Yes, sports athletes can impact social change, particularly because they are some of the most recognizable people across the planet. Children who look up to athletes such as Lebron James and Cam Newton will listen to what they say about social issues that impact our society. If athletes speak out more frequently, younger generations will be more likely to follow suit.
Not only can sports athletes impact social change but they can inspire social justice. Since the beginning of civil rights movements sports have been a way to prove that despite gender, race, or religion one can compete and succeed just as much as anyone else. Women, throughout the century, have been constantly breaking old notions of what a female is capable of. Through sports, women inspire equal treatment, pay, and education- which has been a long battle for civil rights. This isn't just true for women: as our sports athletes become more diversified, more social issues and discrepancies are being brought to light.
Many sports athletes maintain a celebrity status with many people who look up to them. This gives athletes the opportunity to share their views on many subjects which could lead to a change in the way the fans view them. One example of athlete's influence on social change is the many that have come out as members of the LGBT community thus challenging some stereotypes and influencing fans to be more accepting of LGBT individuals.
Yes, the athletes can have very positive influence for the society because the kids look up to them. They can show young people that hard work pays out and this message carries even more wight when it comes from successful (and wealthy) athletes that come from poor neighborhoods or dysfunctional families.