Sinking the winning shot for development

April 3, 2013 By Zach Silberman

I love this time of year.  Not only is March Madness in full swing, but this week marked MLB’s Opening Day.  Add that to the excitement of the NHL and NBA playoffs, and we have a busy few months ahead in sports.

Senegalese members of a State Department sponsored basketball league

Senegalese members of a State Department sponsored basketball league

Sports plays many roles in our culture, including an escape from the daily grind, teaching our children the importance of teamwork, and feeling exhilaration when we hit the game winning shot to win the championship (or our favorite team does).  Keeping this in mind, sports can also be a way that America continues to serve as a global leader, but on the development stage.  Not only do sports allow for the U.S. to remain engaged in the world, but they also help create opportunities for individuals in the developing world.

Our international affairs agencies are using sports as a way to engage the youth in the developing world.  Through a State Department initiative called Sports Diplomacy, sports help enhance diplomatic relations, as well as work to empower struggling populations yearning for a chance to succeed. Some of these programs involve cultural exchanges between the U.S. and global partners.  Recently, with the backdrop of President Obama’s trip to the Middle East, the State Department allowed for 16 Jewish and Arab-Israeli teens to travel to the U.S. to engage with American children through basketball.  USAID has also been involved in the efforts to use sports as a driver for development, particularly through engaging former athletes from other countries on their thoughts of how to best use sports to engage around the world.  Exchanges like these serve to further our interests by building relationships for the future.

The sports diplomacy initiative also has former athletes advance public diplomacy around the world.  These “sports envoys” work together with our embassies and consulates to engage with individuals overseas using sports educational programs.  Some of these envoys embody the who’s who of major American sports, including former U.S. Olympic figure skater Michelle Kwan, MLB Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, Jr., Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra, and U.S. Olympic gold medalist in Volleyball Misty May-Treanor. Other athletes like U.S. Soccer star Abby Wambach have spoken out about the importance of sports to development around the world.  These exchanges also help the U.S. maintain positive relations with the rest of the global community, which can come in handy when facing foreign policy crises and need help from global partners.

Added to these cultural exchanges, sports diplomacy has also been used to educate those in the developing world about the dangers of HIV/AIDS, as well as to empower women and girls.  Some of these programs harness the power of public-private partnerships, particularly between the State Department and ESPN on the Global Mentoring Program.  Through this partnership, the State Department and ESPNW connect “international and American women to build capacity and create sustainable sports opportunities for underserved women and girls worldwide.”  Empowering women and girls was a cornerstone of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s development initiatives, and the use of sports can go a long way to providing women and girls with the chance to take their sports dreams to the next level.

Engaging our global partners through sports education and exchanges helps maintain our global engagement and leadership.  And you never know, sports diplomacy may allow the next great player realize that dream of sinking the winning shot in the NCAA Championship Game in front of millions of viewers some day in the near future.