It’s easy to get down nowadays, huh? We’re isolated to begin with, and then you turn on cable news and there in the corner of your screen is a running tally of the dead, as though it were a stat during a ballgame, and announcers dictate a seemingly endless parade of stories that, taken together, seem to suggest that America just doesn’t get stuff done anymore.
For me, just recently, a magazine article led me to question whether there is still such a thing as American Exceptionalism.
In The Atlantic’s We Are Living in a Failed State: The coronavirus didn’t break America. It revealed what was already broken, George Packer lays out a devastating critique: “When the virus came here, it found a country with serious underlying conditions, and it exploited them ruthlessly,” he writes. “Chronic ills—a corrupt political class, a sclerotic bureaucracy, a heartless economy, a divided and distracted public—had gone untreated for years. We had learned to live, uncomfortably, with the symptoms. It took the scale and intimacy of a pandemic to expose their severity—to shock Americans with the recognition that we are in the high-risk category.”
You want to be a billionaire? Well, you gotta give your money and your time. And that’s a good thing, because we’re obligated.
Packer goes on to cite chapter and verse as to how rare simple competence has become, let alone the American “can-do” attitude that remade a continent and built the fastest growing economy in history after World War II.
It hit me: Not only don’t we do big things anymore, we don’t even get the small things done competently. (Masks? Really?)
So I was down, and getting downer. But then two things happened. First, I started reading A.J. Baime’s The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit, and an Epic Quest to Arm an America at War, a gripping account of how Motown and the Ford Motor Company pivoted during World War II to become munitions factories, producing upwards of a bomber a day.
And then I had a conversation with local billionaire and Sixers’ part owner Michael Rubin, and it was as if, in his plain-spoken single-mindedness to get shit done in this crisis, he’d stepped right out of the book whose spine I’d just cracked and was modeling leadership for all of us.
You’ve heard all about Rubin, the entrepreneurial savant who became a billionaire at a tender age and whose friendship with the rapper Meek Mill awakened a social conscience, leading to a $50 million big bet: Widespread criminal justice reform.
When the pandemic broke, there was Rubin again, channeling his inner Henry Ford, turning the Easton, PA, factory of one of his companies, Fanatics, from producing baseball uniforms to churning out Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for hospital workers.
Most recently, he made headlines when he realized that, as a result of the coronavirus economic tsunami, someone had to tackle the issue of food insecurity in a big way. So he announced the #allinchallenge, an audacious Ice Bucket Challenge-like sweepstakes that’s really a movement for these pandemic times.
The idea was simple: Rubin challenged his celebrity friends to contribute a prized possession or the creation of a great fan experience to the sweepstakes kitty.
By yesterday, revenue raised from bids to, say, hang out with the cast of Friends or take possession of Eli Manning’s Super Bowl XLVI MVP Corvette had topped $26 million, all of which is going to nonprofits like Feeding America, Meals on Wheels, World Central Kitchen and No Kid Hungry.
I caught up with Rubin right when I was needing a shot of his can-do spirit the most. What follows is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
Larry Platt: So, most people are going crazy from not doing anything. You’ve decided to take this opportunity to start a nationwide movement.
Michael Rubin: I’m running so hard, I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I can’t stop—it’s the way my brain is built.
LP: Take me back a few weeks. How’d this start?
MR: We actually went to the Bahamas for [teenage daughter] Kylie’s spring break. We were there for about three days on a boat and it just didn’t feel appropriate to be there when the whole world was going through such a scary time. So we literally came back home and have been here ever since, for about a month. And you know me, right? I don’t watch anything but live sports, and there was no sports. So I was watching CNN and saw how they were struggling to get masks to frontline workers.
I’m running so hard, I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I can’t stop—it’s the way my brain is built.
I was, like, I have this factory in Easton making baseball uniforms — what if we halt production of baseball product and make PPE instead? I called [Major League Baseball Commissioner] Rob Manfred and he was, like, “How quickly can you do it? Let’s go!” Within six days, that’s what we were doing. It felt great, the employees felt great. It was a really nice feeling.
LP: So you pivoted to PPE, but then decided to, if not pivot again, to take even more on by announcing the Challenge. Why?
MR: I came up with the idea for it about four weeks ago Tuesday. I was thinking, how can I really help impact the fight against this disease? The Pharma companies are working on a vaccine. And PPE is still really important, and we were moving ahead on that. But hunger is a big remaining issue. When I started to hear that we may be approaching 30-percent unemployment, that’s where celebrities can really have a big impact.
We’ve talked about this before: I just think that athletes, celebrities and business leaders have an obligation to show leadership and make a difference in times of crisis. So my first call was to Meek, and he said he’d contribute his Rolls Royce Phantom. I said, “Are you serious?” He said, “I don’t need a fuckin’ Rolls Royce Phantom.” I’d expect nothing less from Meek, but it was a really good phone call, and that motivated me.
I called Kevin Hart next. And I asked if he’d offer a workout—I figured, the winning bidder could go through a workout with him. He said, “I ain’t no trainer, fuck that. But I will make someone a movie star!” He said he’d put the winning bidder in his next movie. How cool is that?
My next calls were to Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Jeffrey Lurie, and they were all super excited. Talk about stepping up, Jeff said he’d have someone coach a pre-season game, draw up a play. That motivated me to push like crazy.
MR: Yeah, Alan was actually my second call, after Meek. He’s one of my best friends, and he helped me pivot right away. I’d been thinking of this as an auction and he said, “Mike, this shouldn’t just be an auction—that’ll only be for rich people.”
Alan came up with the idea of making it a sweepstakes, and he was 100 percent right. Alan dropped everything to do this full-time with me. He jumped right in and is really the co-founder of this. It didn’t take us long to realize, like, shit, we need help.
So we called Gary, who also dropped everything. And we’ve since added Mike Novogratz, who is on the Reform Alliance board, and, just last night, I got DJ Khaled to come on board.
LP: I’ve seen Novogratz talk about crypto currency and, though I have no idea what he’s talking about, he seems visionary. That’s like a dream team of people who get stuff done you’ve put together.
MR: But the way I think about this, this is such a big lift, we wouldn’t have been able to do any of it without Fanatics. When I first got the idea, I told Fanatics CEO Doug Mack about it and he said “I love it” and I said, “You’ve got a week to build it.” And Doug and his team jumped on it and are doing this 24/7. The truth is, we all stopped what we were doing—this isn’t a one man show. It’s been about building a great team and grinding it.
This has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done—but you know me. I have a personality that’s unrelenting.
LP: Well, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about, the way you model leadership. Why is it you’ve been able to stand up this thing that’s raised over $26 million in a couple of weeks, when we still haven’t tested over 1 percent of the population? Why do some things succeed and others fail?
MR: Vision and talent, those are the two keys. You need a vision and you need a team. I had the initial vision, and Alan and Gary made it better, and then our team jumped on it.
LP: What about setting a big, North Star goal? I’m thinking of, like, when JFK said we’re going to send a man to the moon in 10 years. It was a challenge. It’s interesting that you’ve framed this whole venture as a challenge. Do you set goals as a way to motivate your team?
MR: Absolutely. Our goal with this is to get every fuckin’ celebrity, every athlete, every business leader, and to raise $100 million. The most ever raised is $58 million for Haiti earthquake relief, and we’re going to beat that.
LP: I’ve been kinda down lately at the state of our leadership. Do you get down? Have you gotten down during this process?
If you have hard work and street smarts, you can be successful. You’ve got to use your strengths and then build a great team around you, and that’s what I’ve always done.
MR: During the two-week process of getting the All In Challenge up and running, there were probably five great days and seven shitty days, days where people told me they were going to do something and they didn’t, or I had to chase them down to get their video. Those days I’d want to quit, but I’d catch myself and say, “I’m not a fucking quitter.” This has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done—but you know me. I have a personality that’s unrelenting.
LP: That’s the other aspect of leadership that often goes unremarked upon: Sheer force of will.
MR: We will not be denied. It’s that simple.
LP: Now come the tough questions. I’ve gotten wind that your nickname is “Pancake.” What’s that about?
MR:Alan came up with it. We were in Vegas and I was passed out after a tough night and Alan said, “Look at him, he looks like a pancake.” My friends give me shit for being 200 pounds instead of the 170 I should weigh. I do look like a pancake. I agree.
LP: Okay, and another thing I’ve heard, which can’t be true, is that you don’t really know the alphabet. Say it ain’t so, Mike.
MR: It is so. It’s the God’s honest truth. I learned it when I was young and then I must have forgotten it. It’s the way my brain is wired. At an early age, I was just always working. Now, on principle, I won’t relearn it. I think it’s a great thing to show people, that someone like me can be so dumb.
LP: I don’t think anyone who has ever spoken to you or looked at what you’ve done can say you’re dumb, dude. But I am fascinated by this. What happens if you recite the alphabet?
MR: I get to the middle of it, and then I just don’t know the rest, or I get it all confused. Look, I barely made it out of high school, I didn’t go to college, and there are just so many parts of my brain that are all screwed up. But it sends a pretty cool message, right? If you have hard work and street smarts, you can be successful. You’ve got to use your strengths and then build a great team around you, and that’s what I’ve always done.
LP: Wow. One other thing. I was with you when you came out against the wealth tax—when it’s been tried, all it’s done is create revenue for accountants who figure out ways around it—but you’ve also argued that the wealthy shouldn’t be left off the hook, right?
MR: I thought the wealth tax was idiotic, but I say this all the time: Giving money is easy, spending time is hard. This is kind of what I’m saying to every celebrity with the All In Challenge. It used to be cool to be a billionaire, right? But now, you want to be a billionaire? Well, you gotta give your money and your time. And that’s a good thing, because we’re obligated.
LP: I can’t thank you enough for taking the time, and for being someone who just tackles big problems.
MR: Thanks, man, it’s good to hear your voice. Stay safe.