Environmental Justice, Racial Justice and Sports: Ideas on the Way Forward


Yesterday, GreenSportsBlog named Environmental/Climate Justice, Racial Justice and Sports as the Best Story of 2020.

Today, GSB is giving the floor to leaders from the intersection of Environmental/Climate Justice, Racial Justice and Sports, to get their takes on how to move from talk to action.



Kunal Merchant, Environmental Justice Expert, Managing Director of Lotus Advisory, Green Sports Alliance Board Member

On how sports, with its ability to bring people together, can galvanize the public on a number of issues…

I saw the power of sports when I worked for former NBA All-Star Kevin Johnson when he was mayor of Sacramento about a decade ago. This was during the time when the NBA’s Kings were threatening to leave the city for Seattle.

When we would have town halls with the community about, say, the arts or public safety, we would draw maybe 50 people. When we would convene folks about the Kings and a new arena, we would get 300 or more! There was unbelievable public interest.

Sports attracts heat and light. So, we would use the platform of sports to have a dialogue on broader issues. Environmental Justice (EJ) became a core part of the conversation during the design phase of what would become Golden1 CenterAt every step in the process, we would ask, “Will this aspect of the arena make life better or worse for frontline communities?” Only the elements that improved things on the ground got the go-ahead.


Kunal Merchant (Photo credit: Lotus Advisory)


On amplifying the Environmental Justice/Climate Justice/Racial Justice (EJ/CJ/RJ) discussion at the 2019 Green Sports Alliance Summit… 

Making EJ/CJ/RJ an important part of the Alliance’s work was something I wanted to do from the beginning of my tenure as a board member.

The hiring of Roger McClendon as executive director two years ago was a big move in the right direction — him being an African American, his experience as an athlete¹, as well as a sustainable business leader at Yum! Brands gave him the perspective and credibility to bring racial and environmental equity issues to the fore at the Alliance.

So, once I became a board member and once Roger arrived, we were able to push environmental, climate and racial justice like never before — which soon resulted in us having the EJ/CJ/RJ panel on the main stage at the Philadelphia Summit in June 2019.

This showed that the Alliance was willing to make a real move beyond the technical, somewhat safe panels about recycling and energy efficiency at venues — those are still of course part of our work — to show that we’re willing to talk about and then act on systemic racism, poverty, and environmental and climate injustice.

On what success for the sports world on EJ/CJ/RJ could look like…

First, we have to acknowledge that these issues are bigger than our present moment. They are decades, centuries in the making; they will take that long to fix. But that’s exactly why we have to act NOW!

At a minimum, we will be successful when it is no longer OK to talk Green-Sports without discussing environmental, climate, and racial justice as well as social justice — meaning diversity, access to healthcare and more.

But that’s at a minimum.

We won’t truly be successful if we only talk about EJ/CJ/RJ. So, by this time next year, we need to have a comprehensive action plan for the sports industry to advance environmental and climate justice. I recently convened a working group to begin moving us towards achieving that goal.

And now is the time. In politics, there’s a saying that goes “never let a crisis go to waste” and 2020 gave us several high profile crises: the pandemic and its brutal impacts, racial violence, and increased poverty. These issues have a more receptive audience than in prior years. As we leave 2020, I see us with a rare, urgent opening to capitalize on this receptivity towards EJ/CJ/RJ. We have to take it as the stakes are incredibly high.

On where athletes fit in…

The NBA and WNBA players’ actions on racial justice this summer were incredible. This continues a trend in which more people want athletes to engage on issues than before — we are well beyond “Republicans buy sneakers, too”, the infamous Michael Jordan statement from 28 years ago explaining why he didn’t get involved in politics.

Now, it is not surprising that environmental and climate injustice are not discussed by athletes nearly as much as racial injustice and criminal justice reform. The good news is that the EJ/CJ/RJ dots are there to be connected and we’re much closer to doing so than we were six months ago. Sports, with athletes out front, needs to be a model industry, to show the world “this is what environmental and climate justice looks like!”



Jessica Murfree, Clinical Instructor in Sport Administration at the University of Louisville and PhD candidate

On bringing environmental justice into classroom discussions…

I teach Sport & the Environment and Sports and Facility Management at the University of Louisville and there is no way to give these courses without talking about EJ.

For instance, in Facilities, which dives into sports venues from Greek and Roman times all the way to SoFi Stadium², we discuss where these venues are located: largely in black and brown communities. And how doing so brings air and noise pollution, litter, traffic and congestion into these neighborhoods.

In Sport & the Environment, we offer “What Does EJ in Sport Mean?” It’s a one-week module that takes a broad view of the topic, linking racial justice, income inequality and more to the environment.

For example, we look at opportunities — or the lack thereof — to play youth sport based on income and how the latter has resulted in increased childhood obesity.

By the end of the week, students, many of whom are athletes in sports like golf and baseball, have done a serious independent reflection and realize that “no one on my team looks like me,” or “everyone looks like me”. Then they propose ways in which sport can reduce racial injustice, increase access and improve the environment. Importantly, virtually every student gets that all of these problems are rooted in, and exacerbated by climate change.


Jessica Murfree (Photo credit: University of Louisville)


On how to start solving environmental and climate injustice problems…

Well, in an EJ/CJ solutions approach, version 1.0 has to be AWARENESS. In a lot of homes, people who are living with environmental injustices are not aware that they are doing so! For example, a parent might think a child has asthma because of the luck of the draw.

That leads to v2.0, ACTION, connecting the harms with solutions. So, we need to let parents know there is cause and effect, through public service announcements. Athletes would be great messengers.

If you want to put venues in black and brown communities then involve community groups in the planning from the beginning. Have local businesses and local residents build and operate the venue. Use healthy, locally sourced foods.

Finally v3.0 is SUSTAINABILITY, which in this case means that the actions cannot be temporary, cannot be one-offs. They need to last. Because this is about long term environmental, healthcare and economic discrepancies, long term solutions are a must.



Jenny Vrentas, SportsIllustrated/ Senior Reporter, EcoAthletes advisory board member

Vrentas’ comments were made during “Leveling the Playing Field: Sports & Climate Justice,” a September panel discussion that was part of Climate Week NYC 2020.

On the responsibility of sports media to cover social issues, including EJ/CJ…

There is a real urgency [on the part of sports media] to protect democracy, to move forward on equal rights, to have a long overdue racial reckoning. And there is an urgency for sports media to engage on climate change and climate justice.

You know, the most powerful moment of 2020 for me was when the NBA and WNBA players decided to not play playoff games in the wake of the shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Wisconsin. It was the players saying in effect, to fans “you enjoy watching us play,” and to owners and media companies, “you make money from us playing…well, we won’t play unless you recognize our humanity and listen to the things we say about injustices we see and experience.” Black players don’t have the privilege of ignoring those.

On how those decisions to cover or not cover these topics are made…

Coverage decisions start at the top. Who makes those decisions? Are there people of color, are there women in decision-making roles? Often, the answer is no. The sports media has the responsibility to not only cover what they think people will want to see and hear, what will generate clicks, but to also cover what will move society forward.


Jenny Vrentas (Photo credit: Sports Illustrated)



Dr. Mustafa Santiago Ali, Vice President of Environmental Justice, Climate, and Community Revitalization at the National Wildlife Federation

Dr. Santiago Ali’s comments were excerpted with permission from an October 2020 interview conducted by Dr. Maddy Orr on Sport Ecology Group’s “Climate Champions” podcast. 

On racial, economic and environmental justice in sports…

If we are serious about loving sports, we’ve got to love the athletes.

If we really care about current and future athletes, we need to make real investments in disadvantaged, underserved communities. And we need to enact policies where kids can play sports in environments where they are safe, where they will not be harmed by the environment or the climate.

You know, there’s an iconic photo that shows a track at a high school in a LatinX community, with flares from a nearby power plant in the background. As an athlete, how can you operate at an ultimate level in that environment? You can’t. When you inhale toxins, you run a little slower, your lung capacity diminishes.


Mustafa Santiago Ali (Photo credit: National Wildlife Federation)


On the un-equal impacts of the climate crisis…

We won’t win on climate change if we don’t win on environmental injustice. The people who can adapt the least — black, brown, indigenous, and poor white communities — are the folks who are suffering the most. This has to change.

The impacts of the climate crisis will far outpace what we’ve experienced from COVID-19. Sports will be impacted. And if we don’t take real action on climate, there will be more pandemics.

So, teams and ownership need to evolve quickly. Make real investments in frontline communities and support nonprofits in the EJ/CJ space.



Midge Purce, U.S. Women’s National Team and Sky Blue F.C. forward, member of the Harvard Board of Overseers

Purce’s comments were made during “Leveling the Playing Field: Sports & Climate Justice,” a September panel discussion that was part of Climate Week NYC 2020. A 2017 graduate of Harvard, she won election this year to the university’s Board of Overseers on a “Climate Forward” ticket that ran on pushing Harvard to divest from investments in fossil fuels.

On why she ran for the Harvard Board of Overseers…

I loved it at Harvard but thought they have been missing on inclusive governance and need a better response to climate change. I see that we are living through five crises now: A health crisis that leads directly to an economic crisis. A moral crisis through the stain of racism. A leadership crisis and an existential climate crisis.

So, I saw a real opportunity to give back on climate. One important way is through our education system at all levels. Education will lead to action.


Midge Purce in action for the U.S. Women’s National Team (Photo credit: Front Row Soccer)



Dr. Walker Ross, Assistant Professor of Sports Management, Florida Southern College

On whether sport really is a positive model for society, especially as far as the environment is concerned…

We all look to sports as a leader in doing the right thing, teaching kids about qualities like integrity and valor, as an equalizer. In some respects that’s true.

But, we’ve ignored the fact that, as far as the environment is concerned, sport has never been about that. Sport has taken from the environment, especially in black and brown communities, where stadiums and arenas are built, with the environmental costs absorbed by the community.

This is not exclusive to sports. Go back to John Muir and the creation of the National Parks system. Created for whom? Basically it was taking lands from indigenous people for the benefit of white people.


Dr. Walker Ross (Photo credit: Florida Southern University)


On why local, small-scale sports venues aren’t greening…

While it’s understandable to focus on the environmental successes of pro and college stadiums and arenas, but the vast majority of sports happens on the community level.

I’ve conducted research as to why the community sports world — high school sports, Little League, etc. — has not embraced sustainability for its facilities for the most part.

The answer? Community sports decision makers don’t see going green as a competitive advantage. Some have seen the value to their brands in moving forward on race, thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement and more.

We’ve been too timid so far on the environment in the community sports realm. One way to make progress is to link environmental progress to racial progress.


¹ McLendon played D-I college basketball at the University of Cincinnati
² SoFi Stadium, the home of the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams and Chargers, opened in 2020



Photo at top: WNBA players protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake this summer (Photo credit: Getty Images)



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