The first thing 2007 Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School graduate Max Levitt did as the Syracuse University football team’s equipment manager from 2009-11 when he got back to school each year was clear out virtually all the item’s in the team’s equipment shed to make room for the new shipments from Nike.
Most college athletics programs have contracts with certain equipment manufacturers, Levitt said, and the more high profile the program, the more money it is worth. For Syracuse, Nike sent about $2 million of equipment annually to spread across its teams.
“It doesn’t roll over year after year,” Levitt said. “We’d take boxes of cleats and footballs and basically just toss them in the dumpster. Some of the stuff hadn’t been touched yet, stuff like game balls had been used 12 times.”
This likely happens everywhere, Levitt said, because NCAA regulations make it difficult for colleges to make donations on their own unless approached by an organization. With the programs’ logo on the equipment, universities are not allowed to donate to youth programs where athletes have recruitment eligibility, Levitt said.
The waste of perfectly good sporting equipment did not sit well with Levitt. In order to combat that, he founded Leveling the Playing Field, Inc., a Montgomery County-based non-profit organization that aims to provide at-risk children living in the Washington Metropolitan area with sporting equipment in an effort to increase their athletic involvement opportunities.
“I did a lot of volunteer work with the Jewish Federation growing up and I’ve gone into areas in D.C. and Montgomery County where a lot of kids would kill for [what we were throwing away at Syracuse],” said Levitt, who added that sports were a major factor in his upbringing. “I started looking deeper into it and in doing research I found out that the cost of sports equipment is a huge barrier for non-profits.”
Levitt said he found that one in five underserved households are not getting their kids involved in athletics because of the price of equipment. Aside from physical fitness — obesity rates have tripled in the last three decades, according to Level the Playing Field’s news release — athletics possess important mental benefits. According to Levitt, children who participate in athletics are 60 percent less likely to drop out of school.
In just a short time, what started off as a small collection of equipment Levitt stored in his parents’ basement has turned into an organization that has donated more than 5,000 sporting items to 35 youth programs primarily in Montgomery County, but scattered throughout the Washington, D.C. area and impacting nearly 5,550 children, Levitt said.
That number is set to rise exponentially after Levitt and Level the Playing Field volunteers cleared out the Montgomery County Recreation Department’s warehouse Sunday in an event that drew out County Executive Ike Leggett. Leveling the Playing Field was given nearly 4,000 pieces of equipment no longer being used by the county as it now only offers basketball league play.
Among area programs benefitting from Levitt’s organization are Linkages to Learning — 15 sites within Montgomery County Public Schools — and the City of Rockville’s Latino Youth Development Program.
“Max really helped us with donating actual equipment, it’s very expensive, money we don’t have in our budget to purchase supplies,” said Lynique Murray, the Linkages to Learning site director at Maryvale Elementary. “That is money that I can now use elsewhere like for finding reading materials, other educational items or food.”
Whereas Levitt used to spend time calling around for whatever pieces of equipment he could find, an average of two organizations per week reach out to him these days. In addition to Syracuse, Levitt’s organization has working relationships with the University of Maryland, College Park, Towson, Gallaudet and Goucher College and he said he intends to add to that list. While donations aren’t an issue, Levitt said seeking corporate funding will be important as his organization and programs continue to grow. He has also joined forces with professional athletes and local teams, including the Washington Redskins and D.C. United, to provide a life skills component with his donations, Levitt said.
“Sport is a really good vehicle for teaching,” Levitt said. “There’s always something that can relate to real life. One lesson we’re trying to get across is when facing adversity the last thing you want to do is put your head down, with hard work and determination you can get out of your situation. That goes hand in hand with sports. If you’re losing a game you’re certainly not going to come back if you put your head down and feel bad for yourself.”