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Athlete Activism

African nonprofit to train pro athletes in U.S. to become effective activists 

After founding two sports academies, LEAD Africa wants to start a global movement in ethical leadership

When the nonprofit LEAD Africa established its first soccer academy in Liberia in 2015, it had a straightforward premise: Use sports as a vehicle to train the brightest and most talented students as leaders who will change the nation.

“Football [soccer] is the hook, but it’s not the outcome we’re pursuing,” said LEAD executive director and academy co-founder William Smith. “We’re pursuing leadership, whatever form that might take.”

After five years and establishing two schools in Africa, with a third on the way, Smith and others in the organization now are asking how they can help pro athletes spark a global movement in ethical leadership.

The answer, apparently, is coming to America. More specifically, it is coming to Los Angeles in July where, with the help of current and former professional athletes, the new LEAD Activate initiative will hold its inaugural conference. The day of workshops will be designed to teach pro athletes the skills they need to become activists and leaders in the places they choose, for the causes they champion.

Athletes already think they can change the world, said NFL Hall of Fame cornerback Ronnie Lott, who began working with Smith in 2016. But even the most well-intentioned athletes often “don’t understand the process of what makes a nonprofit successful and how to actually set it up properly and how to do something that is even more impactful because you’re inviting other teammates,” said Lott.

A class at the LEAD Monrovia Football Academy in Monrovia, Liberia.

Lead Africa

“If we do it the right way, all we’re doing is teaching more people how to fish,” he said, which comports with how LEAD began.

Smith, 27, had been a decorated soccer player at the College of William & Mary. Working as an intern at the U.S. Embassy in Liberia in 2013, he met some of the nation’s best players, including the current Liberian president, George Weah, the only African named the FIFA World Player of the Year, in pickup matches.

Liberia was just a decade removed from a 14-year civil war that killed 250,000 people. Weah, then the nation’s Peace Ambassador, soon decided to host a soccer match to promote reconciliation and invited the best players from around the continent. Smith was the only non-African on the pitch, “which I tell everyone was an act of diplomacy more than anything else, but I wasn’t going to say no,” he said. The match, which drew 35,000 people, solidified Smith’s understanding of the transformative power of the sport.

Smith was an African studies major at graduate school in Oxford when the 2014 Ebola crisis hit Liberia, severely disrupting the nation’s economy and governmental institutions. He reached out to a former Liberian National Team member and friend, Sekou Dgeorges Manubah, with an idea to leverage their network of players to establish a leadership academy to break down gender barriers, improve classroom performance and encourage students to channel their smarts and creativity into medicine, journalism, politics, music — wherever it takes flight — for the betterment of the country. As the outbreak began to wind down in 2015, they co-founded the LEAD Monrovia Football academy, which began with 27 students and now has 109 in grades three through eight. LEAD Morocco opened in September in El Mansouria, a small town between Casablanca and Rabat, and there are plans to open a basketball academy in Rwanda later this year.

The nonprofit academies have their own boards, and are locally led and staffed. LEAD Africa funds the academies through grants and revenue-sharing arrangements with companies that use the LEAD logo and images. The desire to expand the LEAD brand internationally to support more academies, and to answer those who asked how they could help has led to plans for a LEAD Speak (like TED talks, but on leadership) and the upcoming LEAD Activate event.

Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott said that after he first talked to LEAD executive director and academy co-founder William Smith in 2016 about sports, leadership, and the Monrovia academy, he immediately wanted to help.

Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Just as Smith was the only non-African in that peace match years ago, he’s the only non-African on staff at the academies. His face is largely absent in LEAD social media, and he’s been careful to steer clear of the “white savior” narrative. It’s both an old racist paradigm and a label Smith rejects as tiresome and contrary to how the academies are constituted and the network of Africans doing the work.

Lott said that after he first talked to Smith in 2016 about sports, leadership, and the Monrovia academy, he immediately wanted to help. “We feel that, in sports, when you play with great teammates,” Lott said. “Well, you feel it in the nonprofit world, too, when you meet great people that are willing to do certain things.”

He is now one of the five people, including former U.S. women’s national team head coach Jill Ellis, and agent and former NBA player Bill Duffy, helping plan the effort to train U.S. athletes.

Alana Beard, a shooting guard/forward for the Los Angeles Sparks, met Smith through Lott. Smith reached out to her about LEAD Activate two months ago and “it’s everything that I have been looking for,” she said. “You have all of these ideas as athletes. You want to help your community, but not every athlete is privy to the resources that the superstars have,” like a LeBron James who can build the I Promise school.

Los Angeles Sparks guard Alana Beard, seen here Aug. 25, 2019 at Staples Center, thinks LEAD Activate could help eliminate that potential to control or exploit athletes.

Photo by Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“But it doesn’t mean that our voices go unheard and it doesn’t mean that our ideas go unnoticed or undone,” she said.

Beard knows firsthand how difficult it can be to make a meaningful impact without the right training or expertise. When she was new to the league, she sponsored AAU teams that were overseen by her sister and a family friend. A parent offered to co-sponsor another team but Beard believed he was using her to boost his daughters’ college prospects.

Friends and family don’t necessarily understand the daily schedule of a professional athlete or how to build a sustainable organization, she said. “It’s kind of like we’re just out there and we’re just winging it. It’s just like being in your neighborhood and opening up a mom-and-pop store and hoping that it succeeds. But if you can’t open up that blueprint, it’s not going to.”

Athletes who want to give back need safe spaces to learn and have their ideas heard. Some agents, attorneys and people with leadership know-how resist sharing networks and best practices “because they want us to always be dependent on them,” Beard said. They’ll offer to set something up, “ ‘But you’ve got to pay me $10,000 for two hours of work.’ ”

Beard thinks LEAD Activate could help eliminate that potential to control or exploit athletes. It could offer a leadership blueprint she could customize to her desire to improve the educational system in her native Shreveport, Louisiana, for example, and it could connect her with people who are already doing that kind of work.

“What’s different with Will is he wants to teach the athlete. He wants to bring athletes in and develop these programs that take us step by step through how to create our own initiatives, to be in our communities,” Beard said. She calls this the real beauty and real power of the plan.

Lott said he’s energized by the chance to help share leadership lessons with professional athletes in America. “Somebody now is giving you other gifts that you can use beyond the gift of sport,” he said. “I’m very excited and very enthusiastic around just what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Lonnae O’Neal is a senior writer at The Undefeated. She’s an author, a former columnist, has a rack of kids and she writes bird by bird.