The Politics of Climate Change and Sports

After a spasm of activism during the 60s and 70s —mainly on civil rights, the Vietnam War and women’s rights—North American athletes, have, for the most, kept quiet about politics. That is clearly changing. Ignited by the Black Lives Matter movement, accelerated by the ascendancy to the White House of Donald J. Trump and spurred on by his recent immigration ban, politics and the issues of the day have increasingly found their way on to ESPN, si.com and other sports media platforms.

Climate change has not been on the politics-meet-sports agenda. This should surprise no one. You won’t find the topic near the top of the “most important issues” list facing the American public. It involves science, which can be daunting. And the sports world likely wants to stay away from angering the portion of the U.S. population that is still skeptical about/denying the reality and human causality of climate change.

Conventional wisdom would likely say that it is a good thing for the Green-Sports movement to stay away from the political crossfire. But the conventional is not always wise. Avoiding the realm of politics could actually stunt the growth of the Green-Sports movement and thus reduce its impact in the climate change fight, especially among sports fans under 35.

 

SPORTS AND POLITICS MEET AGAIN

“Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

That 1990 quote, attributed to Michael Jordan, was allegedly# uttered by His Airness in response to a request for an endorsement of Harvey Gantt, Democratic Mayor of Charlotte and an African American. Gantt was running that year for the US Senate seat in North Carolina held by Jesse Helms, seen by many as racist. Jordan didn’t endorse anyone, Helms was re-elected and the quote became a kind of shorthand for “Avoidance of Politics,” the basic default position for athletes (as well as for owners and sports sponsors/advertisers) for the next twenty or so years.

gantt-alchetron

Harvey Gantt, former mayor of Charlotte, NC. Michael Jordan famously did not endorse Gantt for US Senate in 1990 vs. incumbent GOP Senator Jesse Helms, allegedly because “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” (Photo credit: Alchetron)

 

Fast forward to 2016-17.

Things have changed, in particular regarding issues of race and, just in the last few weeks, immigration:

On race:

  • San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sparked nationwide controversy and conversation in September when he “took a knee”, refusing to stand during the playing of the national anthem as a statement of support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
  • Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney and John Tortorella, coach of hockey’s Team USA, among many others, criticized Kaepernick.
  • Jim Brown and Kareem Abdul Jabbar, veterans of the 60s and 70s protest movements, came out in support of the Niners’ QB, as did Megan Rapinoe, a key member of the US Women’s National Soccer Team.
  • NBA stars LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Carmelo Anthony made a strong Black Lives Matter statement during the opening segment of the 2016 ESPY Awards show.

On the recent “immigration/refugee ban” executive order from the Trump Administration:

  • Two of the winningest and most respected coaches in the NBA, San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich and Golden State’s Steve Kerr, voiced strong public opposition to the policy. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban echoed those sentiments.
  • Many athletes have done so as well, including retired NBA star Steve Nash, Toronto F.C. and U.S. Soccer captain Michael Bradley, and NASCAR’s Dale Earnhart, Jr.
  • News was made in the run up to the Super Bowl LI when Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady would NOT opine on the immigration ban.
  • Budweiser aired a 60 second, pro-immigration ad during Sunday’s Super Bowl broadcast (cost of air time: roughly $10 million). AirBnB ran a 30 second spot with a similar theme. Google’s and Coca Cola’s efforts, while not specific to immigration, celebrated ethnic diversity.

 

Budweiser’s pro-immigration ad that ran during Super Bowl LI

 

While many team owners would rather have their players keep their political views to themselves, a few are starting to encourage their players to take stands. Speaking at a November town hall on race and sports at Arizona State University, Stephen M. Ross, Principal Owner of the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, opined that “Athletes recognize their role in society. Let’s take advantage of that…I am probably in the minority of NFL owners encouraging players to express [their political] feelings and speak out. This country needs it.”

So, with apologies to Bob Dylan, “The Times, They are a’ Changin’…”

 

POLITICAL CLIMATE RIPE FOR SPORTS AND CLIMATE CHANGE, EVEN IN TRUMP ERA

…Except, for the most part, when it comes to climate change. Greening sports teams, leagues, and mega sports events have largely ignored or danced around climate change, especially when communicating their greenness to fans. (why are sports greening, after all, if not to, you know, help solve climate change?!?!) The networks that broadcast sports, and the sponsors/advertisers that support them also stay away from climate change.

If the climate change-themed vignette at the opening ceremonies of the 2016 Rio Olympics, seen by as many by a billion people worldwide, is the rare exception to the unspoken “avoid climate change” rule; that axiom is exemplified by the just completed Waste Management Phoenix Open (WMPO).

Let’s get this straight from the get-go: I LOVE the WMPO. Why? To use the tournament organizers’ words, it may well be the “most sustainable sporting event in the world.” The WMPO:

  • Has been Zero-Waste for four straight years with 100 percent of the waste generated at the tournament repurposed for beneficial reuse. This is especially impressive when one considers that more than 600,000 fans or more showed up over the course of the tournament, making it the most well-attended event on the PGA Tour by far.
  • Directly involved fans in the event’s greenness through Green Out SaturdayFor every fan who wore green to the third round on Saturday, the tournament hosts make a donation to three deserving, sustainability-focused, non-profits. Now in its seventh year, Green Out has raised over $390,000.
  • Supports Change The Coursea water sustainability campaign supporting water flow restoration projects. These include Northern Arizona’s Verde River, which flows into canals that provide water to the tournament course.

wmpo

Recycling and compost receptacles at the Zero-Waste Waste Management Phoenix Open. (Photo credit: Waste Management)

 

But visit the WMPO website and you will not find climate change mentioned on their sustainability-focused pages. Enter “climate change” into the search box and you will find it in the eighth paragraph of one press release highlighting the tournament’s designation as an “Inspire” event by the Council for Responsible Sport, a terrific, Eugene, Oregon-based sustainable sports event standards-setting organization.

It says here that leaving climate change out of the WMPO’s greening story was unwise.

I have been working in the sustainability world for 11 years and know very well that the politics of climate change are challenging. And I know Arizona voted for Trump and Trump is a climate skeptic/denier. And because the politics is tricky and because of the red-state-ness of Arizona, I know that talking directly about climate change runs the risk of some blowback from customers, fans, talk radio hosts and who knows who else.

And to all that, I say so what!

The current political climate, even with Donald Trump in the Oval Office, is more ripe than ever for the WMPO, an athlete, a sponsor/advertiser, and/or a network to talk to fans about climate change, especially those fans under 35.

  • Millennials (18-34 year-olds) and Generation Z (11-17), the Holy Grail cohorts for the sports industry, are proving to be extremely difficult to grab and hold. A significant chunk of the well-publicized ratings drop suffered by the NFL this season was attributable to younger viewers. Major League Baseball is considering rules changes to speed up the game to cater to the <35s.
  • Climate change is important to Millennials and Gen Z-ers. The issue is a much bigger deal for folks under 35 than it is for their older (and, on this issue, not wiser) counterparts. And while engaging on climate change will not attract younger folks to become sports fans (I’m not suffering from Green-Sports fever); doing so will help keep them in the fold once they’ve become hooked.
  • The reality of climate change—and humans causal role in it—is now accepted by a majority of Americans. According to an April 2016 poll from Gallup, a record 65 percent of Americans blame human activity for climate change. That means a significant number of Republicans think this is the case. And check out “A Conservative Case for Climate Action,” an Op-Ed in yesterday’s New York Times from three esteemed GOP economists.
  • Brands are less afraid of wading into the political pool and when they do, for the most part, they’re wading in on the progressive end—where climate change swims: While there were some online protests of AirBnB, Budweiser and Coca-Cola as a result of their politically-themed Super Bowl ads, they were relatively small in size and low in volume. Early reports show that the ads garnered more positive attention than negative. And, while one might expect “Blue State” brands like AirBnB and Google to air pro-immigration, pro-diversity ads, what does it say that quintessential “Red State” brands Budweiser and Coke did the same?

Finally, avoiding a challenge—i.e. shying away from mentioning climate change—is antithetical to what sports is all about. Think about almost every sports movie you’ve ever seen. Or Super Bowl LI* for that matter. You know the script: Player and/or team is behind, things are going badly. Formidable obstacles make victory seem impossible. Then player/team regroups, often heroically, working hard to comeback until an incredible triumph is won. Or a valiant loss is suffered with the journey deemed to be well worth it.

Keeping that “overcoming obstacles” ethos in mind, it’s time for the many precincts of the sports world that are greening to strongly and consistently say why they are doing so. And the prime reason in many cases is the climate change fight.

Now is the time for sports to take on climate change. It is why sports is greening.

We will delve into how that fight should be waged in coming posts. In the meantime, the sports industry should take on any incoming climate change flak; your team, your league, your brand will most certainly survive and thrive.

 

# There is some doubt as to whether Jordan actually said those exact words. He may have said it, indicated that was his position or it may have been Jordan biographer Sam Smith’s interpretation of Jordan’s attitudes about politics in general and the Gantt-Helms race in particular.
^ POTUS = President of the United States
* I rooted HARD for the Falcons but kudos to the Patriots for the most incredible comeback in Super Bowl history.

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Email us: lew@greensportsblog.com
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