More Than the Olympics: Sports, Nonprofits & Community

This month, sports eyes turn to the Olympics to see some of the world's greatest athletes compete for medals and country. As you settle into your couch to take in the pageantry and competition in Beijing, don't forget the impact that nonprofit groups have had in creating America's awe-inspiring performers - and in building communities.

You may not see a nonprofit logo on an Olympian's cap or the back of a superstar's jersey, but nonprofiteers are behind every great sport in the U.S. No athlete has reached the pinnacle of his or her sport outside the complex eco-system of volunteer, amateur and community nonprofit sports.

And amateur sports embody "the best of nonprofit spirit: people getting together about something people care about," astutely notes sports anthropologist Orin Starn of Duke University.

Sports nonprofits of all sizes touch millions of Americans by organizing 4-year-old T-ballers and senior swimmers, helping them to get fit, learn core values, connect with others in their communities and more. Amateur and recreational athletes are supported by coaches, referees, chaperones, timekeepers and a host of others acting as volunteers or earning modest salaries from nonprofit organizations.

'Every Kid Deserves a Coach'

Volunteers for local community organizations are often the first mentors that young athletes encounter. These volunteers are usually parents or teachers, frequently athletes in their own right.

"There is a strong idea [in American culture] that youth sports is The Way," says Orin. "It's a mechanism of value transmittal, a way to teach kids about teamwork and competitiveness; there's a notion that every American kid deserves to have a coach."

Volunteer Mike Gonzaga coaches 23 young people in an Encino, California, high school boxing club. Many of his boxers have had had social problems with drugs, alcohol and gangs. Mike tells his team that being a professional athlete is not going to last forever.

"But you are going to be a man the rest of your life," Gonzaga says.

Once you put the uniform on, you are 'The Ref,'" according to Kammi Cottrell, a coach, player, and referee for basketball in Anne Arundel County, Maryland (pictured at right with young player). "You take command of the game so that the kids can learn."

Trained and employed by the nonprofit Maryland Basketball Officials Association, she referees games in the Anne Arundel County school system. The Association, which made 15,000 assignments to officials in 2006, taught her that refereeing is more than knowing the rules of the game; it is about maintaining professionalism and commanding the respect of the athletes, coaches and spectators.

Binding Communities in Good and Bad Times

Beyond the game, Kammi says, "a sports team is a family -- you are not always going to get along all the time with people in this family, but you are going to learn how to manage these relationships if you are going to be the best athlete you can be."

Many nonprofit sports clubs serve a valuable function of helping people to get together or engage in social networking. For instance, for a newcomer, sports is a great way to find people with like interests and to connect with a new community. Recreational athlete Evelyn Dibben, a software engineer, moved to Denver in early 2008. She used various Internet resources such as and Craigslist to find volleyball, biking and hiking groups. "Sports is a great way to launch social relationships," Evelyn says. "I feel I am a part of the community where people depend on me and I on them."

Sports Volunteers 'Give and Give and Give'

The contribution of sports nonprofits extends beyond even the binding of local communities. The oft-repeated cliche that sports inculcates leadership skills may actually be true. A study by the Women's Sports Foundation, launched by tennis legend Billie Jean King, found that eighty percent of the female executives at Fortune 500 companies identified themselves as having played sports.

In spite of such far-ranging influence, rarely do community sports organizations and their volunteers get much recognition. But one 71-year-old baseball coach got his thanks in especially memorable way last month. When Major League Baseball (MLB) star Josh Hamilton competed in the MLB Home-Run Derby, he asked Clay Council to be his pitcher. In front of thousands at Yankee Stadium, Council threw more than 50 pitches to Hamilton, who went to high school where Clay coaches as a volunteer.

Through the American Legion and Little League, Clay - former tobacco farmer, minor league ballplayer, soldier and airport worker - has been throwing batting practice to kids in Cary, North Carolina, for decades.

"He's done so much for many kids and probably hasn' t got a lot of thank yous for it. [Having him pitch for the derby] is a big thank you," Hamilton told the Charlotte News & Observer. "There are so many people like Clay that give and give and give and never expect anything in return."

People like Clay - and the nonprofit organizations they belong to - do more than provide the training ground for aspiring Olympians and sports professionals. Although often discounted by "traditional" nonprofits, these groups have few rivals in their capacity to develop our leaders and engage our communities.

Janice Clark has been a nonprofiteer working in the housing and community development field for nearly 15 years. She's on staff in the communications department of a national nonprofit based in Washington, DC, and volunteers to support arts activities in her hometown of Annapolis, Maryland. Janice has been an amateur athlete for 35 years, playing volleyball, softball and whatever other pickup game she can get into.

Comments (2)

  • Thanks for a the article. Team sports taught me so much about hard work and persistence, working effectively with others to achieve a goal (even if you don't get along personally) and fairness. Playing team sports as a kid definitely impacted my decision to work in the social sector.

    Aug 07, 2008
  • Hi Nelson,
    Sports can even teach you about leadership and how to work with co-workers in a private company environment.
    It teaches people how to work together to achieve a common goal.

    Dec 16, 2008

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