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More Than a Game

40 million.

In the context of sports, this figure looks like it could be a player’s massive new salary or maybe the number of people watching an NBA Finals game.

40 million could pertain to any of those things. But it doesn’t.

40 million is the number of slaves globally, one in four of whom are children according to International Justice Mission (IJM). There are more slaves today than there ever have been in history. IJM works to end slavery around the world by setting slaves free, throwing oppressors in jail, and helping justice systems protect more than 150 million vulnerable people.

The struggle against global slavery is about more than sports, and yet entered the world of sports as several athletes partnered with IJM. Designed for athletes and their families, they joined the fight against slavery with Team Freedom. Clayton Kershaw, Kirk Cousins and Trey Burton are a few of the athletes to join with IJM on Team Freedom.

Athletes have often been told to focus only on their sport, to refrain from entering the political realm, to “shut up and dribble” as Fox News host Laura Ingraham famously advised LeBron James and other NBA stars to do. However, athletes are not content to stick to sports, and they are increasingly active in attacking social issues, in finding ways to give back. People like J.J. Watt, Serena Williams and Cristiano Ronaldo are notable athletes who have been extremely active in charities.

Brian Nasala worked for IJM as a communications manager in Uganda and is now pursuing a Master of Laws degree at the University of Illinois. Jeff Carlson interned with IJM this summer as a part of their Southeast Asia Global Programs team. Both noted the significant impact that IJM made on them and the impact it makes in the world.

“Serving as communications manager meant that I was responsible for telling the stories and leading the team in developing and implementing communication strategies that were aimed at ending violence against women and children.” Nasala continued, “This was only possible by taking a personal journey with the survivors into their destitute, most difficult place.”

Nasala said the athletes and families travel to IJM offices and are involved in a making a lasting impact by experiencing firsthand what it means to fight slavery. 

Kershaw and his wife, Ellen, traveled to the Dominican Republic with IJM to see people fighting for freedom in person, and he allowed ESPN to document his journey in order to raise awareness about the issue for people in the United States.

“You can write checks which is awesome. Every nonprofit needs financial support, but to put boots on the ground and go see it can change your heart,” Kershaw said in an interview with ESPN.

Because so many people follow sports, these athletes have a unique opportunity to support IJM and raise awareness to the fight against slavery. Quarterback Kirk Cousins and tight end Trey Burton both wore customized IJM cleats in NFL games as a part of the My Cause, My Cleats initiative in 2017. Albert Pujols of the Los Angeles Angels has created an anti-human trafficking group called Strike Out Slavery that raises awareness and funding for organizations like IJM at MLB games.

“Athletes make a big difference because they have a huge following,” Nasala said, “so it makes it easy to expose the reality of injustice and mobilize people and resources that are much needed in the fight to end slavery.”

This past Sunday was what IJM has named Freedom Sunday, a day dedicated to raising awareness in churches around the world about the realities of modern slavery.

“Freedom Sunday is a day for the Church globally to come together. There are three goals that Freedom Sunday aims at: expose people to the reality of slavery in the world, connect them to God’s passion for justice and invite them to take the first step in ending slavery by becoming freedom partners,” Nasala said.

Slavery is a multibillion-dollar industry, as IJM estimates it to produce approximately $150 billion of revenue every year. To compare that to the world of sports, Forbes.com reports the most valuable sports franchises in the world each year. If the 50 most valuable sports teams in 2019 were combined, they would be worth roughly $144 billion, still less than the annual revenue from slavery today.

Athletes are often criticized for their enormous salaries and extravagant lifestyles, yet it is remarkable to see how many of them choose to use this platform to enact positive change in the world around them. They do not and should not stick to sports. They must continue to fight for justice.

“I don’t care what people remember about me. But because of baseball, we are here [in the Dominican Republic] amidst these girls and boys who are getting helped, that’s enough for all of us to be happy with,” Kershaw said.

For many kids growing up, professional athletes become role models. These are the role models the world needs: the ones who look beyond the world of sports, the ones who not only make a difference in the game but who use the game to make a difference in the world.

“I don’t think it’s important to just have athletes involved; I believe it’s crucial to have as many people in our world involved as possible,” Carlson said.

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Andrew Hansen

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