15 Ways That Sports And Athletes Have Changed The World For The Better

More than just recreation.

There's a common misperception that the world is divided into "sports people" and "non-sports people," characterized by the idea that sports really only affect those who participate in them and those who watch them. It's a perspective that doesn't take into account the ways in which sports and athletes have changed the world for the good of all of us, whether we find ourselves cheering every season or waiting with anticipation to get back on the field — or whether we're happier committing all of our energies to Sunday crosswords.

Here are 15 ways that sports and athletes are changing the world for the better.

1. Sports bring people together.

The most obvious example of this is the Olympics, where athletes from all around the world come together in a show of mutual tolerance. On an international playing field where all the rules are universally understood, the Olympic games represent something infrequently seen between our world's nations: peace. German broadcaster Deutsche Welle quotes International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach:"Sport is truly the only area of human existence which has achieved universal law," Bach says."We are all the same and respect the same rules."

2. Sports help young people in ways that go beyond physical health.

A 2010 study by Dr. Lindsay A. Taliaferro published in the Journal of School Health found that "In addition to providing advantages regarding weight control, youth sport participation also relates to increased social competence, problem-solving skills, self-esteem and self-efficacy, locus of control, academic achievement, and school attendance, and to reduced juvenile arrests, teen births, and school dropout." The report adds that "Sports also create important opportunities for students to contribute to the school community, which may cultivate an increased commitment to, or identification with, school and school values."

3. Sports help people cope with stress.

In a recent article in Outside magazine, health psychologist Kelly McGonigal discusses the ways in which endurance sports help make people happier, healthier, and more relaxed. "Through endurance sports, you are learning to see yourself as someone who can choose to engage in difficult things, get through them, and evolve in consequential ways," McGonigal says, adding that if "you build the inner resources to deal with stress, confronting it can lead to personal growth and add meaning to your life."

4. Sports and athletics programs help fight childhood obesity.

The 2010 study by Dr. Taliaferro found that "Youth athletes consume more fruits and vegetables and engage in more regular vigorous activity than nonathletes. Furthermore, adolescents who participate in organized sports or an exercise program are less likely to be overweight and are more likely to remain physically active as adults"

5. They instill physical and emotional resiliency.

Resiliency is the quality of being able to "bounce back." Whether it's from an injury or disappointment, a broken heart or a failed bid at a championship, resiliency is an essential quality to cultivate. Sports demand resiliency. Not every effort, no matter how well-planned, rehearsed, and executed, is going to be a successful one. Not every strategy will succeed. What sports can teach is how to learn from those losses: how to be resilient. 

This goes for sports fans, too. Ask anyone who's known the heartbreak of seeing their favorite baseball team lose after taking the pennant: they'll tell you that they'll be back next season. 

6. They foster acceptance, understanding and inclusion while empowering those with disabilities.

One of the biggest gifts of sports is that athletics can help potentiate wellness, health, and community involvement in those with disabilities. Whether this means aiding in the physical rehabilitation of someone who has endured a life-changing injury or bringing a non-traditional athlete into the community of the Special Olympics, there's a sport for everyone.

7. Athletes and sporting organizations can benefit charities and awareness and advocacy campaigns.

The United Nations has this to say about the power of sports and athletes to bring attention to social justice, world health, and other issues: "the mobilizing power of sport is often used as a "door-opener" to convey crucial messages about HIV/AIDS, child's rights, the environment, education, etc."

Athletes and sports organizations large and small donate their time, energy, and essential funding to many charities and campaigns that benefit everything from medical research to developing countries to child advocacy foundations. In some cases, athletes have even built hospitals where they were most needed.

Let's take a look at just a few of the athletes who have changed the world for the better.

8. Dikembe Mutombo.

A retired 8-time NBA all-star regarded as one of the greatest defensive players of all time, the 7'2" tall Dikembe Mutombo is a big man with an even bigger heart. Among other things, the Congolese-American Mutombo's charitable foundation funded a state-of-the-heart hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo that he named after his late mother. 

Mutombo's generosity is so great that he was named one of Forbes Magazine's "Top Givers" of 2013.

9. LeBron James.

In addition to his support of After-School All-Stars, the Children's Defense FundONEXONE, the Cleveland Cavaliers player has also founded the LeBron James Family Foundation, whose mission is "to positively affect the lives of children and young adults through education and co-curricular educational initiatives."

10. Mia Hamm.

Hamm, who brought the U.S. Women's Soccer team to a gold medal victory at the 1996 Olympics before triumphing in the 1999 Women's World Cup, is also the founder of The Mia Hamm Foundation, which raises funds and awareness for families in need of bone marrow or cord blood transplants and develops opportunities for girls in sports.

11. Tiger Woods.

The 4-time Masters Tournament winning golf legend is also the founder of the Tiger Woods Foundation, whose scholarship and academic programs seek to "break the cycle of poverty through college-access opportunities for low-income students." 

12. Eli Manning.

Two-time Super Bowl MVP Manning is more than just an outstanding quarterback for The New York Giants. The University of Mississippi alum also raised $2.9 million dollars to build the Eli Manning Children's Clinic at the University of Mississippi Medical Center's Blair E. Batson Hospital for Children: the only children's cancer hospital in the state. According to ParentDish, Manning also makes sure to visit the hospital every summer, meeting with kids and insisting on no media.

13. Chris Evert.

After retiring from professional tennis in 1989, Chris Evert immediately began her charitable work with Chris Evert Charities, which raises money for at-risk children and families facing substance abuse issues and child neglect. "Focusing on programs that keep families intact while the family members seek better lives for themselves and their families," her charities have raised millions of dollars to help at-risk kids.

14. Derek Jeter

The legendary Yankees shortstop isn't just a 5-time World Series champion. He's also a committed philanthropist whose Turn2 Foundation has been providing programs and activities for young people to "turn 2" instead of drug and alcohol experimentation. The foundation has awarded over $16 million in grants to organizations professing the same mission since its creation in 1996. 

15. David Robinson.

Nicknamed "The Admiral" for his former career as a Naval Officer, retired 10-time NBA all-star David Robinson is also the founder of The Carver Academy in San Antonio, Texas, which is now part of the city's charter school system. Additionally, Robinson gives 10% of his income to charity and is a co-founder of the Admiral Center, whose mission is "to help celebrities use their resources and influence to develop sustainable and impactful solutions to improve the lives of low-income people in America."

Cover photo via Wikimedia Commons.