When I was eight, I wanted to be the next Mia Hamm. I wanted to run up and down the field tapping the soccer ball, and I especially wanted to be in that perfect position to take the winning header.
When I was 10, I wanted to be the next Michelle Kwan, gliding effortlessly across the ice.
When I was 12, I wanted to be the next Maria Sharapova, serving an ace to close out the match against a tough opponent in front of the home crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Let’s face it—I’m not the only one. We’ve all had our “I want to be _____ when I grow up” moments. It’s inevitable.
Whether we have personally participated in their respective sports or not, athletes from all walks of sports have far more influence on ourselves and our everyday lives than we think. The Kobe Bryants, the Roger Federers, and the Derek Jeters are the guys that everyone wants to be. The people that every mother and father want their children to become. Our real-life superheroes straight out of the television.
The importance of these select athletes goes beyond the number of championship rings they can bring home to their cities. They are the leaders of their communities, both on and off the field. Everything that they do, we also want to do. Their actions are nearly as powerful as those of any other well-known individuals like politicians or activists.
Time and again, we see some of the games’ most popular athletes involving themselves in their communities, looking to make a difference in the lives of those around them. From sporting icons like Andre Agassi who fund charities for underprivileged youth to all the athletes who pitch in with time and money after natural disasters. There’s not much reason why our own college athletes can’t be community leaders as well.
It’s not that our Lions aren’t already making a difference in the community. They are. But what I’m hoping is that our athletes start gravitating toward projects through which they can be more visible in the Columbia community, much like Penn athletes are doing with their environmental program. In fall 2012, the Quakers initiated the Athletics Eco-Reps program, the school’s first environmental group comprised solely of varsity and club-sport athletes. These athletes are not only held accountable for their academic and athletic work, but they have also committed themselves to making their campus “greener” through projects like shoe recycling and water bottle reduction.
There are no statistics to show that having the Athletics Eco-Reps program on Penn’s campus has made students recycle more plastic bottles or be more environmentally conscious in general—at least not yet. But the importance of this group is undeniable. The leadership that the athletes need on the field to succeed is exactly the same as what they need to rally fellow members of the Penn community to engage in their projects. For example, in the Away Game Recycling project, athletes needed to communicate the importance of recycling to their teammates and coaches in order to get them to participate in good recycling practices on the road. As newly branded leaders of the environmental community, the Eco-Reps had to change a potential “why bother” attitude of teammates and coaches to “let’s do it.” Although this is not an easy task in the slightest, Penn is giving its athletes the chance to realize their full potentials in the leadership field through the program, a model that other Ancient Eight schools and universities in the U.S. should look to follow.
That’s not to say simply because our athletes start putting plastic in the green bins and paper in the blue bins that everyone will immediately follow suit like robots. Nevertheless, we have to start somewhere, and marquee teams like football and men’s basketball have ample opportunity to promote “green” programs to hundreds of people at their games. By making athletes more aware of the important issues that exist on campus, we can begin initiating change.
Melissa Cheung is a Columbia College junior. Closing In runs biweekly.