bears his name.
- NFL linebacker Luke Kuechly went against his agents’ strong recommendations to become the league’s highest-paid defender when negotiating a new contract in 2019. Instead, he signed a team-friendly 5-year, $62 million deal to stay with the Carolina Panthers, freeing up cap space to improve the roster. A Panthers fan growing up, Kuechly also donated money to Levine Children’s Hospital and youth reading programs in Charlotte.
- In 2018, NBA forward Khris Middleton left nearly $30 million total on the table to remain with the small-market Milwaukee Bucks on a 5-year, $178 million contract. His sacrifice allowed the Bucks the cap flexibility to trade for key players and eventually win the NBA title in 2021, ending a 50-year championship drought in Milwaukee. Middleton’s selflessness allowed the city to celebrate its first major sports crown since 1971.
- NFL running back Arian Foster took roughly $5 million less than he could have earned in free agency to stay with the Houston Texans in 2012. Foster said Houston gave him a chance when no one else would, so he wanted to repay them. He established the Arian Foster Family House in 2011 to provide free long-term housing for families traveling to Houston for their children’s organ transplants. His foundation covered over $4 million in housing costs for over 1,000 families in need.
- MLB pitcher Jake Arrieta signed a 3-year, $75 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2018 despite offers of more money and years from multiple other teams. Arrieta and his wife Brittany run the Here’s Hope Foundation focused on research and programs to end childhood cancer, inspired by seeing families struggling during her own battle with cancer. Though they live in Austin, the foundation has provided over $500,000 for improvements at the Dell Children’s Medical Center in their hometown.
- WNBA star Elena Delle Donne agreed to a 4-year contract extension in 2017 worth around $200,000 less per season to stay with the Chicago Sky and continue growing the game in that city. She launched programs including Hoops in the Hood to fund basketball courts and activities for underprivileged kids. Delle Donne also donated to equality programs for the special needs and LGBTQ communities after her sister Lizzie, who has autism and is deafblind, came out as gay.
The selfless actions of these 9 athletes reveal an uplifting truth – that giving back can be more rewarding than taking all one can. Their stories shine a spotlight on the positive impact that professional athletes can have on their communities when they prioritize civic duty over self-interest. Though they turned down the chance for even greater personal fortunes, they found that contributing to a cause bigger than oneself offers an abundance that money can’t buy.
By sacrificing some financial gain to remain in the towns that supported their journeys, they gave back in turn and became heroes off the field. Their legacies remind us how empowering it can be to invest one’s talents and resources into the places and people that matter most. While superstars too often leave their small communities behind, these sports role models chose to stay devoted to improving the lives around them.
The millions they turned down will one day be forgotten, but their lasting gifts to uplift their hometowns will be timeless. Their examples will hopefully inspire more athletes, and more of us, to ask what really counts in life – and realize that few things are more rewarding than giving back to build up those who believed in you from the start.