What's Happening in Character?

The Healing Power of Sports

Posted by Dave Keller on Thu, Dec 28, 2017 @ 09:12 AM

Dave Keller.jpgIn September, I wrote a blog for Character.org about the challenges --- and resiliency---  of my hometown Houston, Texas, in the wake of the devastating floods from Hurricane Harvey.  

This month, I’d like to revisit that event through a completely different lens: The Healing Power of Sports.

In its December 11, 2017 issue, Sports Illustrated magazine (SI) named its 2017 “Sportsperson of the Year” recipients.  Both of the gentlemen named were professional athletes in Houston:  J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans football team, and Jose Altuve of the Houston Astros baseball team.  The cover title said it all: Houston Strong.

Both Watt and Altuve are astonishingly successful in their respective sports: Watt is a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Altuve was recently named baseball’s American League Most Valuable Player for 2017.  But that isn’t why they’re on the SI cover.

Watt and Altuve – along with their teammates -- used their respective platforms to bring smiles to children in shelters, food to families in need, and HOPE to a city (and state) drowning in sadness.  

J.J. Watt is a mountain of a man… 6’5” tall, 290 pounds. But one might argue that he has never stood taller than in the weeks following Hurricane Harvey. Watt raised over $37 million for the city of Houston. He leveraged his unique platform to inspire financial gifts from thousands of people across the world. He then unveiled a strategy to distribute the funds over the 18-24 months to families most in need.

“We always see these events on TV … and you feel terrible,” Watt told SI. “You want to help. But there’s an entirely new level of heightened awareness when it’s your city. When you actually see the houses. It’s real. That will change you forever. That’s what we experienced. It’s an angle I didn’t fully contemplate until now.” (SI, p. 38)

In contrast, Jose Altuve is famously short … he stands only 5’6” tall. Virtually microscopic in the world of professional sports. Altuve and the rest of his Astros teammates visited displaced families in shelters in the aftermath of Harvey. He was profoundly impacted by the people he saw there:

“I saw a lot of people [in shelters] who told me they lost their homes, lost everything they had. I felt bad. But in the middle of all that disaster we were able to see smiles on their faces. I said to myself, ‘These people are going through a really tough time [and we are] able to give them hope.’ That’s what it is all about: helping each other … I wanted to give something back to them.” (SI, p. 50)

In a not-so-small way, the Astros’ championship brought a healing salve to the Harvey-inflicted wounds only nine weeks earlier. Many Houstonians gleefully watched the Astros’ championship inside their gutted-out homes, complete with carpetless floors and open studs where walls should be.

We all know there are times when sports are overemphasized and disproportionately valued in our society. But there are also times when the uncommon platform of sports can bring unity and hope to a community. That’s exactly what happened in Houston.  Athletes ELEVATED the collective spirit, soul, and social conscience of the community.  They became DISTRIBUTORS OF HOPE.  

Watt and Altuve (and their teammates) decided to be more than entertainers --- or even a “welcome distraction” --- for a hurting city.  Instead, they chose to operate from a mindset of STEWARDSHIP.  

Stewardship isn’t a word often connected to the sports community.  But maybe it should be.  At its core, stewardship embraces leveraging one’s position, talents, and resources for the benefit of others. A stewardship mindset can be powerful. Players begin to view themselves as having a responsibility to those they represent.  

Character.org recognizes the unique power of sports to develop a stewardship mindset in young athletes. In fact, “Sports” is one of the four primary gateways of character highlighted on the Character.org website. Through the years, the Schools of Character and Promising Practices programs have highlighted young athletes leveraging their unique platforms for the betterment of those around them.

Athletes speaking out against bullying. Athletes helping marginalized students find their own strength. Entire communities coming together to help students with cancer through community-wide sporting events. Young athletes might not be able to raise $37 million or win a world championship, but a stewardship mindset can certainly inspire them to a higher purpose.

In truth, athletes in any organized sport almost always represent something beyond themselves. Olympic athletes represent their country. Professional athletes typically represent a city or state.  Collegiate athletes represent their university.  K-12 athletes represent their school or a community. Even most recreational teams represent some company or a local business sponsor.

If you are an athlete, I challenge you to develop a stewardship mindset to those you represent. If you are a coach, I challenge you to think beyond wins and losses and seek to develop a stewardship mindset in the athletes under your influence.

Even if you aren’t an athlete, I urge you to develop a mindset of stewardship in your chosen area of excellence, whatever that may be. After all, what we do for others not only makes their lives better, but it also makes our lives better in the effort.


Dr. Dave Keller is the Director of the Hollingsworth Leadership Excellence Program at Texas A&M University. Prior to his appointment to Texas A&M, Dr. Keller oversaw all cadet character, ethics, and leadership programs at the United States Air Force Academy, and guided professional development efforts at Character.org.