Athlete Activism Shines a Light on Sport for Development

Just three decades from Michael Jordan’s “Republicans buy sneakers too” comment, we are now witnessing Nike’s extensive 30th anniversary “Just Do It” campaign featuring outspoken athlete activist Colin Kaepernick.

Why have so many more Serenas, Colins, Stephs, and LeBrons emerged from the sports landscape? Athletes are the most visible part of today’s sports industry. Twenty years ago, if we wanted to know something about an athlete, we’d have to rely on the media or the sports team to share it.

If we want to know the scoop about an athlete now, we first check their personal twitter or instagram accounts before going to consult outside sources. We have The Players’ Tribune, where athletes can share opinion pieces directly to the world on a variety of important social topics. And, thanks to Gen-Zs and Millennials prioritizing social impact for companies to receive their hard earned money, brands are standing behind athletes who take a stand for social causes instead of stepping away.

Many can rightly say that a massive and shocking change in the political climate of the United States sparked the recently bump in athlete activism. But even prior to an unexpected Trump presidency, the world of sports has been slowly realizing their power to make an impact through sport for development projects.

Brief Background on Sport for Development

In 1995, Nelson Mandela showcased to the world the massive power that sport has to create lasting social change. Since then, globally, sport has taken off as a key player in the development world. Hundreds of organizations around the world are using sports to teach things like literacy and HIV/AIDS prevention, encourage confidence in girls and promote gender equality, promote peace, prevent hunger, alleviate poverty and encourage healthy lifestyles (to name a few).

Dozens of nations have a government ministry or department dedicated to sport and youth development. Haiti has the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Civic Action. The UK has the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport. Iran has the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports. Even North Korea has a Ministry of Ethnic Affairs and Sports. When one of the most restrictive nations in the world dedicates a part of their government’s resources to sport, it is clear how valuable of a tool sport can be in peacebuilding and social development.

The fact that these departments exist around the world show that the governments of these nations understand that sport is a huge tool in achieving social change and making positive impacts in their communities. Many nations, including the US, welcome and offer grant opportunities to sport for development programs because of their lauded success.

Sport for Development Challenges in the United States

The US is a bit of a late adopter in the sport for development space due to a couple reasons.

  1. Money. There is no overarching federal department for sport in the US. Before grants became common in the sport for development space, organizations had to spend their own money to show impact and invest in sport for development programming. In the US, playing sports often comes with a price tag. Those that could really use the benefits of sports usually don’t have much access unless a nonprofit organization steps in. American public school districts are also severely underfunded, so the first things to go with budget cuts are typically sports and the arts.

  2. Capitalism and sport inequality. While the grassroots part of the sports world is lacking in funding, the professional sports sector is swimming in cash. The US has more than four major sports leagues raking in billions of dollars a year. Some sports are making billions, while others are scraping to get by.

  3. Lack of education. This stems from the oversaturation of the US sports market. Because of the oversaturation and the fact that sports are a major commercial business, it’s hard to regulate and create sustainable development programming across the US sports industry. Even worse, those organizations that are doing amazing grassroots work often don’t get the attention or support they deserve unless they are somehow able to partner with a professional sports team or athlete.

Athlete Activism Brings Valuable Awareness to Sport for Development

From all sides of the US sports world, many people are just starting to realize the true value of sport and how it can create sustainable partnerships and make positive social development changes in communities. Sport can help keep kids in school. Sport can help keep kids healthy. Sport can help kids recover from loss or trauma. Sport teaches life skills, gets kids off the street into something beneficial and provides them with positive role models. Being able to do all of this and share it with others on a major platform to increase awareness and funding is pivotal for continued growth and success. That is exactly the kind of exposure and influence a professional athlete can bring to an initiative or organization. 

Over the last decade and a half, people have started to jump on the sport for development train. According to Sportanddev.org and the Good Sports Podcast, there are currently 107 sport for development organizations registered in the US and 203 in Europe. There is still a long way to go, but the latest surge in athlete activism is a huge step in the right direction.

Athletes have a better understanding of the unique power and access that they have with the general public, and are using the influence more and more for good. As the education and understanding of the true power of sport continues to spread, expect to see more sport for development programs and partnerships emerge, and more athletes shine a light on inequalities and social issues that deserve our attention.

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