The GSB Interview: David Epstein, Author Of “The Sports Gene”, On Lack Of Eco-Athletes

David Epstein, Reporter at Pro Publica, until recently, Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated and author of current  New York Times Bestseller “The Sports Gene”, was one of SI’s writers on its 2007 cover story, “Going, Going, Green” about sports and climate change.  He moderated a panel in August at the GreenSportsAlliance Summit about the lack of “Eco-Athletes”–athletes who speak out about climate change.  GreenSportsBlog spoke with Epstein about EcoAthletes and the Green + Sports intersection.

GreenSportsBlog:  Let’s go back to 2007 and the SI cover story, “Going, Going, Green”.  Was this your first experience writing about climate change?

David Epstein:  It was certainly my first time writing about it in a mainstream media setting.  I had a background in Earth Sciences and was a Geology grad student so I guess that’s why editor Richard Demak put me on the story with Alexander Wolff.

David Epstein II

David Epstein, Reporter at Pro Publica and author of “The Sports Gene”

GSB:  What are your big takeaways from “Going, Going, Green”?

DE:  Well, we worked on the story for months before it ran–it was very thoroughly researched.  It was really the first big story I worked on. I thought it was fair, not at all a polemic.

GSB:  What was the reaction to the article, both within the halls of Time, Inc. and among readers?

DE:  At SI, I believe everyone was happy with it.  As I said we put a lot into it.  I thought the cover (of then Marlins pitcher Dontrelle Willis submerged up to his knees in water at SunLife Stadium) was great and really drew readers into the story.  As far as reader reaction is concerned, I remember it as being mixed, with some folks saying that climate change is a political issue and SI shouldn’t do politics. But this was a very topical issue at the time (“An Inconvenient Truth” had come out months earlier) and one that SI was very comfortable covering.

Going, Going, Green

2007 Sports Illustrated Cover Story on Sports and Climate Change

GSB:  Since then, climate change has waxed and mostly waned as an issue, especially when one talks about the American public’s concern about it.  Not one question was asked about climate change in all 3 2012 Presidential debates plus the one VP debate, for crying out loud!  So maybe it’s not surprising that we haven’t seen many “Eco-Athletes”–athletes who have embraced climate change as an issue.  Why do you think that is the case?

DE: In general, athlete activism has decline overall since the 60s.  There’s just so much more money on the line now than 40, 50 years ago.  Athletes’ images are much more important than back then.  Their handlers and agents have a much more important role.  More livelihoods are at stake.  All this to say that athletes are much less likely to wade into controversial areas than in the past.  Many athletes get involved with apolitical causes like literacy or getting kids active.

Getting athletes to embrace climate change is particularly dicey.  For one, it can be seen as an abstract issue–and so they get counseled by their advisors to do something more tangible.  Remember, many of these athletes are from the inner city and have little experience with nature or the natural world.  And they’re often young, not fully-formed adults in many ways.

Sports Gene

The Sports Gene, NY Times Bestseller, by David Epstein

GSB: So what’s the best route to change the trajectory and to get more eco-athletes?

DE: That’s a tough one.  There’s not one answer but a part of the answer has to be to get to the agents, the gatekeepers to the athletes.  They often bring causes to the attention of their clients.  If you can impress upon an agent that speaking out on climate change will improve their client’s image, then there’s a chance.  It may be easier to get to individual sport athletes rather than team sport guys.  With a team sport athlete you have so much more on your plate, including dealing with teammates and their egos.  Steve Gleason, the former New Orleans Saints player now dealing with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), started driving a truck powered by BioDiesel after Katrina.  He told me he encountered questions in the locker room from some of his teammates, but that some of them became interested.

GSB:  Andrew Ference of the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers is one of the only athletes from the 4 major team sports in North America to actively be out front on the climate change issue.  And he’s not a superstar by any means.  To move the needle among fans, we need to get the LeBron James’, the Peyton Mannings’ to speak up.  How do we make that happen?

DE: It’s not gonna be easy to get to LeBron. LeBron does a lot of charitable work, so I think the challenge is in getting him to feel that the impact of environmental activism is as tangible as, say, programs for kids. Perhaps appealing to an elite athlete with a sense that he/she can be a pioneer among his/her peers by embracing climate change, rather than being simply another athlete with a childhood-exercise charitable cause, would cater to the desire to help but also to shape his/her image. Again, the way to get someone like LeBron engaged is to go through their chief image-keeper, the agent.

GSB:  Well, GSB will continue to pursue LeBron and other Mega-stars (and their agents!) to get them to speak out on climate change.

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