The athletes should “Shut Up and Stick to Sports” crowd would not have been happy with this week’s Green Sports Alliance Summit.
Activism on the part of athletes was a welcome hallmark of the tenth annual event.
The virtual two-day Summit, which concluded Wednesday, featured athletes and others in the sports ecosystem speaking passionately about environmental justice, racial justice and the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on people of color and other marginalized communities. Several panelists referenced the importance of voting in the upcoming US election, a rarity at past GSA Summits.
It took nine years for environmental justice to be given a significant spotlight at a Green Sports Alliance Summit when Kunal Merchant moderated “Beyond The Ballpark: The Role of Sports in Environmental Justice Reform” at the 2019 event in Philadelphia.
Fast forward a year and change to Tuesday’s opening of the tenth annual Summit — this one was virtual, of course — and it was obvious that the world had changed.
It took all of six minutes and change for GSA executive director Roger McClendon to say the sports world has to take on what he calls “the three global pandemics: Climate change, COVID and institutional racism.” Keynote speaker Bill Moomaw, Director of the center for International Environment and Resource Policy at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of International Affairs, echoed McClendon.
The urgent need for environmental justice, racial justice and social justice was a subtext throughout the Summit and was the focal point of two panels on the first day .
“ROLE OF SPORTS IN ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE PANEL” YEAR TWO
The aforementioned Kunal Merchant, a Green Sports Alliance board member and executive director of Lotus Advisory, moderated the second “Role of Sports in Environmental Justice Reform” panel.
Former NFL offensive lineman Garry Gilliam shared his experience with hope-squashing systemic oppression during his childhood in an opportunity-deprived section of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He is using his resources and seemingly boundless energy to try to break that system, replacing it with a more equitable, hopeful one.
Gilliam’s system-breaking tool is The Bridge Eco-Village, an innovative startup that provides opportunities for African-Americans and other marginalized people to “Work, Eat, Live, Learn and Play” in affordable, high quality mixed-use developments. The pilot is expected to break ground in — where else — Harrisburg by the end of the year.
Diana Fernandez, a Miami-based high schooler and finance director for This Is Zero Hour, a youth-led movement creating entry points, training, and resources for new activists wanting to take concrete action around climate change. She urged sports teams and leagues to “stop investing in fossil fuels” and challenged attendees to vote, citing the NBA’s voting initiatives as an important marker.
Adrienne Hollis, senior climate justice and health scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, offered that sports teams should ask community members — especially those in marginalized groups — what they need to make strides on environmental justice, climate change, racial justice and more. She feels that teams that commit to real climate action will be rewarded for doing so. On the other hand, Hollis warned the environmental stragglers that, “If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.”
LEVERAGING ATHLETES VOICES FOR IMPACTFUL CHANGE
Cyrus Wadia, Amazon’s director of sustainable product and a Green Sports Alliance board member, took the “athlete environmental/racial justice activism” baton from Kunal Merchant, when he moderated “Leveraging Athletes Voices for Impactful Change” late Tuesday afternoon. The session featured a diverse group of athletes who discussed the motivations for — and perils of — speaking out on what can be contentious issues like systemic racism and environmental justice.
Renee Montgomery, the star point guard for the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, shared what it has been like for her since she opted out of the 2020 season in reaction to the murders by police of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others.
“It was scary at first,” related Montgomery. “After all, WNBA players are black, brown and women — at the intersection of everything going wrong in this country. But I did it for personal reasons that were valid to me: We’re on the wrong course on race and the environment. If we’re on the wrong course, let’s correct it…And I did it to help Americans get to where we should be; a country in which all Americans can pursue happiness. Overall I think the message has been understood.”
Brent Suter, pitcher for the Milwaukee Brewers, Players for the Planet activist and EcoAthletes Champion, picked up on Montgomery’s “pursuit of happiness” theme: “We got involved with the climate justice and racial issues this year with the Brewers, leading a boycott of a game in Milwaukee. [One way is by] working with the Boys & Girls Club and the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program to make sure everyone has a fair shot at happiness.” Suter also helped start Sidelining Carbon, a movement that aims for sports teams to cut emissions by 50 percent by 2025.
The murder by police of George Floyd in Minneapolis motivated Minnesota Twins outfielder Nelson Cruz, to speak out.
“We are athletes, our voice is pretty loud and when we talk, it goes a long way,” Cruz noted. “This year [with the Floyd murder], finally we said ‘enough is enough’ and we acted. It was really great to see.”
“We have to use our vote to get climate champions in office,” Shearer emphasized. “Protect Our Winters is working to mobilize ‘The Outdoor State’, the 50 million Americans who love the outdoors and sports like skiing, snowboarding, climbing and more, to vote their values.”
All of the panelists agreed that, while there still is fear on the part of some athletes of speaking out on issues in the political arena, that hesitation has begun to wane, especially in this combustible 2020.
“The last couple years, you could see there was trepidation among some in the baseball world to speak out on these issues, people are going start hating,” Suter said. “But especially since the George Floyd killing, people are stepping up.”
Cruz knows and accepts that speaking out on political issues will inevitably bring disagreement and criticism.
“We know there’s going to be some confrontations with teammates,” acknowledged the Dominican Republic native. “Sometimes a general manager or fans won’t like what you said. At the same time, if you believe in what you’re doing you have to stand up.”
Montgomery closed out the session powerfully by taking on another reason athletes or everyday citizens don’t speak out — the notion that one person can’t make a difference: “When I go to talk to different colleges, the students [say] ‘what can I do?’ My answer is, ‘only EVERYTHING!'”
GSB’s Take: Kudos to the GSA for putting climate change, environmental justice, and racial justice in the spotlight at the 2020 Summit.
GSB fervently hopes that the 2021 Summit will be able to be held in-person. If that’s the case, we also hope that GSA offers brainstorming sessions for attendees and panelists to dig into specific ways sports organizations and athletes can use their platforms more powerfully.
In the meantime, if you haven’t already done so, #VOTE.