Special Series: Green College Sports

Four Top College Athletics Directors Go Deep On Climate, COVID and Racial Justice


American college sports, like just about every other aspect of life, including, well, college itself, has been thrown into chaos by the global coronavirus pandemic.

Commissioners from the big time, Power 5 leagues/conferences — the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC — are meeting this week to discuss whether to shut down all fall sports, especially including football, the cash cow. Several schools have had to shut down summer football practice due to outbreaks COVID-19 cases. Many of the smaller conferences, including the Ivy League, have already postponed all of their fall sports until the spring.

How does sustainability/green/climate, fit in a college sports world during COVID?

To answer that question, GreenSportsBlog is running a three-part series that looks at the College Sports during COVID for the Fall semester through a Green-Sports lens. 

In Part I, we dug into how the ACC and Pac-12 Sports Sustainability Summits fared during coronavirus.

Today, GSB reviews “Restoring College Sports Amid COVID-19: Leveraging Climate Action,” a virtual panel discussion courtesy of The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). It featured athletics directors from four Power 5 schools talking about the intersectionality of climate change, COVID and  racial and social justice.


It was remarkable in its unremarkable-ness.

Four athletic directors from Power 5 schools — Rick George of the University of Colorado, Blake James from the University of Miami (FL), Gene Smith of The Ohio State University, and John Currie of Wake Forest — each discussed, with some depth and much earnestness, how their departments and student athletes are taking on the existential problems at the intersection of COVID-19, systemic racism and the climate crisis. The discussion took place during “Restoring College Sports Amid COVID-10; Leveraging Climate Action,” last week’s webinar from The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), moderated by its executive director, Meghan Fay Zahniser, and sponsored by Phase 3 Sports.

Would this forum have taken place in January, just seven months ago, before the coronavirus pandemic and the worldwide protests sparked by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many other unarmed black Americans by members of law enforcement?

No way, it says here.

But, in August of this hellish, tragic 2020, hearing ADs talk matter-of-factly about the climate, social and racial justice initiatives in their departments, gave listeners a small rung of positivity to grab on to.

“We’ve changed our approach to sustainability, asking ourselves how [a given sustainability initiative or program] benefits everybody,” Colorado’s Rick George said. “With that mindset, we’ve made the link between social justice, health and wellness, climate justice and fiscal equity. Our LEED-certified buildings provide better indoor air quality, which reduces sick days. Serving local foods at our venues means lower transportation-related emissions. Our growing number of solar arrays — more than half of the solar panels on campus are athletics- related — mean lower carbon emissions and jobs for people from underserved local communities.”


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Rick George (Photo credit: Ron Chenoy/USA Today)


For Gene Smith, environmental degradation and climate justice is personal.

“I grew up in Cleveland in the 1970s, and I remember the Cuyahoga River being on fire,” recalled Ohio State’s AD with a shudder. “Manufacturing built that region and now we’re trying to deal with the costs of decades of manufacturing-related emissions. Our goal as a department is to go zero-waste by 2025. We are largely there on football and our student-athletes are going to help get us there [in many other sports].”

Wake Forest’s Currie enthusiastically took the student athletes baton from Smith.

“We’re excited that football’s Terrance Davis and Jack Crane and basketball’s Jalen Johnson are enrolled in our sustainability masters’ program,” Currie noted. “Athletics is making the connection between racial, climate and social justice for all of our student athletes. Our Performance Dining cafeteria is a great example. Its Eat With a Purpose ethos and its strong emphasis on plant-based options made it very popular after its launch four years ago. In fact, it was so popular that Performance Dining has grown to become campus-wide. One result is that sustainable food sourcing at Wake Forest has increased from four percent to 30 percent in just the last four years.”


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John Currie (Photo credit: Wake Forest University Athletics)


That the University of Miami is located in the middle of sea level-threatened South Florida — sunny day flooding is a frequent occurrence — means Hurricanes’ AD Blake James experiences the intersection of racial, climate and social injustice up close and personal.

“The impacts of sea level rise fall most heavily on the disenfranchised, that is clear,” observed James. “This is something that we in athletics, and the entire university, is focused on. Same thing with diversity and inclusion. In fact, we just brought on our first Senior Associate Athletic Director for Diversity and Inclusion.”


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Blake James (Photo credit: University of Miami Athletics)


James made news during the webinar when he signed the U.N.’s Sports for Climate Action Framework on camera, meaning the Hurricanes have joined Colorado (the first athletic department to sign), Ohio State and Wake Forest as signatories. This commits those departments to, among other things, educate for climate action and advocate for climate action through communication.


GSB’s Take: Before the four ADs can kick their athletic departments’ progress on racial and social justice into a higher gear and do the same on the Sport for Climate Action’s five commitments¹ — there is the matter of resolving whether fall sports, especially football, will be played.

My feeling is that they should not play: this a novel virus, there is no vaccine, there is no treatment, football is a collision sport, and these are college kids — will they really socially distance and wear masks at the levels needed to keep spread of COVID-19 in check? 

But, sooner or later, college sports will be back on the fields on a regular basis. And when that happens, this webinar discussion between the four ADs about racial, social (i.e. public health) and climate justice will have served an important purpose.

This webinar will likely not get much coverage beyond the Green-Sports and college sustainability media. Yet I believe it was meaningful because it demonstrates that the intersection of these three issues is getting attention at the highest levels of college athletics.

Will there be consistent progress on climate, racial and social justice in college sports once the games resume?

Watch this space.

Photo at top: Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith (Photo credit: The Ohio State University Athletic Department)


¹ Signatories to the U.N. Sports for Climate Action Framework commit to 1. Undertake systematic efforts to promote greater environmental responsibility, 2. Reduce overall climate impact, 3. Educate for climate action, 4. Promote sustainable and responsible consumption, and 5. Advocate for climate action through communication.



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