Profile: Sports Team Owner Ted Leonsis

in Food Allergy
Published: August 19, 2011

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Leonsis: I carry EpiPens in my briefcase and my travel bag and keep them all over the house and the cars, but I didn’t have one on the movie set. No matter how vigilant you are, you still have the occasional “whoops.” But I got lucky. My family had visited the shoot earlier in the day, and my son also has allergies, so my wife had brought this little bag for him with an EpiPen and some Benadryl. They had already left, but the bag had stayed behind by chance.

I grabbed the bag, left the set and went to the bathroom, which was about a quarter of a mile away from the studio lot. It was almost like an outhouse. I go in to the bathroom, pull my pants down and jab the EpiPen in my leg. All I could think was: “They’re going to find me dead in this bathroom.” But I was fine. I took some Benadryl, too.

Your job requires lots of flying, hotels and meetings based around meals. How do you manage your allergies?

I’m very communicative and transparent. When I go to a hotel, I have my assistant tell them, “No down pillows or comforters, and no nuts in the room.” When I travel, as soon as I get on the plane, I tell the stewardess, “I’m severely allergic to nuts. Please don’t serve me any nuts and, if it’s not the end of the world, don’t serve the person next to me any nuts.” When I go to a restaurant, I tell the waiter that I’m very, very allergic to nuts.

But things can go wrong. I was once invited into the home of a very wealthy Arabic royal family member. I was vice-chairman of a charitable campaign raising money for schools, and I was there to ask the family to make a very large donation. We walk in and the princess couldn’t have been more hospitable. “Before we meet, we should get to know one another and enjoy some food,” she says. She brings me in a room, and there is literally the biggest table I’ve ever seen, with plates full of hundreds of different kinds of nuts. “I prepared this for you!” she said. I’ll never forget that. [He politely declined the food.]

Then there was the time I was on a flight to France, and I called the flight attendant over and said, “Could you please write down for me in French, ‘We are deathly allergic to nuts’”? And she did. But when I gave it to a restaurant, they brought me a plate full of nuts! The note from the flight attendant had come out as, “I’m dying for nuts.”

Do you think peanuts and nuts should be restricted in certain places, like airplanes or daycares?

I do. In close quarters, there are enough alternatives to feed people. If you’ve seen someone go into anaphylactic shock, you’d never want to [eat someone’s allergen while near them] again. It’s not worth it.

I actually looked into banning the sale of peanuts in our arena. [Leonsis owns the Verizon Center in Washington.] But it turns out we barely sell any – maybe 30 bags a night. So there was hardly any point.

Do you think the general public understands food allergies? Have you seen a change over the years?

Over the last 10 years there’s been a much higher level of consciousness, maybe because of the Internet and social networking – people seem to want to share more personal information. There’s definitely been a change in the school systems. I’ve personally noticed people don’t look at me weirdly anymore when I say: “I need to know if anything’s been prepared with nuts.”

What’s your best advice for people with severe food allergies?

You have to be prepared and very communicative and not be embarrassed or ashamed. You’re not alone.

Next page: Leonsis has completed 81 of 101 items on his “bucket list,” so what’s next?

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