My perspective on this issue stems from a response paper I wrote for my Sports Ventures & Social Impact class with Professor Ken Shropshire… My view may not be a traditional one, but I believe it strikes a balance between the schools of thought on the extreme ends of the spectrum on this issue. Enjoy!
It would be unfair to impose an obligation of service on anyone, especially if it is not a role that would traditionally merit such a responsibility. Athletes and celebrities did not sign up to be role models, humanitarians, or world changers; however, given their iconic status and high levels of visibility, it is often the case that the audiences these individuals find themselves in front of hold them to a higher standard for social impact. While the capacity for social impact that athlete-celebrities have is unique as a result of their visibility and influence, they cannot be obligated to leverage that capacity. Instead, athletes should be encouraged and supported by their peers, teams, leagues, and agents to find and support causes they are passionate about in whatever way they deem appropriate.
Such impact can be achieved when athletes leverage their personal brands in a way that serves a personally relevant purpose. Not everyone should be looking to start a foundation for a pet cause, because after all, athletes are responsible for playing their sport, not running organizations. However, they do have the capacity to invest their time and some of their money into something that is salient in their personal lives and/or in their communities. Whether they run summer camps for kids from their old neighborhoods or create a scholarship fund to encourage young people to pursue higher education or raise funds and awareness for a condition someone in their family suffers from, athletes have the ability to raise the profiles of whatever causes they choose to take on because of their personal star power, which is only further compounded with the visibility of their team and league icons as well.
That being said, the issue of personal branding is a salient one; athletes who have been tagged as ‘character risks’ may not have the easiest time when trying to do something good in the community, as reputation certainly taints the perspectives of on-lookers and raises questions about the sincerity and genuineness of the charitable action. Thus, the actions of athletes who have not been known for their good character might not be received as well as someone with a better image; however community involvement could also be the way to transform a less than favorable image. Ultimately, social impact is something that will not happen overnight, and thus requires a lasting commitment stemming from a genuine effort. Athletes who have a vested interest in philanthropy and social investment will be able to reach their potential for impact much more effectively than those seeking the positive press associated with a single good deed.
In the end, it is up to the individual athletes themselves to choose whether or not they will make the most out of the uniquely powerful positions they hold to positively impact their communities. The only obligation the general public can duly impose is for athletes to not have a negative impact on their communities (which seems to be challenging enough in and of itself); anything beyond that must come from the individual athlete. Each athlete must “realize the impact he [can] make through a positive image and community involvement,” and choose to do so in a way that is meaningful to them in order to make a genuine, heartfelt impact and lasting commitment.