J.J. Watt knows a thing or two about how to use his platform to give back to the community. That’s why along with Houston Astros second baseman, the Houston Texans star was named co-Sportsperson of the Year by Sports Illustrated on Dec. 5.
Watt raised more than $37 million for relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. He also served as a beacon of hope for storm victims, and as a role model for the good an athlete can do in the world beyond sports.
Other athletes followed his lead in 2017 and stepped up their “game” with their own causes. That’s why Sports Illustrated came up with “Athletes Who Care” as the theme for the 63rd anniversary of the award, which has grown and now recognizes an array of top-performing athletes who represent the spirit of sportsmanship and achievement, and inspire others to make the world a better place.
“Every year, the point of choosing a ‘Sportsperson’ is for how they step up off the field. The humanitarian effort, willingness to give back to their communities and willingness to give back to their causes is something that’s always been at the heart of sports,” said Chris Stone, Editorial Director of Sports at Time Inc. “This year, especially because of the second half of the year, I noticed this very hard pivot toward athletes who are lending their voice, their money and their time to off-field causes.”
So, when I had the chance to hear from Watt and some of the other Sports Illustrated Award winners about their efforts off the field, I jumped. What words could they offer to other athletes, at all levels of play, who want to use their platforms to give back in some way?
“Start small and start local,” Watt said. “Just go out into your own community, whether it’s helping out after school or at community events, and go from there. And, do what you’re passionate about. Get out there and find something you care about because the more your heart is in it, the more success you’ll have with that cause.”
Four-time WNBA champion and Sports Illustrated’s 2017 Performer of the Year recipient Maya Moore spends her time off the court pushing for prosecutorial reform in the American Justice system. She says that getting involved in the community on a deep level can be intimidating at first, but well worth it.
“Don’t feel bad if you feel intimidated when it comes to getting involved in community issues, because real life can be heard. A lot of times sports offer us an escape and a way to just relax, but there can be some real issues going on in our communities that are heavy,” Moore said. “Try to find people either in your communities or your networks who are already doing really cool and powerful things. Learn from them before you go full steam. Go through a journey yourself, and then you can recruit others. But, I say, go for it. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and don’t be afraid to be overwhelmed by some of these issues. Know that putting time and energy into the issues close to your heart makes a difference. You’re a model for other people, and an inspiration for other people to do whatever they can with whatever they have.”
Recently retired 20-year MLB outfielder, World Series champion and Sports Illustrated’s 2017 Hope Award recipient Carlos Beltrán lifted Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria struck. He and his wife, Jessica, donated $1 million and started a CrowdRise page to collect money for their charity, the Fundación Carlos Beltrán, to provide relief to the still-devastated area.
“There are people out there in need, and people trying to pursue their dreams,” Beltrán said. “If you can contribute to their life in a positive way, that’s what it’s all about.”
Watt, Moore and Beltrán would tell you that no world championship or All-Star appearance will carry more weight than what athletes are capable of shouldering for their communities and those in need.
And, it’s performances in that area that deserve a standing ovation from the sports world.