The U.S. Soccer Foundation’s programs show children that leadership and excellence can happen on and off the field.
The pro sports world came to a standstill recently for the annual ESPY Awards. Instead of cleats and jerseys, the stars of America’s biggest sports leagues wore tuxedos and gowns to the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles for this star-studded event.
But this year, something was different. Typically a moment of celebration, this year’s ESPYs arrived during a moment of strife in this country, as violence between police and communities had gripped our nation while weighing on us all.
As the ESPYs curtain rose and the show began, four NBA giants — LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwayne Wayne — stood shoulder to shoulder on the stage. Over the next three minutes, they issued a clarion call to their colleagues and peers — it was a powerful call for action to address this national crisis.
We at the U.S. Soccer Foundation were moved to see such prominent athletes demonstrate leadership on this vital issue. In their example, young people clearly saw what we believe to be true: that the best aspects of sports extend well beyond the playing field or the final score. Whether a professional player or a teen athlete just finding his or her way, sports provides a platform for leadership and the opportunity to be a role model on and off the field.
This idea is central to the U.S. Soccer Foundation’s Soccer for Success afterschool program. We designed this program to provide children in underserved communities with guided mentorship from our coach-mentors, essential members of the U.S. Soccer Foundation family.
In his ESPY remarks, LeBron James called on athletes to “go back to our communities, invest our time, our resources, help rebuild them, help strengthen them, help change them.” Our coach-mentors do just that. Many of them serve in the places where they grew up, giving them better insight into the reality of young people’s daily lives. Given their background, coach-mentors are uniquely prepared to help our young athletes build better interpersonal relationships with their peers and other adults. They are able to form connections in a way that helps these kids get to know themselves.
We see the impact our coach-mentors can have on young lives, and an independent study affirmed what we see every day. During the 2014-2015 school year, the American Institutes for Research (AIR) studied the impact of mentoring in our Soccer for Success programs, focusing on seven of our cities across the country. Kids who participate in Soccer for Success reported that they were doing better in school as a result of taking part in the program.
AIR’s study backs up what we hear from our coach-mentors: 92 percent of them report helping youth get along better with their peers in the classroom, while 82 percent tell us they’ve helped these young people get along better with their instructors. All of them said they helped youth to feel better about themselves.
You can’t ask for much more than that.
Though our coach-mentors might not be in the LA limelight or pulling in those seven-figure contracts and sneakers deals, they do have something in common with some of today’s star athletes: They serve as role models to help today’s children grow and thrive.
At the ESPYs, Chris Paul reminded the audience of the long history of athletes who have been leaders on major national issues: Muhammad Ali, Jesse Owens and Billy Jean King just to name three. Just weeks ago, NBA Hall of Famer Michael Jordan joined their ranks when he contributed $1 million to the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s Institute for Community-Police Relations and $1 million more to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
At a time when we urgently need more leaders and role models in underserved communities, we welcome athletes who are willing to stand up and be counted. And we reaffirm our commitment to building a successful, tolerant and compassionate future — one youth athlete, one coach-mentor and one role model at a time.