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Beyond Sport United 2023 Explores Social Justice & Equity in the US

November 17, 2023 

Yesterday, we were once again excited to convene experts and leaders across sport and social change in New York City for our annual Beyond Sport United conference. Building on last year’s edition addressing "Sport in the New Era of Social Justice," Beyond Sport United 2023 focused on "Challenge To Opportunity: Driving Equity Through Sport." Across the day, attendees took a deep dive into three of the biggest equity-based issues the US is currently facing: Civic Engagement, Discrimination & Representation and Climate Equity.

Beyond Sport Founder and Board Chair, Nick Keller, opened the day with a call on the sport sector to help lead change in society stating: "When sport is used with intention, it can effect change on countless lives, in communities and across society...If we take the three fundamentals that we have control over - preventative healthcare systems, equity and inclusion and how we respond to the climate crisis - they all involve behavioral change which we can affect...when I look around this room, I see leaders who can take challenge to opportunity on these issues. It's about courageous, selfless, positive leadership."

Next, Event Host and thinkBeyond Managing Partner, Radha Balani, started off the program with an interactive session that put the challenge to opportunity lens into practice. Using real-life examples on LGBTQ+ experiences with sport and environmental injustice and its connection to racism and inequality, attendees looked for individual and organizational opportunities for positive social impact. We then moved to the first panel of the day, "Sport in Society: A Major League View," featuring Barbara Bush, VP of Social Responsibility for the NBA, and Alexia Gallagher, VP of Philanthropy for the NFL and Executive Director of the NFL Foundation. They shared their personal insights on the state of sport and social justice in the country and how each of their leagues and teams are addressing the issues from business and community perspectives. 

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"We live in silos, creating echo chambers in our societies - yet in sports games we cheer alongside strangers. It’s amazing that we’re in sport, there’s never been a bigger opportunity and responsibility to foster change in society," said Bush who went on to share on the NBA's initiatives and its approach to elevating social issues across its platforms. When answering an audience question on leadership in divisive times, she stated "We still stood up to what matters to us, what matters to our players and what matters to our fans. Sports are player-led, they are at the epicenter of everything we do, whether that's the NBA or WNBA, so the issues that matter to them have to matter to us."

Gallagher further expanded on leadership and incorporating impact not only in social responsiblity departments, but across the league's work in general. "In the corporate environment, it's usually about revenue-driving. We like to say within our social responsibility department that we're a social impact center...It should be woven within the fabric of who we are as a league, with clubs, owners and players; it's core to what we do and it really should be that way within that entire corporate sector."

The next panel took a very candid lens to the "Shifting The Focus" theme as athletes, media and entertainment industry representatives shared personal thoughts on the challenges they are seeing and alternative approaches that would increase the chances for greater social impact. Moderated by Kely Nascimento, CEO of The Impact Game and a Beyond Sport Board Member, panelists included Kavitha A. Davidson (HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel and The Athletic), Chris Dickerson (One Tree Planted and Players for the Planet), Chris Mosier (Team USA and TransAthlete) and Ambre Stanford (CAA Social Impact).

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"For many many people, I'm the first trans person that they've ever met. My whole career as an athlete has been using my platform to educate people about the lived experience of transgender people, which is very different from the social media 'hot take' or the articles that you are reading, 90% of which have never talked to a transgender person or an organization that supports trans people...What I think people need to understand is that this topic is a lot more nuanced than a tweet or headlines, shared Mosier. "The reasons why we participate in sport are the same reasons as anybody else; it's because we want to be part of a team, we want to challenge ourselves and most of all, for the love of the game. That's what's missing from the discourse right now. My identity as a trans person is not political, it has been politicized."

Standford also emphasized a need for thoughtful approaches. "At the center of every crisis are real humans. When we have these conversations at a corporate or individual level, our approach is always to center the need of the human and build a framework around that. It's not just your stakeholders that are part of the conversation. Your customers are human, your employees are human, and so we have to bring individuals and their humanity into the conversation and how we think about providing a solution. She also shared that it is important for us to change language that "others" people and whole communities. "Imagine you're from a deprived area and hear constantly about the opportunities you lack. Instead, we should use language that fosters hope and brings about change such as "underutilized" or "underestimated" communities - because that's what they are."

Rounding off the morning panels was "Youth Taking the Lead: The Next Generation of Activism" featuring Noor Abukaram (Let Noor Run and Billie Jean King Youth Leader) and Erick Mendoza (American SCORES NY), and moderated by Executive Director of Content for Change at Paramount and Beyond Sport Board Member, Melissa Potter. The refreshing and moving session explored how these young changemakers are using sport to advocate for policy, societal and local change and for all of us to take a hard look at the messages we're putting out there. 

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“One of the things I advocate for is reinventing who can be the face of sport. As a young Muslim girl showing up to tryouts and teams, you often feel like they already disregarded you because 'girls that look you don't play sports'...It goes down to the uniform for me, and that's the change we're working on right now," shared Abukaram. "You give me a tank top and shorts and it's automatically like 'you don't belong here. If you want to play this sport, you can figure it out for yourself.' I think it's especially important in youth sports to make kids feel included and change who can be the face of sport, including Muslim women." She also spoke on the impact of coaches, stating that "coaches have an important role in advocacy. At the end of the day, young people can't simply advocate for themselves. That is why coaches must advocate for their youth. If my coaches did then, I probably wouldn't have had to face the discrimination I did while trying to participate in sports." 

Mendoza, now a youth soccer coach himself, shared on his motivations and how he sees the future. "What inspired me initially was just seeing someone playing with a ball and living in the moment. I myself have never been part of an official team...However I was assigned the role of a coach where I had to create a team. Starting from ground zero with what is it that makes a team and how I can convey that to my students, to my youth and to my peers. Something I've learned that I'd like to pass on to you all is: you are the start of the inspiration and when you become the best version of yourself or make the attempt to do so, youth around you see the nuances, the mannerisms, the minute details and how you treat them. While youth are only a fraction of our world's population, they are still 100% of our future. We must remember this and help foster their development, be in their corner and support them."

Beyond Sport United closed out with an afternoon of interactive case study workshops led by representatives from teams, leagues, event partners and community organizations. The facilitators shared on specific programs they have implemented to tackle challenges on civic engagement, discrimination and representation and climate equity, while also offering insights and answering questions on how attendees might apply the approaches to their own work.
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The nine roundtable sessions included:

  • Beyond Limits: How FLY:FWD & the Philadelphia Eagles are Changing the Game for Girls in Sports, facilitated by Daniel Levy, Manager, Youth Football & Community Relations, Philadelphia Eagles and Brenda Ortiz Lee, VP Marketing & Programs, Operation Warm
  • Diversifying baseball on and off the field through HBCU engagement, facilitated by Simone Walls, Manager, Community & Foundation and Natalie Johnson, Manager, Community Affairs & Foundation, Atlanta Braves
  • Get in the Game: Vote. A case study on the NBA’s civic engagement strategy, facilitated by Amber Scott, Social Responsibility, NBA
  • Co-creating programs with your local communities that address systemic barriers to equity and representation, facilitated by Kevin Brown, Director, Community Impact, Ilitch Sports + Entertainment (Detroit Red Wings)
  • Changing the Game: Addressing environmental injustice in underserved communities through urban forestry, facilitated by Matt Hill, Founder and Chief Environmental Evangelist, One Tree Planted
  • Partnering to create new models to address financial inequity, inclusion and access in sport, facilitated by Chioma Atanmo, Director, Community Impact, Sporting Kansas City
  • Making climate equity part of your existing social justice & DEI work, facilitated by Ellen Salter, Sustainability Director, thinkBeyond
  • WNBA Commissioner's Cup case study: Innovative ways to engage players, teams and sponsors to support social impact initiatives, facilitated by Kiki Griffin, League Operations Analyst, WNBA
  • Leveraging Sport and Pop Culture to Unlock Opportunities in Underserved Communities, facilitated by Ambre Stanford, US Head, CAA Social Impact and Cedric Ikpo, Executive Director, Thunder Fellows

We are truly appreciative of our speakers, workshop leaders, attendees and partners for making Beyond Sport United 2023 a thought-provoking and collaborative experience!

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Photos: Pixel Vixen Imaging


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