THE BLOG
08/03/2015 01:03 am ET Updated Aug 03, 2016

You're Not Watching the Best Game Sports Is Playing

Every day, I work with corporate leaders who understand the power of business platforms to make a difference. Regardless of the specific professional missions of their companies, these executives recognize that there's a natural social mission they can tap into that will transform their place in the world, greatly impacting their communities, employees and bottom lines. The companies that fully embrace this higher purpose open themselves up to an exciting journey that enriches their culture and keeps them rapidly evolving as organizations.

But of course it's not just Corporate America that benefits from reexamining its role in society. I love seeing how the sea of change in corporate philanthropy is affecting so many different non-corporate fields; for example, the industry whose home base is the field. Sports.

Engaging in community involvement programs is nothing new for celebrity athletes, teams, leagues and sports leaders. What feels fresh is the increased professionalization of sports philanthropy, as leaders in this field recognize more ambitious ways to serve their communities while forging new partnerships and shaping their brands on a global stage.

This heightened focus on sports as a vehicle for social change is why sports philanthropy is now its own field of study at George Washington University Business School, which offers a program tailored to the unique needs of those who work for professional sports teams, leagues, athlete foundations, and sport-related companies, with an emphasis on corporate social responsibility and nonprofits using sports for social good.

It's why there's an uptick of sports philanthropy summits to bring together the biggest names and best minds in sports to help activate social change. The annual Doha GOALS Forum, as one example, invites public and private sector sports organizations, NGOs, athletes, and business leaders to engage around how sports can be used to wider effect on the policy agenda. Its four key themes this year are building a movement for change through sports, sports as a mechanism for social inclusion, sports' power to create bridges across divides in our societies and sports as a catalyst for transformation and change.

Another great example of the sports community rallying together to make their philanthropic programs more impactful is the Sports and Entertainment Philanthropy Summit, run by my good friend, founder & President of the Giving Back Fund, Marc Pollick. Speakers from industry leading organizations present on a variety of topics including how crowdfunding can change the way you fundraise and how to get celebrity participation in your cause to raise public awareness.

What does this social change sports movement look like in action?

Speed Skater Olympian Joey Cheek co-founded Team Darfur, an international association of athletes that was devoted to raising awareness of humanitarian crises related to the War in Darfur. In the run-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics in China, Team Darfur called attention to China's controversial economic involvement in Darfur and exerted pressure on the Chinese government by associating the Beijing Olympics with China's relationship with Darfur. As a result, China revoked the entrance visa of Joey Cheek hours before he was scheduled to leave for Beijing, costing Cheek the opportunity to attend the Games but shining an international spotlight on the issue he put everything on the line for.

The big boys are improving their game as well. NBA Cares is professional basketball's effort to coalesce its community service initiatives to address issues ranging from education to youth and family development to health and wellness. One such program is Basketball without Borders, the NBA and FIBA's global basketball development program that uses the sport to create positive social change in the areas of education, health and wellness. These camps bring together top youth players from different countries to train under NBA players and coaches and compete against their peers. Efforts usually culminate with an NBA Cares Legacy Project, which includes the creation of safe places where kids and families can live, learn or play. As part of Basketball without Borders, the NBA has created and dedicated 50 of these safe places outside the United States and Canada.

Major League Baseball Charities is MLB's nonprofit arm that works with community partners to support a wide range of issues including health, physical education, public safety, medical research, literacy, and education. As one example, MLB Charities has collaborated with other partners to support Welcome Back Veterans, whose goal is to transform the lives of our returning veterans by providing ongoing treatment to them and their families for PTSD issues while also changing the way Americans think and talk about PTSD. Just last week, MLB and the Reds, in conjunction with the nonprofit Tristate Veterans Community Alliance, unveiled upgrades to an existing space at the CityLink Center to create a new veterans reintegration center. The new center will help some of the thousands of veterans in the Greater Cincinnati area facilitate a successful transition and reintegration into the community through various resources, including financial planning, job readiness, peer coaches and referrals to qualified community organizations/services based on the needs of the veteran and his or her family.

The NFL Foundation is professional football's nonprofit arm that represents the 32 NFL teams, and focuses on improving the health and safety of sports, youth football and the broader community. During the season, many players spend their day off working in communities, a tradition known as "NFL Tuesdays." Players volunteer each week at local schools, shelters, and hospitals, helping out in ways large and small.

Of course, Special Olympics deserves its own place in the sports philanthropy hall of fame, as an organization whose entire mission centers around serving those with disabilities and promoting a more inclusive society. Its Unified Sports initiative promotes social inclusion through shared sports training and competition experiences, joining people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team as a path to friendship and understanding. The Walt Disney Company, ESPN and Special Olympics have invested a multi-million dollar financial and in-kind investment towards a two-year global initiative that will leverage the power of sports to promote an environment of social inclusion and acceptance through the Unified Sports program, with the goal of registering one million Unified Sports participants.

Sports and athletes have a magnetic hold on our imagination and fascination, and the opportunities for sports to move the needle on social issues are enormous. I'm excited to see how this industry is pushing itself to be a more powerful voice for change and carve out a bigger platform to make a difference.

Street Soccer Scotland, a sports nonprofit dedicated to providing opportunity and building hope, quotes the famous soccer legend Bill Shankly on its website: "Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I can assure them it is much more serious than that."

That's how we can all be framing the ideal role of sports in our world; a thrilling playground with goalposts that can encompass so much more than the game.