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  1. Life & Culture

Project G.O.A.T. fundraiser combines art and trafficking awareness in Tampa Bay

Athletes/Artists and Causes: Big Game Party with a Purpose raises awareness about human trafficking.
Project G.O.A.T. founder Rob Canton poses with artist Nneka Jones and the goat sculpture she embellished for a campaign raising awareness about human trafficking.
Project G.O.A.T. founder Rob Canton poses with artist Nneka Jones and the goat sculpture she embellished for a campaign raising awareness about human trafficking. [ Courtesy of Rob Canton ]
Published Feb. 2

Have you seen the goat statues around town, maybe at International Plaza or in Tampa International Airport?

They’re painted and embellished by some of Tampa Bay’s most prominent artists.

But beyond their cool factor, those goats are part of Project G.O.A.T. (Global Offense Against Trafficking), a local effort to spread awareness about human trafficking. It “aims to provide funding for organizations dedicated to rescuing & rehabilitating victims of human trafficking.”

On Saturday, 55 goat sculptures will be on display and available for purchase at the Athletes/Artists and Causes: Big Game Party with a Purpose fundraiser at Zoo Tampa at Lowry Park. It’s presented by Athletes and Causes, a nonprofit organization that connects athletes and artists with charitable causes.

Rob Canton, the founder, president and CEO of Athletes and Causes conceived the idea for Project G.O.A.T. about a year and a half ago.

He aligned the project with Super Bowl 55 as a platform to get the word out.

“Being a sports and tourism consultant with PricewaterhouseCoopers for 25 years, traveling all over the country and internationally, I saw that human trafficking is an unfortunate side effect of many big events,” he said.

Canton said he reached out to the local arts community because he recognizes the arts as a driver of tourism and economic development.

“Tampa Bay has amazing artists,” he said.

In 2019, he commissioned Scott Joseph Moore to create the first goat sculpture, as well as a mold the others could be cast from.

That goat was auctioned off at a fundraiser for Houston Astros pitcher Lance McCullers, Jr.’s foundation and earned $15,000.

From there on, they decided to “hit the gas” and Moore cast the goat sculptures in a material called Forton, which is sturdy enough that most of the sculptures can be displayed outdoors.

“We knew a few local artists,” he said. “When I approached them about painting a goat, you can imagine what they were thinking, that they would be painting a real goat!”

Word spread and soon, prominent artists including Ales “Bask” Hostomsky, Jabari Reed-Diop a.k.a iBoms, Zulu Painter and Nneka Jones had decorated the sculptures in their signature styles.

Now, Canton said, so many artists have reached out to participate that they had to make a waiting list.

The goats made their debut at the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts in March of last year. Since then, they’ve been exhibited at International Plaza, Tampa International Airport and the Epicurean Hotel.

Project G.O.A.T. sculptures on display at Tampa International Airport.
Project G.O.A.T. sculptures on display at Tampa International Airport. [ Courtesy of Rob Canton ]

There are quite a few sculptures that celebrate the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"Tom" is Bianca Burrows' painted goat sculpture for Project G.O.A.T., a campaign to spread awareness about human trafficking.
"Tom" is Bianca Burrows' painted goat sculpture for Project G.O.A.T., a campaign to spread awareness about human trafficking. [ Courtesy of Rob Canton ]

Some of them directly address human trafficking. Nneka Jones’ goat is entitled Bullseye.

“My goat highlights specific statistics reported that identify people of color being the largest percentage of human trafficking victims, particularly young women and girls of color,” Jones said in an email. “With 75 percent of them being women and 25 percent of that being young girls, these figures are boldly embedded into the sides of the goat forcing the viewer to view this goat’s surface as a never ending canvas of raw and painful truth.”

Nneka Jones' goat sculpture has the text, "Modern Slavery" on it.
Nneka Jones' goat sculpture has the text, "Modern Slavery" on it. [ Courtesy of Rob Canton ]

The event on Saturday is the culmination of the awareness campaign. Additional work from the 55 artists as well as sports memorabilia will be on display for auction. Everything is also available online at https://bit.ly/3cv6HXH.

“Everybody knows that COVID-19 has made everybody pivot and so many artists have lost their place to show,” Canton said.

Artists added other works and the auction grew from 55 goats to 150 pieces from 90 artists.

The event also showcases all of the Athletes and Causes Foundation Charities, including those of former Yankee/Red Sox player Johnny Damon, Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Chris Godwin, Houston Astros pitchers Lance McCullers Jr. and Joe Smith and Dallas Cowboys defensive lineman Eli Ankou.

It happens outdoors in the zoo’s newly renovated Saunders Pavilion with food and drinks, live animal interactions, live painting and entertainment.

While it’s not an official Super Bowl event, it will be star studded. The list of celebrities expected to attend include Major League Baseball players David “Big Papi” Ortiz and Drew Hutchison, as well as musician Ryan Cabrera and former Chicago Bear Jim McMahon.

“If it wasn’t a COVID year we’d have a lot more artists there,” Canton said. But with not many other events to compete with this year, he thinks the event may attract some visitors looking for something to do.

Goats hold a special significance to Canton. When he retired from the Lightning, he and his wife, Debbie, moved to a 60-acre property in Thonotosassa, where they have farm animals, including goats. Debbie guides goat yoga classes on the farm.

One of their goats, Grady, was born with disabilities. So they were inspired to create the Grady Goat Foundation “in hopes of providing a way to support animals and inspiring children facing their own physical, mental, or economic adversity.”

Project G.O.A.T. is the primary mission of the Grady Goat Foundation, which both fall under the umbrella of Athletes and Causes.

Canton was also inspired to create Project G.O.A.T. by a 2019 article written by Bill Gates on his blog, GatesNotes. It discussed how caring for and selling goats are empowering women in the poorest parts of India. This led him to reach his own conclusion that this is saving women “from a life of forced servitude or sex trafficking.”

Canton partnered with It’s a Penalty, an organization whose global campaigns against human trafficking will have a major presence in Tampa during the Super Bowl.

They plan to do Project G.O.A.T. again for next year’s Super Bowl, shipping 56 goat sculptures across the country. The ones that don’t sell this year will be repainted by artists.

Canton said he thinks that because the auction items have been online, the fundraiser will be a success.

He said that while the campaign’s main goal is awareness, they want to raise enough to cover the cost of the campaign.

“We’ve got 10 different charities that are hosts of the event,” he said. “Win or lose we’re gonna be relatively happy.”

If you go

Athletes/Artists and Causes: Big Game Party with a Purpose at Zoo Tampa at Lowry Park, 1101 W Sligh Ave. 1-5 p.m. Saturday. Individual tickets are $1,000 and sponsorships range $2,500-$50,000. athletesandcauses.org.