SBJ/June 5-11, 2017/Opinion

The light of sports shines on the most downtrodden

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Mel Young looked down at his plate and laughed. “In the U.S., you like things big!” he said while spreading his arms apart to show his point. The two of us were having breakfast at Crossroads American Kitchen in the lobby of the Marriott Marquis, where Young had asked the waiter enthusiastically for a “New York style breakfast.” The waiter recommended the Classic Ham & Aged Cheddar Omelet with the works, and Young seemed overwhelmed when it was delivered. Young, the global social advocate, had flown in the day before from Edinburgh, Scotland, to receive the first Celebration of Service Award presented by SBJ/SBD at the Sports Business Awards.

The soft-spoken Scot was a bit sheepish about being selected, and he looked it as I found him wandering the lobby searching for me, wearing a simple white shirt, tan sport jacket and carrying a backpack. He passed on an invitation to visit with the queen of England to come to New York because he felt the exposure of the award would greatly help the mission of the Homeless World Cup, an idea he came up with in South Africa in 2001.

“My buddy and I were having a beer, and we were talking about how outrageous that, in this day and age, with all our wealth, our knowledge and intelligence, that people could be lying around in the streets,” he said. “People shouldn’t be on the street. It’s dangerous, and people sink lower and lower as soon as they get on the street.” Young and his colleague, Harald Schmied, were lovers of sport, especially futbol, and decided to set out to help the homeless based around the simple game.

“We knew about the power of sport, which is a great equalizer,” he said, sipping coffee. “It doesn’t matter if you’re the richest person in the world or the poorest person in the world, when you start playing sport, you can communicate. It’s a language that everybody understands. Futbol, or you say soccer, is really, really simple. It’s just a round ball and anybody can play it.”

Mel Young at the 2017 Sports Business Awards
Photo by: MARC BRYAN-BROWN
The inaugural Homeless World Cup was held in Austria and it blew Young away. “We didn’t know whether it was going to work or not,” he said. “We thought it would work, but the first one was way beyond anything we could possibly have imagined, in terms of impact. Watching the homeless change almost in front of our eyes was incredible.”

He paused, perhaps thinking back to Graz and 2003. “It was that first one that gave us a huge boost. It was very moving, it was very emotional, big crowds of people and we’ve just kept on going.”

Since then, it’s been held every year, sometimes drawing crowds as large as 170,000 over a few days in Mexico City in 2012. The event takes over a city’s downtown for a week, and builds a street soccer stadium. Matches are 14 minutes long, and admission is free. The event has established outposts in more than 73 countries and established rules that once a player has participated in the Homeless World Cup, he can’t participate again, allowing for new people to be exposed to the opportunities and possibilities. Young wears the tired look of a man who has worked long days, and he admits it hasn’t been easy, but they kept going.

“It’s that belief that we’re creating the change, that’s what drives us,” he said. “If it was only just to do a good event, we wouldn’t do it, because it’s about the impact. Some years, it’s been very, very difficult for us getting sponsors because homelessness isn’t the sexiest thing in the world. Marketing people think, ‘That’s not going to sell us product.’ So, it’s been very hard to convince people that there are actually a lot of people watching, and experiencing this, because we do believe it can be very positive for brands to be associated with helping people. It’s also been a real challenge with visas and getting homeless people across borders, but we’ve just persevered. What’s driven us on always is the players, how much they change and how much they love it.”

I tell Young that his faint smile offers the look of a proud parent, and he smiled wider and nodded.

“When I speak to people who were homeless, who played and helped themselves get out, they say, ‘Hi Mel, remember me? I’ve got a job now’ or ‘I’ve got a house.’ It doesn’t matter how small the house is or how little the job is, that makes me feel wonderful. That’s our profit, if you like, on the hard work that we do.”

Young asked me why we started the award, and I told him that at the end of Pope Francis’ inaugural Sport at the Service of Humanity conference in October (which Mel also attended), leaders in the room pushed attendees to go back to their communities and do something tangible to showcase the positive impact sports has in society. This award, which will be presented at the Sports Business Awards going forward, is a small step in doing that.

“Sport is really undervalued in the power that it has,” Young said, finishing up his hash browns. “It has this power to affect people’s lives who don’t have anything, and there are simple ways you can do it. Sport is simple. People should be looking at ways to simply use what they are doing and take it out into communities and just get people involved.”

After breakfast, we walked through the ballroom where he was to get his award. His eyes grew wide when he saw the scale of the room. He walked me through what he intended to say in accepting the award, trying to find the right message for the American sports business audience. That evening, Young, sweet, soulful and lacking any sort of pretense, nailed it. He received a standing ovation from the audience of 900, and in a direct, yet kind voice, spoke of the power of sport to help even the most downtrodden — those fighting despair, addiction and poverty. He stressed that the homeless around the world are saddled with a negative reputation, as they are fighting awful addictions and have no self-esteem. But when participating in sport, in competition, their behavior is exemplary, and nearly 90 percent of those that participate change their lives completely, forever. He told the audience, “The homeless from this country, when they play in our tournaments, are exemplary representatives of your country. You would be proud of them.” Applause rang through the room.

Young accepted the award on behalf of his staff of roughly eight in Scotland and for homeless people who are changing their lives through futbol. He stayed the entire evening and emailed me the following day, writing, “Everyone was so nice and eager to learn more, and genuinely interested in helping. I loved it and have to come back to the United States more often. There is so much we can do here, and everyone was wonderful.”

Young hopes the meetings help to bring the Homeless World Cup to the U.S., which has never hosted the event. He asked what he could do for me, and implored me to attend the Homeless World Cup in Oslo, Norway, in August. “I urge you to come, because you’ll love it. Even people that don’t like soccer have come along and gone, ‘Wow, we just love this. What’s going on here?’”

With that, the 63-year-old father of three signed off and headed to a few meetings in New York. He’ll take the Celebration of Service Award back to Edinburgh to share with his staff and countless people they have helped get off the streets through sports.

GET IN TOUCH WITH MEL YOUNG: Many of you have offered to support Mel Young or asked how to get in touch with him. If you would like to connect with Mel or want more information on the Homeless World Cup, please email him at mel@homelessworldcup.org. I know he would love to hear from you.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com

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