The Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., was the center of the American sports world yesterday.
The home of the New Jersey Devils was the site of the fifth annual Beyond Sport United Conference. Hundreds of the leading influencers in American sports came together to discuss the role athletes can play in influencing society.
Several of the top executives in sports and philanthropy were on hand, including Caryl Stern, the CEO and President of the U.S Fund for UNICEF; Global NBA Ambassador and eight-time NBA All-Star Dikembe Mutombo; and three of the four major sport commissioners.
It is not unusual to see athletes and teams try to make a difference in their communities. Getting all the major leagues together, however, is a Herculean feat. But everyone involved with the conference acknowledged the importance of pushing this issue to the forefront.
“I think that sports generally provides a great platform for issues,” Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred said. “When you get all four league in the same place, I think it creates a kind of exponential effect when it comes to the attention people pay. This conference is a great example of that.”
For its part, baseball has made strides to try and make the game as accessible as possible. Last year, MLB named former pro Billy Bean as the first Ambassador for Inclusion.
Bean is the only living MLB player, current or former, to come out as gay.
“I think we want to make sure there’s a place for every kid in this sport,” Bean said. “We come in all shapes and sizes; America is a blended country. That’s what makes us so great.”
In a panel with Mutombo and former WNBA star Teresa Edwards, NBA commissioner Adam Silver added that inclusiveness has to involve everyone to be effective.
“It doesn’t just involve women supporting women; men have to support women too,” Silver said.
But it wasn’t just grown ups these sports leaders were concerned about. A big focus at the conference was on kids, too.
All four of the leagues preached how important it was to reach out to go kids. The NBA noted that all of their efforts are aimed to ultimately help children.
“Everything at NBA Cares is trying to engage youth and parents and making sure we’re addressing issues that are important to them,” said Todd Jacobson, the NBA’s senior vice president of social responsibility.
Jacobson told the story of meeting tennis legend Jimmy Connors when he was only 6 years old. He went up and asked for an autograph. Connors signed a paper. Jacobson was so moved by the gesture, he held on to the autograph and still has it today.
“Those moments are so few and far between, but they mean everything to people who need them the most,” Jacobson said. “It’s really important that we take the opportunity to create opportunities where those moments happen.”
Edwards told a story about an experience she had playing basketball. It was a moment that made her realize how powerful an athlete can be.
After losing an intra-squad scrimmage, Edwards was upset and let it show as she walked off the court. But while leaving more than an hour after the game, an old woman who stuck around in the stands stopped her.
The woman said she almost didn’t leave the house, but watching Edwards had brought her so much joy.
“It made me realize how much I can impact lives just running up and down the court,” Edwards said. “I learned that I need to take that responsibility very seriously.”
Photos: Grant Lamos IV/Getty Images for Beyond Sport