Often stereotyped as a game for the wealthy and elite, golf doesn’t seem like the ideal sport for teaching inner-city kids about values like honesty, perseverance and courtesy. That is until Joe Louis Barrow Jr. (BA ’68), CEO of international youth development organization The First Tee, starts to explain.
“Golf is the only sport where you as the player are required to be your own referee, your own judge, so it requires a level of integrity to play the game,” Barrow says. “In other sports, you push it as hard as you can because there are people with striped shirts running around to call the penalties or the fouls on you. The player doesn’t have the same responsibility as they do in golf.”
Using that sense of responsibility as a starting point, The First Tee aims to teach kids nine core values, including honesty, integrity, respect and confidence. Volunteer coaches around the country lead the courses; in Denver, DU men’s golf coach Eric Hoos is involved with the First Tee of Green Valley Ranch, and Hoos’ assistant coach and players all help as well.
The First Tee was founded in 1997. Barrow — son of boxing legend Joe Louis — came aboard in 2000, after working for a Denver-based company that manufactured ergonomic golf bags.
“I thought it was a very noble idea, to reach out to young people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to the game and introduce them to the game of golf and the values,” Barrow says. “I really felt that there was a high probability that I could make a difference in the organization, and in doing so, make a difference in the lives of the young people we would introduce the game of golf to. It was a pretty exciting opportunity.”
Barrow definitely made a difference: When he joined there were around 100 chapters open or in development; now there are just under 200. The number of young people reached has grown from 15,000 to more than 7.6 million. And in addition to its more than 750 program locations, The First Tee program also is in more than 5,800 elementary schools in over 800 school districts around the country.
“The unintended consequence that occurred there was when the young people came from the PE class back into the homerooms, the homeroom teacher is saying, ‘What is going on in the PE class?’ They are more disciplined. They are more respectful. They are more attentive,” Barrow says. “The introduction of the nine core values, the introduction of the discipline, has translated.
“In some districts, unbeknownst to us, they took each one of our nine core values, made a poster, and they discussed each of the values throughout the entire school, one per month. The nine core values became a character education platform.”
More formal studies show that The First Tee increases confidence in kids and helps them stay in school; the program also has introduced nine healthy habits to help reduce childhood obesity.
“One of the things that I learned from my alma mater is the importance of giving back,” Barrow says. “Also, when you’re the son of Joe Louis; when you have the legacy of an individual who in the ’30s and ’40s as a black man in this country — a very segregated country — was able to touch everyone in this country, you have a sense of responsibility to give back.”
In 1988 Barrow published “Joe Louis: 50 Years an American Hero,” a book about his father’s life. Before coming to The First Tee, Barrow worked for United Bank of Denver (now Wells Fargo) and later became director of the Office of Commercialization, Conservation and Solar Energy in Washington.
“I’ve had a very diverse career, but I’ve landed in a place where I’ve been able to provide the leadership and the drive, the focus, the direction of thousands of thousands of people who are now impacting millions upon millions of young people,” he says. “We’re making these young people feel special and giving them attention so they can have the desire and the drive to go places they might not otherwise.”