Sports, Sponsors and Social Impact

Sports, Sponsors and Social Impact

by James Viray

 Migrant workers at World Cup construction site in Qatar. Image from FIFA.COM website (copyright LOC)

Migrant workers at World Cup construction site in Qatar. Image from FIFA.COM website (copyright LOC)

The International Olympic Committee recently announced the first ever Olympism in Action Forum that will bring together athletes, National Olympic Committees, business partners, UN agencies, NGOs, governments, academics, and artists, among others, to address pressing questions including how can sport contribute to more active cities and healthy societies, how can sport advance the conversation on gender equality, and what is the role of sport in achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), etc. This is not your grandfather's International Olympic Committee (IOC).  

It's certainly not the IOC that I encountered (or tried to encounter) in the lead up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. As the Director for the U.S. Department of State's Office for International Labor & Corporate Social Responsibility, I reached out to the IOC to request a meeting to discuss what the IOC was doing to address human rights concerns surrounding the Beijing games. I was travelling to Geneva to attend meetings at the United Nations and offered to make the short trip to IOC headquarters in Lausanne to meet. Multiple e-mail requests went unanswered until I finally received a response that  the IOC would not have anyone available to meet with me during my stay in Switzerland. The IOC's statements to the media on the topic repeated the familiar refrain that the IOC did not get involved in political issues. I had better success in engaging with Olympic corporate sponsors. A handful of US companies sponsoring the Beijing Olympics  accepted an invitation to come to a Department briefing on human rights issues in China.    

Today, it's not only the IOC that has realized they cannot isolate themselves from societal issues. The IOC, FIFA, and Commonwealth Games are all members of the MSE Platform for Human Rights. The IOC also recently made changes to the host city contract, which now includes a specific section designed to strengthen and protect human rights. The obligations now include that human rights are respected in line with international agreements and standards, including the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. FIFA established a Human Rights Advisory Board in 2017 and published a new Human Rights Policy promising rights protections across its global operations. FIFA has also set important new human rights bid requirements for the 2026 World Cup, and included human rights responsibilities

This new paradigm for sports bodies also provides event sponsors with opportunities to leverage their platforms to make a positive social impact. Where sponsors previously may have avoided addressing societal issues around an event for fear of upsetting the relationship with the organizers, now it's about being aligned with organizers' newfound commitment. And being aligned with sponsors' own social responsibility commitments. For example, as reports continue about the exploitation of migrant workers in the construction of Qatar's 2022 World Cup facilities, FIFA sponsor Visa has an opportunity to both improve the plight of migrant workers and build on its own commitment to expand access to payments in developing countries. Visa could work through FIFIA to introduce its Visa Direct platform to World Cup construction companies and workers to ensure workers are paid on time and to facilitate workers' remittance payments back home to their families. The 2022 Beijing Olympics will likely take place amidst some evolution of the human rights concerns, including Internet censorship and privacy concerns, that surrounded its predecessor games in 2008. Olympic sponsors Intel and Samsung, whose products help hundreds of millions of people around the world to access the Internet, will be well-placed and should be thinking about how they might collaborate with the IOC to engage the host government to promote respect for human rights. This approach also has its business benefits by providing sponsors with a larger window for activation activities. When negative media attention is focused on a societal issue leading up to a sporting event, common practice for sponsors is to postpone activation activities until the event begins in hopes that the focus will switch to the sports and they can avoid any negative association between their brand and the issue.  Addressing the social issue through proactive initiatives and productive messaging allows sponsors to create a positive context in which they can conduct activation activities at an earlier stage.   

The IOC (and other international sports bodies) has come a long way in accepting their opportunity to make a social impact since those unanswered e-mails I sent from the Department of State. And they’ve created an opportunity for sponsors to do the same. Navigating the complexities of freedom of speech, worker rights, gender equality, indigenous peoples rights, or other societal issues may be challenging for some sponsors, but Athletivate is here to help.   

 

Building Bridges through Baseball

Building Bridges through Baseball

by Milessa Lowrie (full disclosure—I’m the wife of one protagonist in this story) 

 John Mayberry Jr. and Jed Lowrie donate baseball supplies and play a friendly game at an after school program in Managua. Photo by Milessa Lowrie.

John Mayberry Jr. and Jed Lowrie donate baseball supplies and play a friendly game at an after school program in Managua. Photo by Milessa Lowrie.

College teammates and roommates back in the day, big leaguers Jed Lowrie (Oakland Athletics second baseman) and John Mayberry Jr. (retired Philadelphia Phillies outfielder) have always shared a hilarious banter. Although they are adults now with real world responsibilities, Lowrie and Mayberry Jr. still razz each other to no end and prompt everyone around them to get caught up in the laughter.  That classic Lowrie/Mayberry Jr. banter was on full display earlier this month in Managua, Nicaragua as the two teamed up to headline several days of baseball clinics and equipment donations organized by the nonprofit, Project Béisbol, with the support of the U.S. Embassy in Managua, the MLB Players Union, and the Nicaraguan Federation of Associated Baseball.

Project Béisbol—whose mission is to support baseball and softball programs for disadvantaged populations in areas of Latin America where fandom for baseball runs deep but resources are scarce—organized a 10-day itinerary of clinics that started in the capital and moved to the poorer coastal areas in the east of Nicaragua.  When they weren’t giving each other a hard time for being too old, hogging the shaded batting cage area, or butchering a Spanish expression, Lowrie and Mayberry Jr. were hands-on with the kids, providing baseball instruction and connecting with young Nicaraguan athletes and coaches.  The participants, age 10 to 18 years old (approximately 35 percent of them girls), represented a diverse background of talent.  Regardless of individual skill, Lowrie and Mayberry Jr. noted the passion with which the youth participated in the clinics and wanted to learn.  “You can tell baseball is in their blood,” remarked Lowrie.

 Mayberry Jr. providing hitting instruction at a camp in Ciudad Sandino, Nicaragua. Photo by Milessa Lowrie.

Mayberry Jr. providing hitting instruction at a camp in Ciudad Sandino, Nicaragua. Photo by Milessa Lowrie.

The program reached 600 boys and girls and donated over 1,000 pounds of baseball equipment.  Billed as “Homerun for Equality” (Home Run por la Igualdad), the clinics not only aimed to provide on-field baseball instruction, but also to address gender equality and gender-based violence through workshops run by local specialists.  After circling through instruction in the infield, outfield, hitting and pitching, the kids spent a rotation with a counselor who engaged them in discussions on gender equality and provided them with actionable tools to prevent violence against women. As with many complicated social issues, sport often provides a useful platform to address topics that can be considered taboo in a disarming way.  Baseball in Nicaragua is already making headway in including more women in the sport, where female baseball leagues are spreading, and more coaches and team officials are women (though there is a need for greater opportunities for younger girls to play the sport, something Project Béisbol is prioritizing).

 Lowrie pitches during a friendly game with kids in Managua. Photo by Milessa Lowrie.

Lowrie pitches during a friendly game with kids in Managua. Photo by Milessa Lowrie.

Moreover, in a country where baseball is the number one sport (followed by boxing, then soccer), and where relations with the U.S. government have been complicated over time, sport provides an ideal way to build bridges.  U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua Laura Dogu, who inaugurated the clinics and dedicated Embassy resources to implement the program, described the power of sport to promote cooperation even in complicated geopolitical relationships. “One of the things that connects our two countries is this love of baseball. Baseball allows for us to connect on a human level,” said Ambassador Dogu.  Lowrie added, “I think baseball is a better game when people from all over the world participate in it.  Baseball is a universal language because everyone knows the rules, and it doesn’t matter what language you speak.”

In addition to formal baseball instruction, Lowrie and Mayberry Jr. answered questions from the kids about their baseball journeys and reinforced themes such as hard work and resilience in pursuing one’s dreams.  “One of the things that I would love to reinforce to each kid is that there is no dream that is too big.  There are numerous stories of Big League players that have come from adverse situations and reached the highest levels in the sport.  With determination, hard work and preparation, no one can stop you,” said Mayberry Jr.

 Project Béisbol donates equipment in Ciudad Sandino, Nicaragua. Photo courtesy of U.S. Embassy in Managua.

Project Béisbol donates equipment in Ciudad Sandino, Nicaragua. Photo courtesy of U.S. Embassy in Managua.

Given the reaction from the kids, it was clear that engagement through sport can bring hope to communities in need.  As Project Béisbol founder Justin Halladay said, “Baseball offers a unique opportunity to unite people, communities and countries through the sport we love. It is a window to new cultures and greater opportunities for kids in regions of Latin America suffering from persistent poverty and violence. Just a bag of supplies or a visit from one of our volunteers or MLB supporters brings hope and can change an entire community.”  Whether playing on a well-manicured field at an MLB stadium or on the dirt fields in rural Nicaragua, a common love of baseball, peppered with some silliness and levity from some Big Leaguers (who are really just big kids themselves), can create bonds that transcend language and culture. 

 Lowrie and Mayberry Jr. pose in front of the new Estadio Nacional Dennis Martinez in Managua; Lowrie gifts Ambassador Dogu an Oakland A's jersey. Photos by Milessa Lowrie.

Lowrie and Mayberry Jr. pose in front of the new Estadio Nacional Dennis Martinez in Managua; Lowrie gifts Ambassador Dogu an Oakland A's jersey. Photos by Milessa Lowrie.

 

 

 

 

 

Athletivists After the Storm

Athletivists After the Storm

by Milessa Lowrie

   
  
   
  
    
  
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    Houston Texans player JJ Watt and teammates distribute relief supplies for victims of Hurricane Harvey. In three weeks, Watt raised over $37 million in disaster relief funds. ( Photo Credit: Brett Coomer, Pool Photo/USA TODAY Network)

Houston Texans player JJ Watt and teammates distribute relief supplies for victims of Hurricane Harvey. In three weeks, Watt raised over $37 million in disaster relief funds. (Photo Credit: Brett Coomer, Pool Photo/USA TODAY Network)

At Athletivate, we encourage our clients to be strategic and think long term in developing their community engagement plans. However, when the unexpected happens, nimbleness and flexibility are also a skillset that athletes bring to the table. As recent natural disasters have demonstrated, professional athletes and sports organizations have answered quickly and donated to disaster relief efforts directly in large volumes for communities where they are from, where they have played, or simply where they feel compelled to help. In several cases, with the assistance of new crowdfunding sites, athletes and sports organizations have also galvanized their fans to raise large sums in record time.

An especially harsh hurricane season is still upon us and recovery efforts for the recent earthquake in Mexico, hurricane in Puerto Rico, and wildfires in Northern California are just beginning. However, in other communities affected by natural disaster, including Texas and Florida, focus has transitioned from rescue and recovery to the long-term rebuilding effort it will take to get people out of shelters, rebuild their homes, and repair damage to infrastructure, schools, and businesses.

Now the implementing work for an Athletivist begins—and, as evidenced by the challenges faced by even the most experienced relief organizations, implementation is not always easy. Athletes with the large responsibility of wisely investing funds that the public has entrusted to them now have to ask: Where can I make the greatest impact? Which activities will achieve the best results? What are the root causes of the catastrophe and how can they be addressed? Which organizations and community leaders will be my best partners? How do I vet the organizations I will grant funds to? What role can public policy play in preventing future disasters? Should I lend my voice to efforts that may help cities affected by natural disaster become more resilient?

Natural disasters can feel like episodes when immediate action is needed—and they are.  But well after initial rescue efforts are concluded, the long and tiring work of rebuilding begins. Although we encourage our Athletivists to be nimble and responsive when necessary, we still ascribe to a philosophy that the greatest impacts can be derived from sustained efforts that are strategic and holistic. We hope to be part of the conversation and a bridge for athletes who want to make sure their efforts in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster are leveraged for the long haul. 

STICK TO SPORTS? We Don't Think So

STICK TO SPORTS? We Don't Think So

by James Viray and Milessa Lowrie

 Denver Broncos players demonstrate in solidarity during the national anthem at Sunday's game against the Buffalo Bills. Photo: Adrian Kraus/AP

Denver Broncos players demonstrate in solidarity during the national anthem at Sunday's game against the Buffalo Bills. Photo: Adrian Kraus/AP

Last weekend, the political and sports worlds collided “bigly.”  On Friday, President Trump strongly criticized athletes for kneeling during the national anthem (to protest police killings and criminal justice inequities for people of color), saying ownership should fire athletes who kneeled and calling them an expletive. In reaction, NFL players, coaches, and owners demonstrated on a grand scale across the league. Unlike last football season, when only a handful of players participated in peaceful protests, this weekend, entire teams (and even the first MLB player to do so—rookie Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell) kneeled, linked arms, released statements or chose not to take the field at all during the national anthem.

The widespread demonstrations on the sports field brought out a familiar refrain from  commentators and sports fans on both mainstream and social media, "Stick to sports." We've previously discussed on this blog a bit of the history of "Athletivism"—or athlete activism—looking back at Muhammad Ali protesting the Vietnam War or Jackie Robinson opposing segregation or Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s black power salute on the podium at the 1968 Olympics. Using sports as a platform to address political issues has not been limited to individual athletes—governments have taken advantage of the same opportunity. In 1980, the United States led 65 nations in a boycott of the Summer Olympic Games in Moscow to protest the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. International bodies have also used sports to advance causes—the United Nations General Assembly adopted the International Convention Against Apartheid in Sports in 1985.

Athletes using their platforms to speak out on public policy issues is no different than Hollywood stars or musicians using their celebrity to advocate for a cause, billionaire CEOs raising the alarm about a global issue, or companies participating in the debate around legislation. So why is it that sports are singled out in American culture as the only venue where political discourse is entirely taboo? Why is it that athletes meet such resistance, not necessarily for the position they take on any given issue, but for speaking out at all? 

In today's world of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, many fans and sports writers anxiously follow their favorite athletes' lives beyond the field or court—from their love lives to business ventures. Athletes' political views and social commentary are part of that package.

Sports is part of our culture. The different facets of our culture—sports, music, literature, art, politics, business—do not exist in silos, but in a free flow of ideas and influences. Politics has often been the subject of music, literature, and art. And we're all familiar with the business of sports. 

Athletes are learning that sticking to sports can mean a huge lost opportunity to leverage their earned platforms to bring attention to and hopefully start a dialogue to find solutions for inequalities that affect their communities and beyond. At Athletivate, we celebrate professional athletes, leagues, players associations and other sports organizations who understand that there are societal issues that are more important than any game, while also recognizing the role that they and sports themselves can have in positively impacting those issues. 

We've written before about the unifying power of sports and we applaud the league officials, team owners, coaches and players from across professional sports who refused to stick to sports this weekend and spoke out with messages of unity to counter divisive rhetoric.

Athletivists in Action: Taking a Stand, Making an Impact

Athletivists in Action: Taking a Stand, Making an Impact

by James Viray

   
  
 
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    Source: Sean Doolittle from a Visit to the Palo Alto Veterans Affairs Hospital in 2016

Source: Sean Doolittle from a Visit to the Palo Alto Veterans Affairs Hospital in 2016

Update March 27, 2018: The Washington Post published an article entitled, "Sean Doolittle and Eireann Dolan may be baseball's most 'woke' couple," which highlights Athletivate's work with them.

Last month, Oakland A's pitcher Sean Doolittle and his fiancée, writer Eireann Dolan, took a stand. And invited others to stand with them. They penned an op-ed to raise awareness about the challenges that veterans with "bad paper" face and to advocate for legislation to expand the Department of Veterans Affairs health services to them. You can read more about it in Sports Illustrated here. Their in-depth understanding of the issue and potential solutions did not come without work anymore than Sean's own fastball developed without hours on the mound.

Sean and Eireann first came to Athletivate with a desire to make more of an impact through their philanthropic and advocacy work. They recognized that their efforts, and impact, at the time were spread among multiple causes and could be more coordinated. Rather than strategic, they were reactive. Their desire for and understanding of impact is something that often escapes the casual celebrity humanitarian.

After sitting down with them in a coffee shop at Spring Training last year, we got a better sense of their backgrounds, interests and goals. We took all of that in, looked at the landscape of social causes and eventually selected support to veterans as their focus. But, to really make an impact, we knew they would need to hone in on a more specific aspect of that very broad issue. In the weeks that followed, the Athletivate team took Sean and Eireann through a series of conversations with experts on veterans' needs to identify a singular issue for their work. The list of veterans' needs is long and selecting one issue was not an easy task, but was made easier by our focus on impact--where Sean and Eireann's efforts could drive the most change. After deliberating on the multiple options, the Athletivate team made our recommendation and Sean and Eireann agreed that improving support to veterans with "bad paper" would be where they could do the most good. More briefings followed--this time with academic researchers, advocates and veterans with specific expertise on the "bad paper" issue.

Sean and Eireann were extremely committed and put an amazing amount of time into learning about the issue from the perspective of the military, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the veterans themselves. But, they didn't just stop at learning about the problems, they probed the potential solutions--from regulatory reforms at the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs to legislation. They didn't want to just raise awareness about a problem, they wanted to drive a solution.

Compare their approach with examples from the recent past of other athletes who have been quick to speak up about a societal problem, but had nothing to offer for a way forward. 

We'll have to wait to see if the legislation gets passed. And, if it does, it will only be the start of the needed changes. But, it's a good start.

At Athletivate, we set you up for success in whatever your cause. We help you develop your own understanding of the different sides of an issue so that your own perspective is informed, not ignorant. We'll position you to not only speak up about a problem, but to lead out on a solution. That's what an Athletivist does. 

 

 

The View from the Other Side

The View from the Other Side

by James Viray and Milessa Lowrie

 Soccer Star Geoff Cameron  (Source:  PAUL ELLIS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)  

Soccer Star Geoff Cameron

(Source: PAUL ELLIS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES) 

 Olympic Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad  (Source:  LUCY NICHOLSON / REUTERS)

Olympic Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad

(Source: LUCY NICHOLSON / REUTERS)

Athlete activists (we call them Athletivists) have been particularly engaged during the last six months. There has been no shortage of events in the news cycle that have garnered the attention of America’s sports stars: from the Presidential election, to the Black Lives Matter movement, to access to bathrooms for transgendered people, to name a few. We’ve also noted that the divisions in our nation highlighted during last year's Presidential elections and into the beginning of this new Administration appear to be reflected in American sports, where the commentary on a given issue can be starkly divergent depending on the source. In an  article last week,  Newsweek  explored the "dueling politics of the NFL and NBA," pointing out the different political cultures of football and basketball: support for President Trump and his policies is more common and culturally accepted in the NFL; whereas, in the NBA, opposition to the new president and his policies is par for the course.   

The executive order by President Trump to temporarily ban immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim nations and halt the country’s refugee program is the latest to garner attention from the sports world. Some of the recent criticism of the ban has emerged from concerns over the impact on individual athletes, including two South Sudanese NBA players whose teams and fans have worried about their ability to travel and return from games played in Canada. There has also been concern that the ban may hurt Los Angeles' bid for the 2024 Olympics if some international athletes are unable to travel (note: the White House has told the U.S. Olympic Committee that they plan to make exceptions for Olympians).  

In addition to the practical implications, several athletes have weighed in on the ethical merits of the ban. Olympic fencing medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad, who was the first woman to compete for the United States wearing a headscarf in the Olympics, said on Twitter, “Our diversity makes us strong #NoBanNoWall.” Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, whose father was killed in a terrorist attack in Beirut in 1984, voiced his opposition to the ban during a recent interview warning that “We're really going against the principles of what our country is about and creating fear. If anything we could be breeding anger and terror.” NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. tweeted his family’s refugee story in solidarity with refugees affected by the ban saying, “my fam immigrated from Germany in 1700s escaping religious persecution. America is created by immigrants.”   

Meanwhile, some in the sports world have expressed support for the ban. Soccer star Geoff Cameron has said"Our enemies have stated -- and in Europe they have proven -- they will take advantage of lax immigration procedures for the purposes of staging attacks. A temporary pause on immigration for the purpose of evaluating and improving vetting procedures makes sense.” Tweeting his support, former baseball star Aubrey Huff said he was glad to see a president “follow through with his campaign promises” and criticized protesters of the ban, saying they should get a job.  

It shouldn't be surprising that athletes are getting involved, as history has produced many moments where politics has found its way on to the playing field or court. Recall that we recently celebrated the life of boxing legend Muhammed Ali, one of the world’s leading social activists (athlete or not). Nor should it be surprising that athletes would have differing points of view on political issues. They are, after all, just human beings like the rest of us. And, as human beings, we have diverse perspectives that are normally shaped by our personal experiences and by the experiences of those who surround us.  

Unfortunately, that can lead to more narrow perspectives as most people surround themselves (in both the real and virtual worlds) with people who are similar to them.  The marches in recent weeks are a physical example of this--hundreds or thousands of people united in their support for or opposition to someone or something.   Every person in this great country has the right to voice their opinion. Participating in a march can be a very powerful way to do that. While marches or demonstrations can be effective in raising awareness of a problem, it takes more than demonstrating to solve that problem. Groups of people who have the same point-of-view spending hours together rarely produces solutions to complex problems.  

Complex issues--like refugee resettlement or immigration--are hardly black and white, seldom have a right answer and a wrong answer. Similarly, the people on one side of the issue are not right or wrong, are certainly not more or less American and their concerns not more or less valid than those on the other side of the issue. Each person's opinion, perspective and concerns are influenced by that person's experiences. And no one's experiences are right or wrong. They just are. 

We would all be better served if each of us, before shouting our opinions over social media, would take the time to understand the experiences of those who hold opposing views to our own. This applies even more for professional athletes, who possess an even greater platform (and all of the accompanying responsibilities) to influence public opinion.   As NFL great and civil rights activist Jim Brown recently advised athlete activists during an ESPN Oustside the Lines podcast, “Work on unity, become likeminded and become effective […] the change that has to take place [...that’s hard work, and it’s uniting people behind the principles that are applicable to all human beings [Everybody is not qualified to be out there, and you should become educated before you go.” 

At Athletivate, we certainly believe it’s important to raise awareness of societal problems, but we think it's even more useful to bring solutions to those problems. That's why, in the coming weeks, we'll be looking for opportunities to bring professional athletes with different perspectives on the issue of refugee resettlement together with actual refugees and representatives from community organizations and government agencies in a forum where they can each share their experiences with and learn from each other. We don't necessarily expect to come up with a solution, but we expect to be a part of it. 

Peace on Earth, Good Will...Through Sports Diplomacy?

Peace on Earth, Good Will...Through Sports Diplomacy?

by James Viray

 Sam Perkins in Indonesia, 2010 / Credit: U.S. Department of State

Sam Perkins in Indonesia, 2010 / Credit: U.S. Department of State

"Peace on earth, good will to men," is a common refrain heard during this time of the year. With recent U.S. presidential election results highlighting significant political divisions domestically and campaign and transition foreign policy statements raising concerns internationally, those words may be more than just lyrics and represent a sincere hope for many this season.

We've written before about the transcendence of sports and its ability to unify people, communities and nations. In times when changing foreign policy positions may strain relationships with capitals across the globe, sports diplomacy may be a more necessary and effective tool than ever.

While relationships between governments may break down over defense, trade, climate change or human rights, sports can often provide the common ground to maintain, revive or even progress dialogue. We only need to look back a few months to a baseball stadium in Havana, Cuba, as an example. Major League Baseball's Tampa Bay Rays played the Cuban national team in an exhibition that found U.S. President Barack Obama taking in the game next to his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro. That may have been the modern-day iteration of the Babe Ruth-led team of baseball all-stars' goodwill tour of Japan in 1934. The "ping-pong diplomacy" exchanges between the U.S. and China were widely recognized as helping to pave the way for lifting the embargo against Communist China and President Richard Nixon's 1972 historic visit to the country. And reviving the exchange begun with Iran through U.S. Wrestling's 2007 trip to the country may be necessary if the new U.S. Administration's policies result in a deterioration of U.S.-Iranian relations.

Sports diplomacy could even reap economic benefits for the U.S. as American professional sports leagues look to expand internationally. In addition to the Cuban exhibition game, MLB had a Spring Training game in Mexico City; NBA teams traveled to Madrid, Barcelona, Shanghai and Beijing for pre-season games; and the NFL played regular season games in London and Mexico City. As U.S. sports teams and their players travel abroad, they have the opportunity to connect with the fans of the game. With the diversity of players' backgrounds across different sports, sports diplomacy allows those fans to get to know various aspects of American culture. And the use of sports by many U.S. athletes to overcome challenges like conflict and violence, discrimination and broken families during their youth can provide common experiences to build connections with young fans.

In this holiday and political season when many may be wishing for peace on earth, it may be sports rather than presents and athletes instead of politicians who can spread good will around the world.

 

Advocating in the Blind?

Advocating in the Blind?

by James Viray

 Credit: Richard Hertzler, lancasteronline.com

Credit: Richard Hertzler, lancasteronline.com

Watching the election returns last week and the subsequent reports on voter turnout reminded me of a controversial quote from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar during a National Public Radio interview several weeks ago. In discussing participation in the electoral process, Kareem said, "Ignorance is not something that lends itself to a meaningful discussion. Some of these people really shouldn't vote because they don't know what the issues are. And I think people that are, you know, voting in the blind are doing a disservice to our country by not being better-informed.”

I won’t comment on Kareem’s words as they apply to last week’s elections, but I would like to reflect on how his thoughts might be relevant to the social phenomenon we follow closely at Athletivate: athlete activism in professional sports.  

In recent weeks and months, we’ve seen a number of professional athletes across different sports make public demonstrations in protest of an issue or in support of a movement. We’ve covered those demonstrations in previous blog posts and we talked about the importance of athletes “educating [themselves] on all sides of the issue and the potential ways forward.”

When an athlete does not make the effort to study the issue she is advocating for, is she “advocating in the blind” and doing a disservice to her fans, community and those impacted by the issue? We think so. Professional athletes have a platform that is too effective and an opportunity that is too valuable to employ for an issue that has not been well-studied or without a plan that has been well-thought out.

While professional athletes certainly don’t have a responsibility to use their fame and fan base as an advocacy platform, if they do choose to use it for those purposes, we suggest that they do so responsibly. To quote the parting words of Peter Parker’s sage Uncle Ben, “With great power, comes great responsibility.”

Most of today’s geo-political or socio-economic issues are rarely black and white and an athlete who jumps into an issue before understanding all of the grey can often end up making uninformed, if not inaccurate, statements, or supporting popular, but ineffective policy solutions—all in front of an attentive and persuadable community of fans. 

Whether you're a private citizen casting a secret ballot in a voting booth or a high-profile athlete taking a public stand behind a microphone, let's make the effort to understand the issues. Let's do it responsibly. 

At Athletivate, we help athletes use their platforms responsibly to motivate action on their causes by working with them to develop an understanding of all sides of the issue; articulate an informed policy position with practical recommendations; facilitate partnerships to mobilize community members and leaders alongside them; and design an advocacy strategy to put them in front of influential policymakers to drive real change on the issue.   

Missing FROM the Message

Missing FROM the Message

by James Viray

Kaepernick and Rapinoe.png

In an ESPN Outside the Lines (OTL) podcast entitled, "Missing the Message?" earlier this week, Bob Lee looked at whether or not Colin Kaepernick's and other athletes' message about the oppression of minorities has been lost in the media's discussion about their protests.

Regarding how the protests are being reported and treated in the media, Clinton Yates, contributor to ESPN's The Undefeated website, said, "I think if you're Colin Kaepernick, this could not have gone any better….I think Kaepernick has brought it to the forefront in the NFL and a lot of people are forced to deal with this in a way that they are uncomfortable doing to begin with, which is exactly what the point of protest is. It's not about order, it's about justice. And I think that he's done very well. He cannot ask for more if you're that guy and what he was trying to do."

I think Colin Kaepernick would like to see this going better. And I think Colin Kaepernick can and has asked for more. In interviews soon after his protest was picked up by the media, Kaepernick explained, "There are a lot of things that are going on that are unjust, that people aren't being held accountable for. That's something that needs to change." He stated that he'll continue his protest until "there's significant change…There's a lot of things that need to change. One, specifically, is police brutality." While Kaepernick has certainly been successful in raising the country's awareness of the issue of police brutality against minorities, his own words suggest that he wants something more than people just talking about the issue. He wants to see change.

Raising awareness is a necessary step for making progress on any social issue, but it's only the first step. Getting beyond that first step requires something that has been missing from the messaging so far: solutions. At least potential solutions--in this case, proposals for specific policy reforms or legislation at the local, state or national level regarding police training, limitations on use of force, community oversight, misconduct investigation and judicial processes. 

On the OTL podcast, Yates argued that, "it's not [Kaepernick's] responsibility for how we go about this." And Yates is right. It's not Kaepernick's responsibility to come up with solutions. But, it is his—and his fellow professional athlete activists'—opportunity

   
  
 
  
    
  
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   Darron Cummings/Associate Press

Darron Cummings/Associate Press

Now, making such proposals should not be taken or done lightly. It requires educating oneself on all sides of the issue and the potential ways forward. If Kaepernick, Megan Rapinoe, the entire Indiana Fever team or any other high-profile individuals care enough about an issue to use their platform to publicly demonstrate support or opposition, they would do well to take the time and effort to research ways to potentially progress that cause or address the issue (this exercise, by the way, is better done through engagement with policy experts or community leaders than a public relations consultant as the Carolina Panthers hired for Cam Newton). Otherwise, as Bob Lee points out in the podcast, we see the conversation remain focused on the protest, rather than on the issue. 

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who has his own experience as an athletivist, commented that, "At some point in the very near future [Kaepernick] needs to figure out a way where he can be a part of the solution."

If we are missing the message from Colin Kaepernick's protest, it's because there's something missing from the message: solutions.

At Athletivate, we help athletes motivate action on their causes by working with them to develop a policy position with practical recommendations; facilitating partnerships to mobilize community members and leaders alongside them; and designing an advocacy strategy to put them in front of influential policymakers to drive real change on the issue. 


The New Era of the Athletivist

The New Era of the Athletivist

by James Viray

 Credit: Kyle Terada USA TODAY Sports

Credit: Kyle Terada USA TODAY Sports

During this NFL preseason, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been taking a stand by sitting down during the national anthem to protest what he sees as the oppression of people of color, including through police brutality. Judging from the news cycle, not many are standing with him. Contrast that with the waves of support that followed after Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James took center stage on ESPY night, proclaiming a solemn yet determined message of “enough is enough” in regards to recent shootings by police across America.

 Credit: ESPN

Credit: ESPN

These are just recent examples that demonstrate athletes’ ability to impact the social discourse—their influence is not just confined to the field or court, because the world is always watching.

In late 2014, LeBron, Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose all donned ‘I Can’t Breathe’ shirts after the Eric Garner tragedy, while Mike Piazza’s legacy will forever be intertwined with the 9/11 attacks after he hit a home run in the following days at the old Shea Stadium. Women soccer stars are vying for progress in their own sport and beyond. Five members of the United States Women’s National Soccer Team, including co-captains Carli Lloyd and Becky Sauerbrunn, recently filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation for equal pay, a cause that has been picked up inside and outside of the sports world.

Eli Wolff, a former soccer player for Brown University and a Paralympian, conducted a study on the interconnectedness of sports and activism. In the study “Playing and Protesting: Sport as a Vehicle for Social Change,” he and co-author Peter Kaufman summarized the dimensions between sports and activism as "social consciousness, meritocracy, responsible citizenship and interdependence." 

But that does not mean that people inside and outside of sports appreciate the interrelation between athletes and activists. A separate study called "Boos, Bans and other Backlash: The Consequences of Being an Activist Athlete" by Kaufman describes the loudest reactions to activism from athletes as "overtly negative." One misstep by an athlete — even when advocating for a praiseworthy cause — could, at the least, distract from the athlete’s message, if not negatively impact his or her playing career. And, remember, it’s that playing career, including the related marketing endorsements, which provides athletes with their valuable platform in the first place.

That phenomena could explain one of the most important parts of Wolff and Kaufmann’s study, regarding the obstacles to fully uniting the worlds of sports and activism: "Many athletes have negative stereotypes of activists and vice-versa; competition is seen as dichotomously pitted against collaboration. Further, activists need athletes to cooperate in activism more than athletes need activists to cooperate in sports, so it is not a perfectly reciprocal, symbiotic, or mutual relationship."

Moreover, there may be cultural differences across teams, leagues, and sports that might impact one’s ability to freely speak out on social causes. Recently, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said in an ESPN interview that he believes NBA players are comfortable speaking out on social issues because of their league’s leadership, which has fostered an environment receptive to activism. In contrast, he says the NFL’s culture does not foster as much activism, noting that some NFL players are “probably worried about repercussions on speaking their mind from the league." Kaepernick's recent actions and his team’s and league’s reactions notwithstanding, Rodger's point regarding the difference in league leadership addressing social issues can be seen in the NFL's handling of domestic violence cases and the NBA's reaction to anti-LGBT legislation.  

Whether they are global superstars like LeBron or battling for a rotation spot like Kaepernick, professional athletes have the unique opportunity and superstar power to inspire, act and promote causes for millions of fans and viewers, even accidentally — in Piazza’s case. The age of social media has made sports stars (and their opinions) much more widely available to the public, and athletes have just started to tap into their potential to positively impact local and global issues. Hopefully, these athlete-inspired movements can captivate the nation for more than just a news cycle. With the constant barrage of sports news coming from superstar athletes, these celebrities have eyes on them at all times. Whether it’s raising money for popular causes or awareness to less conspicuous ones, athletes have the power to seriously change their community and their world for the better. And with that can come increased recognition and reputation, contributing to a cycle of athlete-based philanthropy. The more people who are watching, the more people that the athlete can influence.

Athletes have for so long ventured into philanthropic endeavors. However, we can see the impacts they can drive when they step off the sidelines and fully participate in social activism. Muhammed Ali protested the war. Jackie Robinson opposed segregation. Pete Frates is taking on ALS. These names are forever-remembered names. Every athlete has the opportunity to be an activist—an athletivist—and have this type of influence on millions of people, or just someone, somewhere — which can make the world a better place. 

The challenge is that the course from athlete to athletivist is crowded with diverse stakeholders, divergent interests and sociopolitical complexities. An athlete can't just stumble down it and expect to reach his or her goal any more than a team can step on to the field without a strategy and expect to win. Drawing attention to an on-the-field or onstage gesture is one thing; stimulating public discourse on an issue is another; and motivating action to make progress is yet another. We'll see in the weeks and months ahead how effective Kaepernick's approach will be.

At Athletivate, we provide athletivists with a game plan—we connect them with their cause, design an advocacy strategy and facilitate partnerships with other organizations and issue leaders to drive real change on the issues. If you're a professional athlete and you want to elevate your world and motivate action for a cause, it’s time to huddle up.

Matthew Brownsword also contributed to this article.

The Transcendence of Sports

The Transcendence of Sports

   
  
 
  
    
  
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    Photo Credit: “   Children playing soccer, Dogon region, Mali” by Jelle Jansen

Photo Credit: “Children playing soccer, Dogon region, Mali” by Jelle Jansen

by Becky Struwe, former U.S. diplomat and Athletivate supporter. 

  • ISIS claims suicide attack on Iraqi stadium that kills 25 (CNN)
  • Rio’s ‘symbol of hope’: The incredible stories of the world’s first refugee Olympic team (Washington Post)
  • Boston marathon hit by double explosion (The Guardian)

For most people, all of these headlines evoke strong feelings.  A sense of devastating loss when an innocent game of soccer or an annual marathon is targeted by terrorists.  A sense of overwhelming hope when those without a country to call home are still eligible to compete in the great tournament of nations we call the Olympics.   

What could two stories that evoke devastating loss have in common with one that evokes overwhelming hope?  They both point to the transcendence of sports during times of conflict.  Sports are a unifying force.  You don't have to love soccer to feel the deep sadness for the family who loses a family member during a senseless attack.  You don't have to be a marathon runner to be compelled by the devastation of the attacks on the Boston marathoners.  You don’t have to be an Olympic athlete yourself to understand the tremendous obstacles the refugee Olympic athletes have overcome to participate in this momentous event. 

Sports can equally transcend the challenges of everyday life as well as headline-grabbing calamities—and for some, those are the same.  People are able, for brief moments in time, to forget that their countries are ravaged by war.  Boys gather for pickup soccer games on war-torn streets in Syria.  Families assemble to watch a popular soccer team play in Iraq, a country haunted by war for the last decade.  Fans in Iraq congregate at a café to watch their favorite Spanish soccer team.  Refugees who have made long and treacherous journeys from their homes find themselves united under one Olympic flag.  All of them coming together, in the midst of tragedy, through sports.

The images of boys playing soccer on war-torn streets remain on the pages of our newspapers.  But while we struggle with how to deal with the devastation of war and work toward peace, we also celebrate how athletes and sports organizations, professional and otherwise, can use their platforms to promote unity and hope in times of conflict.  The unifying nature of sports draws people together and provides opportunities to celebrate where none would otherwise exist. 

 

 

Athlete Abolitionists

Athlete Abolitionists

by Milessa Lowrie

We just saw a weekend of Final Four basketball with record-setting numbers: Villanova's 44-point margin of victory over Oklahoma was the largest ever in Final Four history. Here is another statistic from recent NCAA tournament history: a University of Louisville study in 2014 showed that online advertisements for commercial sex, a proxy for sex-trafficking, tripled during March Madness in 2013. There is an ugly underbelly to some of the world’s largest sporting events: human trafficking—both sex and labor slavery. They are crimes that go largely underreported, but are suspected to spike surrounding many popular, particularly multi-day, sporting events (as well as concerts, conventions, etc.). For instance, after the 2016 Super Bowl in February, Santa Clara police announced that they had recovered 42 suspected victims of sex trafficking in stings surrounding the largest sporting event in the country. And as the University of Louisville study demonstrates, collegiate as well as professional sporting events may increase opportunities for human trafficking.

In addition to sex trafficking, labor trafficking, particularly in the construction of sports venues, can lead to serious abuses. An Amnesty International report published last week documents severe labor exploitation in the construction of the 2022 World Cup venue in Qatar, including wage theft, unsafe working and living conditions, and the forced labor of migrant workers brought in to complete the construction. 

When I worked on human trafficking issues for the U.S. Department of State in Mexico, I reported on the dimensions of the problem “over there.” It took coming home with eyes open to this silent suffering to understand that human trafficking—or modern day slavery as it is commonly described—is not just a problem in other parts of the world, it is an American problem too. Despite the fact that American sporting events (along with other public events documented in a recent Carnegie Mellon study), may increase the incidence of human trafficking, sports also offer an amazing platform to reach a vast audience and create social change. And our sports heroes may be just the abolitionists to help raise the public’s consciousness about the abuses taking place around us.

Several individual athletes, led by retired Giants pitcher Jeremy Affeldt, have pledged donations to protect human trafficking survivors as part of the Not For Sale campaign. Many MLB teams have also set aside a night to raise awareness and funds to combat human trafficking. For Super Bowl 50, the NFL worked with partners in the Bay Area including local government and non-profit organizations to provide materials and training to the hospitality industry to spot and report suspected trafficking. The impacts of awareness raising efforts are difficult to measure, but this is how change starts. Athletes and organizations are recognizing they have a platform and taking action to champion change.  

Less Angelina. More Mutombo.

Less Angelina. More Mutombo.

by James Viray

There may be no better known celebrity humanitarian than Angelina Jolie. Earlier this month, she was visiting a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon advocating for a political solution to the Syrian conflict. Jolie's emergence as a renowned humanitarian has been remarkable for its impact—on her and on the causes she has embraced—and its grace. It doesn't take much effort to recognize how her work on global issues has reshaped her reputation. Remember the vial of Billy Bob Thornton's blood around her neck? Probably not until I just mentioned it. Which is exactly the point. However, her humanitarian efforts have only been effective in transforming her image because they have also been effective in actually raising awareness of and driving action on the issues. And her aptitude in navigating the halls of the United Nations to the mud floors of refugee camp tents has helped her avoid the uninformed actions and ignorant comments that undermine so many other celebrity humanitarians and philanthropists. The road between Hollywood and Washington, DC, and other world capitals is littered with celebrities who are less knowledgeable about their causes and less familiar with the complexities of global politics and local cultures.  

When Jolie was visiting the U.S. State Department in preparation for a 2008 visit to refugees in Iraq, I unfortunately didn't have the opportunity to meet with her. I did have the chance to sit down with NBA stars Tracy Mcgrady and Dikembe Mutombo to discuss the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, Sudan. McGrady wanted to become an advocate for humanitarian assistance to the region, but recognized the need to better understand the situation. Mutombo, already a recognized humanitarian, brought him to the State Department. My colleagues and I briefed him on the complex issues and various parties involved in the conflict and directed him to connect with specific international organizations and policymakers who were trying to raise awareness of the crisis and resolve the conflict.  

You can probably tell that I'm a fan of Angelina Jolie. I am. I admit it. She's my humanitarian crush. And you may think that I wish there were more like her. But, I actually don't want more Angelinas. There are plenty of Hollywood humanitarians and philanthropists engaging their fans on critical social and environmental issues. I want more McGradys and Mutombos. There is an opportunity for professional athletes to be a new voice on humanitarian causes on the world stage and in their local communities. 

Organizations, issue leaders and policymakers already engaged in the issues—not to mention the struggling individuals and communities touched by the issues—would welcome new leaders who can reach a new audience to raise awareness, motivate action and drive positive change.   

Athletivate is here to help professional athletes, teams and leagues to be smart about their philanthropic and humanitarian efforts and to make an impact—on themselves and their causes.