When it comes to promoting sports for peace, U.S. lags far behind

Publish date:

I spent the better part of a year working on this week's SI package on the burgeoning movement to use sport as a tool to save the world. The assignment was by turns astonishing, humbling and inspiring. But the deeper I delved into the cause of Sport for Development and Peace, or SDP, the more persistently I was struck by the United States' lack of leadership in the field.

Not that Stateside sports leagues, teams and athletes aren't devoted to community outreach, with all sorts of philanthropic initiatives and foundations. Every NBA corporate partner participates in the league's charitable arm, NBA Cares, which has given out more than $100 million since 2006. U.S. athletes are especially drawn to children; when SI highlighted eight Athletes Who Care as our Sportsmen and Women of the Year in 1987, five of the six Americans earned recognition for their work with kids, and this intergenerational connection remains very much intact. When you add teamwork to youth and idealism, it's remarkable what can be accomplished: Close to my home in Vermont, where hundreds of people remain displaced by flooding caused by Tropical Storm Irene, football, field hockey and volleyball athletes from Middlebury College supplied work crews to residents and businesses in the aftermath of the destruction.

Nonetheless, if you survey the field of SDP globally, institutional players like Beyond Sport and the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation are based in the U.K. Disproportionate amounts of money and muscle come from the governments of Great Britain, Norway and Switzerland, as well as Canada, which last year gave $17 million to Norwegian Olympic hero Johann Olav Koss' Toronto-based Right to Play to double RTP's reach in five African countries. The world's reigning sports brand, F.C. Barcelona, could have collected a bonanza for the logo rights to its jersey over the past five years; instead, from 2006 to 2010, Barca donated $10 million to UNICEF simply for the privilege of putting the charity's name front and center.

Where in all this, it begs asking, are the Americans?

"I'd come back to the States and people would say to me, 'So, you coached kids soccer in Africa?'" Nick Bruce, an American who worked on an Olympic Aid project in 2002, told me. "When I actually did sport-for-development work with Sudanese refugees in Uganda -- and the refugees probably taught me more soccer than I taught them."

In fact, it sometimes seems as if the U.S. has been an outright obstacle to putting sport to work for good. In 1996 Atlanta Olympic organizers pleaded a lack of resources when asked to continue Olympic Aid, the program launched for the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer. The U.S. is virtually alone in failing to ratify the 1990 U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, whose Article 31 declares "the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play." As for the State Department's sending basketball coaches to Nigeria to teach the drop step, that's developing sport, not sport for development. "We love to promote exchanges," says one American who works in the field, "because we think we know better."

It would be wrong to blame the U.S.'s laggard status internationally on a money-is-tight attitude that's widespread during poor economic times. Right to Play has more than doubled its annual take since 2006, to $30 million, as corporations become mindful of an anti-extravagance mood and look to more than one bottom line. "'Return on investment' means more today than eyes on a logo or words in a newspaper," says Nick Keller, the Englishman who founded Beyond Sport, the marketing firm that helps match practitioners in the field with corporate sponsors. "I mean, how many sporting events can you take a client to? Eventually I'm not sure we'll see anyone invest in sport without a grassroots element. The Halo Effect is driving all this."

The Halo Effect -- one study shows that consumers, given a choice, are 73 percent more likely to buy from a socially responsible company -- is now a given in many boardrooms. As ways to measure the effectiveness of an SDP initiative improve, executives find sponsorship of programming an easier sell to directors and shareholders. F.C. Barcelona's UNICEF partnership has run up against the reality of the club's half a billion dollar debt, forcing the logo to the back of the jersey for this season as Barca accepts $230 million from the Qatar Foundation for a spot on the front. But both UNICEF and the QF are nonprofits, and the UNICEF connection particularly makes a case for the Catalans' claim to being mes que en club -- more than a club. "It softens the whole image of the club and gives the players enormous pride," Keller says. "And every other F.C. Barcelona sponsor gets the rub-off effect. The conversation is suddenly different. 'We stick it on our shirt' is a communications decision, not about charity."

Like corporations, governments are becoming more engaged in SDP, with two dozen nations now actively participating in a standing United Nations working group -- although, alas, the U.S. is not among them, having given the last two plenary sessions a miss. Mainstream agencies like Care, Save the Children, the World Health Organization and the International Red Cross have joined UNICEF as collaborators with sports partners. And funders from the Gates Foundation to Comic Relief are underwriting sport for social change, with facilitators like the World Economic Forum and Clinton Global Initiative poised to jump in deeper. Indeed, at its annual meeting in Manhattan yesterday [Wednesday], the CGI for the first time devoted a session to sport as a tool for social good.

"A few years ago, all of a sudden, we saw this pop," Diana Wells, president of Ashoka, a foundation that bankrolls social entrepreneurs around the world, said. "Before, we might have seen one [initiative] in the sports field every year or two. But here we saw four or five people doing something, and across several continents." In 2006 Ashoka joined with Nike to launch the Changemakers initiative, Wells says, "to put some rocket fuel into the trend."

All sorts of factors account for that "pop." Young adults who choose the field count themselves part of a generation eager to find meaningful work. As SDP grows, it provides opportunities for athletes to stay involved in sport after their playing days. Koss and others have inspired a new generation of activist athletes, like Vancouver speedskating medalist Kristina Groves of Canada, who after volunteering in Africa reserved the choicest real estate on her speedsuit for the Right to Play logo.

Meanwhile the Internet and social media make it easy to promote a program, collect donations, share best practices and connect far-flung practitioners through Web-based platforms and networking umbrellas like the Sport for Social Change Network, Beyond Sport World, sportanddev.org, Women Win and Street Football World. "Because SDP is such an emerging field, there's a real sense of collaboration," says Bill Miles, COO of Grassroot Soccer, an initiative to roll back AIDS in Africa and one of the programs I inspected in the field. "When you go to these platforms and see everything else going on, you don't feel your one group has to do it all."

Against that backdrop, it would be wonderful to see Washington do more. Two years ago representatives of the departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Interior and Justice packed themselves into a D.C. conference room with envoys from the President's Council on Physical Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, as well as Let's Move, Michelle Obama's anti-obesity initiative. They had all gathered to talk sports. But at some point someone uttered these immortal words: "I'm not sure we all know what each other is doing."

It was the first time anyone could remember an American youth-sports summit ever taking place at such a high level. "U.S. policymakers are just starting to realize that sport is a tool," says Paul Caccamo, executive director of Up2Us, the New York-based nonprofit that convened the meeting.

A new start would include a more extensive embrace of sport as a change agent domestically. "Children involved in sports are 18 times less likely to be involved in violence and 10 times less likely to drop out," Caccamo told me, before describing Up2Us's Coach Across America program, which is pledged to placing 250 trained coaches in U.S. communities with underserved youth. "In light of that, where's the logic in states charging to play sports in public schools, or cutting billions from school athletic programs? Pay-to-play and budget cuts are hitting low-income communities particularly hard and trickling up to middle-class families."

In 2009 a team at Northeastern University's Sport in Society drew up a paper examining what the U.S. might learn from other governments, and floated the idea of some sort of Presidential advisor on sport for development. Although the study wasn't ordered up by the Feds, Rush Limbaugh got hold of it and treated it like a piñata.

Change may nonetheless be afoot. The Obama Administration has signaled a new direction with a White House Office of Olympic, Paralympic and Youth Sports, and the U.S. Agency for International Development is showing more willingness to fund sports initiatives. USAID recently brought aboard its own senior advisor on sport for development, and gave D.C.-based Peace Players International, another group I profile in this week's magazine, $1.69 million to support its work in the Middle East over three years. "I don't think we would have gotten that grant three or four years ago," Peace Players CEO Brendan Tuohey told me.

Is there a chance that an NBA team might donate millions for the right to put a logo like UNICEF's on jerseys? "It would be great to see," says NBA vice-president Kathy Behrens, who oversees social responsibility efforts for the league, before adding, "I'd defer to the commissioner on that."

Better yet, Mr. Stern: Stick UNICEF on the Miami Heat's jerseys -- and hit up LeBron James for the donation.