Billy Bean

Power of sports prevalent at global conference

Messages of inclusion, acceptance underscored at Vatican event

Power of sports prevalent at global conference

This past week, Major League Baseball's director of community affairs Melanie LeGrande and I traveled abroad, far away from the postseason games, and joined 148 other invited delegates from around the world at the very first Sport at the Service of Humanity Conference at the Vatican.

The purpose of the conference was to use the power of sports to convey a message of inclusion and acceptance of all nationalities, cultures and ethnicities, as well as define our responsibility on how best to help those who are marginalized and disadvantaged.

Playing in and working for MLB has afforded me many opportunities I wouldn't have had otherwise, and meeting Pope Francis certainly falls into that category. It's difficult to describe how his presence impacts people, and his support of sports and encouragement of this conference to ignite a united effort to help make the world a safer, healthier and more inclusive place is a call to action everyone should appreciate regardless of religious beliefs.

At the conference, it was clear we would be focusing on major sports and global sporting events, but we also experienced the Vatican's respectful acknowledgment of the many faiths practiced around the world. Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders from every continent were invited, and each day began with a blessing by those leaders that was inclusive and peaceful.

There were numerous speakers with powerful messages, and two female athletes in particular made indelible impressions, sharing powerful, personal stories that were painfully sad but ultimately triumphant and inspirational.

Maria Toorpaki, who is from Waziristan, an area controlled by the Taliban near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, shared how she had to pretend to be a boy to play squash because it is forbidden by the terrorist leaders who control her hometown for young girls to leave their family homes. After years of struggle and death threats to her family, she made her way to Toronto. She is now one of the top players in the world in her sport.

Another speaker was Tegla Loroupe, a former world-record holder in the women's marathon and two-time winner of the New York Marathon. She grew up near the Ugandan-Kenyan border, and as a child literally ran barefoot 10 kilometers each way to go to school. She was forbidden by her father to compete as a runner, as young girls were not allowed to play sports. It wasn't until she was able to go away to a small boarding school that she secretly began organized running, and her "once in a generation" talent was able to be realized. Her trailblazing success, and courage to challenge discrimination faced by women in her native country, has changed the landscape for countless young African girls.

It was an honor to attend the conference on behalf of MLB, and the takeaway from the Vatican was rather simple. When children are allowed to play freely without fear, inclusion happens automatically. Sports help dissolve the unnecessary lines that divide us. Once you pull on a sports jersey, your color, your religion, the language you speak, whatever the differences, they begin to blend together and go away.

Around the world, national teams and successful professional sports franchises generate tremendous revenue and resources. With that comes a responsibility to the communities, cities and nations that support those teams. That responsibility might be different in every sport, culture and country; however, the simple joy of playing sports should not be a privilege, it should be available to everyone. It makes us fitter, and teaches kids to work together, manage stress and solve problems in a healthy way.

All of this only reinforces the importance of the work that MLB has been doing to encourage kids to play the great game of baseball. Between the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program and Play Ball, the Commissioner's Office is providing resources that allow us to try to accomplish what many only talk about. Each year we are building more facilities and offering more programs that provide safe places for our youth to participate and compete.

The Sport at the Service of Humanity Conference was the very first of its kind, and it reinforced much of what we already know, as well as our responsibility to make our great game even better. Sports really do matter, and they do make a difference. Introducing them to every child seems like an attainable goal, and if they happen to end up wearing a baseball cap, even better.

Billy Bean is vice president of social responsibility and inclusion for Major League Baseball. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.