Sports, a vehicle for diplomacy and development

Jennifer Wynn of ONE’s policy team reports on a recent event on sports and development at USAID.

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Last Friday, USAID held a forum on how sports can be used as a powerful platform for social change and international development. Forum guests included Greg Jennings, Green Bay Packers wide receiver; Dhani Jones, founder of Bowtiecause.org and former NFL linebacker; Phil de Picciotto, founder and President of Octagon Inc.; USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah; and Paul Tagliabue, former NFL commissioner.

The panel discussed the power of sports as a universal language with the power to break down cultural barriers and create responsibility, respect, social integration and empowerment for people across the globe. As Dhani Jones, put it — you can see the power of sports wherever you go and “sports level the playing field –- pun intended.”

Sports can also be seen as a metaphor for the challenges of life and help teach participants teamwork. While sports can be divisive with intense rivalries, it can also connect and unify by bringing people from all walks of lives together towards a common goal, much like international aid and development.

Don Steinberg of USAID told a powerful story exemplifying the important role of sports. While visiting a refugee camp in Somalia and witnessing the devastating condition these people were in, he saw children playing soccer. Someone asked a local doctor whether the children should be resting instead of wasting their energy, to which the doctor replied that, no, in fact they are saving their lives by overcoming lethargy and remembering joy.

The dialogue also turned to the rise of athletic ambassadors using their fame and goodwill to raise issue awareness — like our friends Greg Jennings and Dhani Jones. These stars are able to leverage their power and influence by exposing their fans to issues about which they are passionate. On the field, athletes share common struggles and goals with teammates trying to win games, but off the field they can create their own authentic philanthropic brands –- a win-win situation. Instead of corporate social responsibility, Dhani Jones explained this as corporate social opportunity because athletes have the opportunity through social media to create dialogue and raise awareness.

Jennings explained the purpose behind his foundation, the Greg Jennings Foundation, which focuses on education and youth empowerment. Jennings believes youth education and empowerment are important because they stay with the kids for life.

I love sports, and so I’d love to see more sports stars get involved in development. ONE has already worked with sports ambassadors like NBA legend Dikembe Mutombo, football legend Didier Drogba. and Ironman Vance Sutton.

What other athletes would you like to see? Tell us in the comments below.