When you hear that an athlete’s off-the-field exploits have made headlines, it’s not always bad news. Too often we only focus on the negative where our sports stars are concerned, but it’s time to shine a light on the positive. There are many athletes doing incredible work to make the most of their money and fame, putting their resources and influence toward making the world better and changing the lives of others. Here’s a look at 10 of the world’s most inspiring and philanthropic athletes.
During John Cena’s 16-year career in the WWE, he has racked up countless championships and accolades (he’s held the WWE championship belt a record 16 times). But while Cena has been building an impressive resume that puts him in any conversation about the best of all-time, his work outside the ring can’t go unnoticed. He has granted a record 500 wishes to kids battling life-threatening medical conditions through Make-A-Wish. He’s donated 6 million (and counting) airline miles for kids travel, hosted parties during WrestleMania events and is a Wish Ambassador for the program.
Mo’ne Davis isn’t your average 15-year-old. The Little League World Series pitcher who took the world by storm in 2014, becoming the first girl to pitch a shutout, has already appeared on the cover of more magazines — including Sports Illustrated — than a lot of professional athletes. Her charity efforts are also unmatched for one so young. Davis partnered with Make A Difference Everyday to create her own sneaker line. The proceeds go to Plan International USA’s “Because I am a Girl” initiative, which was developed to achieve gender equality around the world.
Soccer great Mia Hamm played forward for the U.S. women’s national soccer team from 1987 to 2004 and was a two-time Olympic gold medalist, FIFA Women’s World Cup winner and a two-time FIFA World Player of the Year. After the loss of her brother Garret Hamm, who passed away from a rare bone marrow disease, Hamm created the Mia Hamm Foundation to raise funds and awareness for bone marrow/cord blood transplant. She also dedicates a portion of the proceeds from her foundation to creating more opportunities for young women in sports. Over the years, Hamm’s foundation has partnered with Gatorade, Nike and the U.S. Soccer Foundation to host the Mia Hamm Foundation Golf Classic and the Soccer for Success program.
LeBron James, a four-time MVP and three-time NBA champion, has made 13 NBA All-Star Game appearances in his career. In the midst of dominating the NBA, he has always found time to give back. The LeBron James Family Foundation partnered with the University of Akron and created the “I Promise” program, which guarantees four-year scholarships to the University of Akron for kids who qualify. The scholarship covers tuition and general university fees and services. The “I Promise” program will send 1,100 kids through college. With tuition currently at $9,500 per year, James, an Akron native, will invest $41.8 million to the future of Akron youth.
Three-time Olympic gold medal-winner Heather O’Reilly was one of the best U.S. soccer players for more than 15 years and is fifth all-time in assists for the U.S. women’s national soccer team. Now the Arsenal Ladies FC star works with the Women’s Sports Foundation to help improve the lives of young women playing sports. O’Reilly has organized soccer camps all over the world for young women to help promote “healthy play” through sports and physical activity.
Jabari Parker was the second-round pick in the 2014 NBA draft by the Milwaukee Bucks. Parker, who hails from Chicago’s South Side, was the 2016 Baird Community Involved Athlete of the Year. He’s also the spokesman for an initiative launched by the Bucks and Milwaukee Public Schools to increase school attendance. Parker is very hands-on with the program. He treats selected students who have great attendance to dinners and does pop-up visits to schools with overall good attendance. He also gives back to the city of Chicago by holding free basketball camps in the summer.
Cappie Pondexter has been named one of the WNBA’s top 15 players of all time and is a two-time WNBA champion and a Finals MVP. She’s also a decorated and accomplished player overseas, winning four Turkish National League championships. The Chicago native and Chicago Sky point guard looks to give back to programs that help combat gun violence, having lost three young cousins to violence. Pondexter is considering starting her own foundation for victims and families fighting gun violence.
Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo is one of the top players in the MLB. At 27-years-old, Rizzo has been to three straight All-Star Games and had a great 2016 season, winning a Gold Glove, Silver Slugger and Platinum Glove awards. And, of course, he was a member of the team that brought a World Series championship to Chicago, ending 108 years of futility. But in April 2008, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer. Rizzo fought hard, and in November his cancer went into remission. He continues to help others through the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation, which is run entirely by his family, and was created to help raise money to help families battling cancer. In May, the foundation raised $1.1 million at the Cook-Off for Cancer event.
One of the most popular (if not the most popular) soccer players in the world is Portuguese superstar Ronaldo, a forward for the Spanish club Real Madrid and the Portugal national team. From 2008 to 2013, he collected four FIFA World Player of the Year/FIFA Ballon d’Or awards and received the first-ever Best FIFA Men’s Player award in 2017. He just scored an astonishing 600th career goal, but it’s the off-the-field assist that makes him unique. Ronaldo has raised money for a variety of causes, from helping a 10-month-old boy who needed brain surgery to supporting tsunami victims in Indonesia.
Since 2002, Serena Williams has been named the Women’s Tennis Association’s No. 1 player eight different times and has 23 Grand Slam singles titles, the most by any player in the Open Era. In addition to her greatness on the court, Williams finds time to give back. In 2016, she and sister Venus Williams established the Williams Sister Fund. She is also a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF and created the Serena Williams Fund, which supports victims of gun violence and their families.
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Darnell Pearson is a grad student at Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. He’s been a contributor to Make It Better since September 2016. In his free time he enjoys working out, watching movies and watching sports.