I launched EcoAthletes as a nonprofit one year ago today with the mission to “inspire and coach athletes to lead climate action.” Put another way, we exist to find and deploy the Megan Rapinoes, the Colin Kaepernicks of climate change.
Despite that first revolution around the sun taking place during the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve been able to make solid initial progress by building a global roster of 35 EcoAthletes Champions who endorse our mission. Of course, we are still way behind in the climate fight, as global carbon emissions, despite a COVID-related dip in 2020, are still projected to reach potentially catastrophic levels by 2030.
That’s why the EcoAthletes team reaffirms our commitment in Year 2 to engage “Climate-Curious” and “Climate-Active” athletes to spark the much needed #ClimateComeback.
Before we hit the (EV) accelerator on Year 2, let’s take a quick look back at Year 1.
Athletes have spoken out and led on a myriad of social issues going back many decades.
And their words have mattered, engaging and yes, sometimes enraging fans. In most cases, the reputations of those athletes who have spoken out have been greatly enhanced.
In North American sports, mid-to-late 20th century icons like Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, and Billie Jean King have passed the figurative athlete activist batons to modern-day athletes Colin Kaepernick, Megan Rapinoe and many more.
But when it comes to climate change, the vast majority of athletes have been silent. And we don’t have the luxury of time for that to continue to be the case. According to the 2018 U.N. IPCC report, humanity needs to decarbonize by 45 percent by 2030 to avoid climate change’s most harmful impacts.
Why haven’t athletes, aside from the notable exception of snow sports athletes like skiers and snowboarders — the canary in the coal mine when it comes to experiencing the impacts of climate change on their sports now — led on climate to this point?
My GreenSportsBlog interviews with athletes, many of whom are active on plastic ocean waste, e-waste recycling, and other environmental issues, gave me some clues. Three obstacles to athlete engagement on climate came to the fore in those conversations time and time again. In no particular order, they are:
- It’s too science-y
- It’s too political
- I’ll be branded a hypocrite if I speak out because I have a huge carbon footprint because I fly a lot for my sport.
As I would hear these objections, I would think, “I have an answer for that one; I have two answers for that one.”
Then I thought, “To get athletes to lead on climate, we need to help them overcome those obstacles.”
And it was that hypothesis that led to the birth of EcoAthletes.
LAUNCHING DURING THE PANDEMIC-INDUCED SPORTS SHUTDOWN
We were all set to launch on St. Patrick’s Day, 2020.
EcoAthletes’ website was ready to go. A substantive, diverse advisory board of climate-active athletes, academics, climate scientists, sustainable business executives and more was in place. Our first EcoAthletes Champions — athletes who would publicly endorse our mission to “inspire and coach athletes to lead climate action” — were ready to be announced.
Then on March 11, Rudy Gobert of the NBA’s Utah Jazz tested positive for COVID-19 and the North American sports dominoes quickly began to fall. The NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer all suspended their seasons within a few days.
The St. Patrick’s Day launch was clearly out, but when should we launch? Those fraught early days of the coronavirus’ first wave made the way forward uncertain. Should we wait the virus out? How long would that be? What would it look like to launch in the middle of this? My frequent conversations with Kristen Fulmer, EcoAthletes’ strategic advisor and founder of Recipric, kept coming back to these four points:
- We have no idea how long the acute phase(s) of COVID-related shutdowns will last.
- The world is in need of positive stories and athletes engaging their supporters on the climate fight certainly qualifies.
- Athletes, at least in the short term, might have more free time to become involved in outside pursuits.
- The climate crisis is not going to wait.
So, the pause ended up lasting only three weeks and EcoAthletes launched one year ago today.
ECOATHLETES CHAMPIONS — THE HUB OF OUR WORK
“EcoAthletes gives athletes the tools to use their platforms to inspire real climate action,” said British Paralympic sailing medalist, EcoAthletes Champion and advisory board member Alexandra Rickham.
Those tools are found in our Resource Hub that help Champions build their “climate brands” and become powerful climate communicators. Resources include:
- Community: Connections to other Champions through vibrant Community Chats and more
- Thought Leadership: Climate-themed panels and podcast appearances, op-eds, etc.
- Career Growth: Access to climate/sustainability career coaching
- Social Media: Customized climate-focused content to help athletes find and share their climate voice
- Connections with Prospective Sponsors: Introductions to green/climate-minded brands
On Tuesday, Napheesa Collier of the Minnesota Lynx and the league’s 2019 Rookie of the Year, became EcoAthletes’ 35th Champion and the first from the WNBA. The Champions roster is talented and diverse:
- 24 are women; 11 are men
- They play(ed) 21 sports
- Ten countries on five continents are represented
- They’ve won Olympic and Paralympic medals, won ATP and WTA tournaments, played in a Super Bowl, a men’s Rugby World Cup and much more.
But numbers alone do not tell the whole Champions story.
In fact, it is the Champions’ inspiring stories — sports-wise, climate-wise, and otherwise — that provides EcoAthletes with its special sauce…Stories like these:
- Former Australian pro netballer Amy Steel suffered debilitating, life-altering impacts of heat stroke during a game played in oppressive temperatures, ascribed some of that heat to climate change, and changed her path to build a career as a climate risk analyst.
- Milwaukee Brewers pitcher and EcoAthletes advisory board member Brent Suter is helping to green his team through the Strikeout (plastic) Waste initiative, advocates for bipartisan carbon pricing legislation, and has greatly reduced his meat intake.
- Arianna Criscione, goalkeeper and sponsorship sales executive for Paris St. Germain (PSG) is working to bring brands with a green tint into the fold.
- Highly-ranked doubles tennis player Marcus Daniell from New Zealand recently launched High Impact Athletes, a nonprofit that helps athletes direct their charitable contributions to the most effective organizations possible. Environment/climate is one of HIA’s three areas of focus.
This is just a sampling of the terrific and important work the Champions are doing off the field. There are at least 35 such inspirational stories.
YEAR 2: GROWING THE CHAMPIONS NETWORK, IMPACT
As EcoAthletes heads into Year Two, we will:
- Grow the Champions network, both in terms of the number of athletes and also by onboarding athletes with bigger social media followings and influence. To do so, we will look to add athletes from the NBA and WNBA, men’s and women’s soccer, the NFL, MLB, and the NHL. Surfers and triathletes are also a priority.
- Measure our impact by calculating how many people the Champions reach with climate messaging through social and traditional media.
And we are working to have our #ClimateComeback hashtag to trend sometime in 2021. After all, humanity is behind in the climate fight and we need a comeback. Who better to lead a comeback than athletes? It’s what they do, and they are ready to get going!
“EcoAthletes took two worlds — sports and climate — that I thought were separate and compartmentalized in my life and allowed me to blend them together,” offered USA Rugby’s Alena Olsen. “They gave me the idea that I could make real change and provided the inspiration I needed to do it.”
I for one can’t wait to see the impact Alena and the rest of the Champions have in Year Two.
If you are a “climate-curious” athlete and think that EcoAthletes could be for you — and/or if you know of an athlete — click here to register for a special Earth Day Community Chat at 10:15AM Thursday April 22, highlighted by talks from Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, one of the foremost climate communicators in the world and the chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy, and Brent Suter. We will also share how the EcoAthletes Resource Hub can help athletes lead climate action.
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