American college sports, like just about every other aspect of life, has been thrown into chaos by the global coronavirus pandemic.
The big time, Power 5 leagues/conferences — the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC — are still grappling with how to/whether to start football in late August. Several schools, including Rutgers of the Big Ten on Friday, have had to shut down summer practice due to new COVID-19 cases. Many of the smaller conferences, including the Ivy League, have already postponed all of their fall sports until the spring.
The green corner of college sports world has also been affected by coronavirus.
With that in mind, GreenSportsBlog is launching a three-part series that dives into those impacts. It also looks at how on-campus Green-Sports practitioners are moving forward in our new COVID-19 reality.
In today’s Part I, we look at how the ACC and Pac-12 Sports Sustainability Summits fared during coronavirus
In January, it looked for all the world that Spring 2020 would be the Season of College Sports-Sustainability Summits.
NC State University in Raleigh planned to host its second straight ACC Sports-Sustainability Conference. The Big Ten was preparing to hold its first such event at The Ohio State University in Columbus. And the Pac-12 was readying for its fifth annual sustainability conference. Heck, there were rumors that the Southeastern Conference (SEC) would announce a greening event.
And then coronavirus hit.
“What was lost was of course the in-person networking and the camaraderie,” recalled Oppong Hemeng, program specialist in NC State’s sustainability office. “That said we were able to pivot to hosting a Zoom-based event fairly smoothly — even though there is more to the back-end that meets the eye — and deliver the same agenda we had originally planned.”
Hemeng and Company were able to offer interactivity, using Zoom’s break-out-room technology to provide discussion opportunities and ‘face-to-face’ interactions between attendees and speakers.
Monica Rowand of Phase 3 Sports¹, who attended both the ACC’s and Pac-12’s virtual events, lauded the ACC for going beyond the standard sports-sustainability conference operational tactics-heavy fare in its second year: “The presenters emphasized high level planning, fan engagement, and sponsorship and partnerships. It took the industry as a whole a little time to get to this point and I’m glad the ACC has jumped all the way in.”
All 15 member schools² participated at the Athletic Director or Assistant AD level. Attendance, per Hemeng, was projected to jump from an expected 80 for the in-person conference to 200 or so for the free, virtual event. The ACC blew by that number as over 325 attendees joined in from league schools and beyond for the two day event.
The Pac-12 condensed its sustainability conference into one packed day. Moderated by Pac-12 Network Host Mike Yam, the session followed a traditional webinar format, combining network-produced content with real time discussion and Q&A. Highlights included introductory remarks from league Commissioner Larry Scott and a closing reception/Zoom chat with iconic UCLA alum and Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer Bill Walton about sustainability and climate change.
In-person Pac-12 sustainability conferences typically have drawn between 200-250 attendees; its first virtual event saw more than 500 people Zoom in.
DRAMATICALLY DIFFERENT CONTEXTS FOR ACC, PAC-12 SUSTAINABILITY CONFERENCES DUE TO GEORGE FLOYD KILLING
The killing of George Floyd at the hands of then-police officer Derek Chauvin proved to be a main difference between the two events, since the Pac-12 conference took place roughly three weeks after the tragedy in Minneapolis while the ACC’s preceded it.
“The Pac-12 pivoted beautifully in a short period of time,” observed Rowand. “It delivered content with a heavy emphasis on racial and social justice — those issues need to be seen as integral components of the sustainability equation. Green Sports Alliance Executive Director Roger McClendon summed things up perfectly in my view when he said that ‘we are facing three pandemics, with COVID-19 being just the newest one: coronavirus, racism, and climate change.'”
ATHLETES STEP UP THEIR GREEN GAMES
Athlete activism was front and center at the ACC and Pac-12 sustainability conferences.
The ACC led off their event with a student athlete panel and roundtable discussion. University of Virginia track and field (discus) athlete Sadey Rodriguez, Wake Forest field hockey play Isla Bint, NC State men’s soccer player Leon Krapf, Virginia Tech volleyballer Abby McKinzie, and North Carolina wrestler Nick Mosco all shared that they are excited to speak out on sustainability despite the existence of a stigma about the issue, at least in the southeast.
Moving to the Pac-12 and its “Spotlight on Activism” panel, Natalie Chou, a basketball player at UCLA, and Cal football’s Elijah Hicks spoke about the importance of student-athletes getting involved in the intersecting issues of racial, social and environmental justice.
“It is exciting to see student athletes step up because they have a real opportunity to be involved with, and influence the work being done within the Athletic Department and on campus,” Rowand said. “It may be a cliche, but they are our future and college sports offers a chance to mold student athletes into not only great athletes, but role models and stewards of both the planet and its people.”
GSB’s Take: I am not surprised that the ACC and Pac-12 were able to pull off successful virtual sustainability summits. Many more people were able to attend — both events were free and travel costs were…well, there was no travel.
One sobering note: During the ACC’s athletes panel, I was struck by the repeated mentions of the ‘stigma’ attached to being ‘out’ on green. I thought we were largely beyond that, at least on college campuses. I guess we still have a ways to go.
Looking ahead to 2021 and the potential to return to in-person sustainability conferences, who really knows? Will travel be safe and easy by next spring? Even if that looks to be the case, will business travel rebound quickly?
It’s all guesswork at this point but my bet is that 2021 college sustainable sports conferences will again be virtual.
Finally, a brief coda to Monica Rowand’s comment near the end of the end of the story that ‘college sports offers a chance to mold student athletes.’ In the case of sustainability, I believe it will be student athletes who mold their athletics departments.
Part II of the series will focus on the great Green-Sports leadership being shown by The Ohio State University.
Part III will recap “Restoring College Sports Amid COVID-19: Leveraging Climate Action” the free August 3rd webinar from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). Click here to register.
¹ Phase 3 Sports is a consulting firm that “connects sustainability-driven companies to sports fans who share those values.” It has a particular focus on greening the college sports world.
² There are 14 full ACC member schools. Notre Dame is also in the ACC except it is an independent in football.
Photo at top: Bill Walton (l) (Photo credit: Deseret News)