Real Heroes Project – Sports World Unites to Honor Healthcare Heroes


( ENSPIRE Feature ) Professional Athletes Come Together in The Real Heroes Project to Celebrate Healthcare Workers on the Front Lines of the Pandemic

ENSPIRE Contributor: Rosa Linda Fallon

As the world shut down in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, professional sports came to an abrupt halt. The NBA, MLB, NHL, and others suspended their seasons until further notice, and The Olympic Games in Tokyo were postponed until 2021. With so many changes happening in the sports industry in such a short amount of time, several of the world’s top sports marketers united virtually to determine how to proceed in a post-pandemic world. Marketers including NBA CMO Kate Jhaveri, NFL CMO Tom Ellis, and Nascar CMO Jill Gregory came together and worked out issues during “these therapeutic counseling sessions among colleagues who respect each other” as Activision Blizzard Esports CMO Daniel Cherry III referred to them. 

Out of these meetings came a unique and inspiring campaign idea, one unlike any other in professional sports history. “The Real Heroes Project” is a collaborative initiative to recognize and celebrate healthcare workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. The campaign features a combination of social media posts by athletes using the hashtag #TheRealHeroes. Sports heroes altered their jerseys and uniforms to honor a doctor, nurse, or EMT worker on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic by replacing their own last name with the name of their selected healthcare hero. 

With the help of 72 and Sunny, a PSA was created and debuted on May 12 to coincide with National Nurses Day.  It aired across the league and personal platforms featuring the athletes’ personal thank you messages to their healthcare heroes, aiming to inspire a lasting movement. The PSA features over two dozen athletes such as World Cup soccer winner Carli Lloyd, hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees. 

#TheRealHeroes PSA features clips of athletes thanking healthcare workers.

Four-time WNBA All-Star guard Skylar Diggins-Smith of the Phoenix Mercury, two-time WNBA All-Star, and 2018 WNBA MVP forward Breanna Stewart of the Seattle Storm, and 2020 NBA All-Star and Utah Jazz point guard Donovan Mitchell have participated in the initiative, among many others. 

Several athletes in the PSA are also honoring family members and personal friends working in healthcare. George Kittle, All-Pro tight end for the San Francisco 49ers showed his support for his high school and college friend, Kari Mueller who is a registered nurse at Advocate Aurora Health in Milwaukee. “I hope that all of the people that are risking their lives every day to protect and treat those in need know how much we admire and look up to them,” Kittle says. 

As part of The Real Heroes Project, George Kittle holds up his jersey featuring Kari Mueller’s name covering his to thank her for her work on the front lines of the pandemic.

A couple of weeks ago, Donovan Mitchell posted a photo on his Instagram account of himself holding up his Jazz jersey with his name replaced by the name of Dr. Cassandra Tribble, encouraging his followers to join him in honoring frontline healthcare workers. 

“Join me and the world of sports this Wednesday, National Nurses Day, as we honor the frontline healthcare heroes who inspire us. “Make a “jersey” in their honor. Tag it with #TheRealHeroes Let them feel the love!” he posted. 

Skylar Diggins-Smith chose Nichole Freeman as her healthcare hero. Diggins-Smith said she participated because nurses and the medical community have always been heroes to her. “This is a wonderful campaign to recognize that they save lives and they comfort and put their lives on the line day in and day out. That’s a real hero to me,” she says. 

WNBA All-Star guard Skyler Diggins-Smith holds up her jersey with Nichole Freeman’s name plastered over hers to honor Freeman’s efforts as a healthcare worker.

Diggins-Smith also says she hopes the recognition would continue. “I hope recognition will last beyond the pandemic,” she says.  “I hope we look at people and honor people everyday.”