Basketball May Not Be Pat Summitt’s Greatest Legacy

The legendary NCAA coach, who died last month, played a significant role in drawing public attention to Alzheimer's disease. Her influence could help researchers and groups like the Alzheimer's Association turn a corner in fighting the illness.

When legendary women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt passed away a few weeks ago, she left behind quite a legacy—for one thing, she was the winningest basketball coach in NCAA history.

But the University of Tennessee icon may have left another legacy behind that stretches far beyond those win totals. That comes from the foundation she started in her name soon after announcing that she had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Five years after making that announcement, the disease took her life.

Summitt’s longtime colleague Joan Cronan, the former Tennessee women’s athletic director, recently recalled a conversation with her friend soon after the diagnosis. “She looked me directly in the eye, and she said, ‘Joan, I thought I was going to be remembered for winning basketball games, but I hope I’m remembered for making a difference in this disease,’” Cronan told The New York Times after Summitt’s death on June 28.

By fighting the disease publicly—and continuing to work after her announcement—Summitt helped to encourage public interest in the disease, and in the weeks after she died, a significant amount in donations was raised to support Alzheimer’s research.

Beth Kallmyer, the Alzheimer’s Association’s vice president for constituent services, told Forbes that such public awareness helps others with the disease.

“When someone like Pat Summitt, the winningest coach, comes out publicly and says, ‘I have Alzheimer’s,’ people think, ‘If it can happen to her, maybe I can talk about it,'” Kallmyer told the magazine. “When a famous person like Pat Summitt or Glen Campbell says, ‘I have Alzheimer’s,’ it normalizes it and allows people to go talk with their doctor. Especially with the baby boomers aging, there are more people reaching the age that is the greatest risk for the disease.”

FiveThirtyEight writer Maggie Koerth-Baker notes that Summitt’s public handling of the disease did something else—it showed people exactly how complex dementia and Alzheimer’s really are:

Dementia is more of a symptom than a diagnosis, and it can be caused by a number of different diseases. Even Alzheimer’s, the most common type of dementia, doesn’t seem to have a single cause. Instead, what ties Summitt to millions of other Alzheimer’s patients all over the world is the physical damage it wrought in her brain.

As a result, a lot of funding is needed—$991 million in federal funding was raised during the 2016 fiscal year, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. And every little bit helps.

Summitt’s foundation has done some impressive work of its own—raising $320,000 in donations in the weeks after her death, according to the Times.

The world may have lost Pat Summitt, but in so many ways, her legacy is just being written.

Pat Summit, shown in 2006. (kevin813/Flickr)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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