Auburn Athletics: Green-Sports Grows In the SEC

The Southeastern Conference (SEC)¹ has been the king of college football for more than a decade. Member schools Alabama, Auburn and Florida have combined to win seven national championships over the past decade. That reputation took a bit of a hit Monday night when Clemson of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) throttled Alabama, 44-16.

On the Green-Sports front, the SEC has gotten a bit of a late start, but maybe that is starting to change.

GreenSportsBlog took a look at the Green-Sports shoots that are beginning to sprout at Auburn University’s Athletics Department.  

 

It took a Michigan Man to champion sustainability in partnership with Auburn University Athletics.

Mike Kensler, Auburn’s Director of the Office of Sustainability, grew up on the streams and rivers of the Great Lake State, developing a lifelong appreciation of the outdoors.

Education and life experiences helped Mike appreciate the importance of economic, social, and individual wellbeing aspects of sustainability. He earned Bachelors and Masters degrees at the University of Michigan, the latter a sustainability-focused program in the School of Natural Resources.

After stints at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and National Wildlife Foundation, Kensler joined Auburn University— located 110 miles southeast of Birmingham on the plains of eastern Alabama — in 2008, where he worked on water policy and water education issues for three years. He became sustainability director in 2011.

 

Mike Kensler in canoe on 5milecreek

Mike Kensler, canoeing on Five Mile Creek in Alabama (Photo credit: Beth Maynor Young)

 

He arrived at a school where sustainability already enjoyed a high profile.

“A number of sustainability initiatives were already underway, including a minor in sustainability studies. The university President had committed Auburn to be carbon neutral by 2050 as a result of strong student support,” Kensler recalled. “The sustainability office reports to the President’s Chief of Staff,  which signals the importance of sustainability to Auburn University.”

Since then, Auburn has moved forward on a number of green fronts.

“Probably the biggest thing was Auburn’s commitment, in 2016, to only build LEED certified structures, at a minimum silver level,” recounted Kensler. “That was huge.” Another example is Tiger Dining, the school’s food service and a font of sustainable innovation.

Per Kensler, Tiger Dining’s Auburn Foods program “provides food grown by the Auburn family for the Auburn family, including an innovative aquaponics initiative in partnership with the School of Fisheries.” Responsible sourcing, waste minimization — including a ban on polystyrene, more sustainable transportation management and energy efficiency are hallmarks of Tiger Dining’s approach to sustainable management.

 

ATHLETICS JOINS AUBURN’S GREENING PARTY

Soon after Kensler joined the Auburn staff, he found an athletics department already on the sustainability train, and eager to do more.

“Jeff Steele, the Associate Athletics Director for Facilities, was dedicated to efficient operations, green cleaning, and improving recycling at our stadiums and arenas from the get-go,” Kensler recalled. “Auburn joined the Green Sports Alliance under the leadership of then-athletics director Jay Jacobs. He passed the sustainability baton to current AD Allan Greene, who is fully on board.”

The highlight of athletics’ greening initiatives, not surprisingly, takes place at 87,000-seat Jordan-Hare Stadium, home of Auburn Tigers football (Auburn fans also use “War Eagle!” as a battle cry and as a way to greet each other).

 

jordan hare

Auburn’s eagle flies into a full house at Jordan-Hare Stadium (Photo credit: auburn.edu)

 

The annual Green Game features student “Trash Talkers” roaming the tailgate areas, urging fans to recycle, a video on Auburn’s greening programs that runs in-game on the video board, and a Green-Sports focused column from Mike Kensler in the game program.

Beyond the Green Game, athletics’ sustainability initiatives, both current and those on the drawing board, include:

  • An energy efficiency campaign is underway at Auburn Arena, home of Tigers men’s and women’s basketball and women’s gymnastics. The Athletics Department reported $114,000 in annual savings and 1,800 metric tonnes of CO₂ equivalent in carbon savings in 2014 as a result of a variety of efficiency upgrades.
  • Water refilling stations at Jordan-Hare Stadium. “Fans can fill up their empty water bottles,” Kensler noted. “Which is a big deal because it gets really hot there, especially at September and October games.”
  • The installation of LED lighting at Plainsman Park, Auburn’s baseball stadium. Jordan-Hare (2019), the track stadium (2020), and Auburn Arena (2021) are next up.

Recycling at football had been going on since before Kensler arrived, with rates slowly improving (per Kensler, “we’re not near zero-waste…yet”). Composting — essential to getting to zero-waste — has been a challenge, one Auburn’s sustainability director is confident will be surmounted.

“We’ve talked about it for years,” acknowledged Kensler. “Students, faculty, and staff are all interested and Tiger Dining is committed to seeing composting happen. Recently we learned of an option that looks very promising. There are several hurdles to jump, but I’m telling you, COMPOSTING WILL HAPPEN and within the foreseeable future.”

 

AUBURN ATHLETES GO GREEN

Sustainability, already popular with the Auburn student body at large, is now finding advocates among student-athletes.

  • In May 2017, Auburn football players, coaches, and others traveled to the Dominican Republic where they built and distributed water filters and solar light packets to those in need.

 

auburn football 2017

Auburn football players Dontavius Russell and Daniel Carlson drain and assemble the filters before they are inserted into the buckets in the Dominican Republic in 2017 (Photo credit: auburn.edu)

 

  • Track athlete and current Peace Corps volunteer Kensley Defler, who graduated in 2018, was a 2-year intern with the sustainability office. .
  • Helen Ulrich, a sophomore journalism major on the women’s equestrian team^, earned her eco-athlete stripes by writing a story on the anti-plastic straw movement.

“I’m a huge animal lover,” enthused Ulrich. “So when I read a story about a turtle with a straw in its nose, I got angry. Then, when I visited cousins in California, I saw that some restaurants were going strawless. So I got curious. Then I noticed Starbucks was planning to get rid of its straws, I became even more interested. I noticed that our Wellness Kitchen had gone strawless. At first there was a lot anger — that’s because no one explained it. Once they put signage up that communicated that the new policy was enacted to help the environment, the anger vanished pretty much overnight. The equestrian team rallied around the policy immediately — hey, we’re animal lovers! The football players took a little while but they’re coming around.”

 

helen ulrich headshot

Helen Ulrich (Photo credit: Auburn University Athletics)

 

The Mooresville, NC native sees the strawless campaign as a green starting point for athletes and the student body more broadly: “Getting rid of straws can lead us to take on bigger environmental issues,” Ulrich said. “I can see plastic bags being a natural next step and then we can go bigger.”

 

helen ulrich auburn vs. ole miss ritz. mackenzie michaels

Helen Ulrich, aboard Ritz, competes for Auburn vs. Ole Miss (Photo credit: Mackenzie Michaels)

 

AUBURN FANS WOULD LIKELY REACT POSITIVELY TO CLIMATE CHANGE MESSAGING

According to a fascinating, county-by-county study on attitudes about global warming# conducted by the Yale Center on Climate Communication in August, residents of Lee County, Alabama — where Auburn is located — should be open to climate messaging from their beloved Tigers.

Yes, it is true that Lee County residents scored lower than the U.S. average on all 29 questions about global warming#. But those differences were, for the most part, small — or at least smaller than I thought they would be. And, on most questions, more than half of residents had positive attitudes about the existence of global warming and on the need for climate action:

  • 68 percent of Lee County residents think global warming is happening, only 2 percentage points below the U.S. average
  • 55 percent are worried about global warming, 6 points below the U.S. average
  • 83 percent believe the government should fund research into renewable energy sources, 2 points below the U.S. average
  • 63 percent say fossil fuel companies should be required to pay a carbon tax, 5 points below the U.S. average

So far, climate change has not been included in the messaging at Jordan-Hare Stadium during the annual Green Game. But, the attitudes of Lee County residents show that talking climate to fans should not be a major risk for the Auburn Athletics Department.

 

IT’S TIME FOR A GREEN “IRON BOWL”

For those GreenSportsBlog readers who don’t follow college sports, the Iron Bowl — the annual football game between Auburn and Alabama — is like the Yankees—Red Sox rivalry, times about 1,000. Watch “Roll Tide/War Eagle,” ESPN’s documentary on the in-state rivalry between the schools that are separated by 157 miles, and you’ll get the gist.

 

 

So how about channeling some of the intense energy generated by Alabama-Auburn towards a positive end — via a Green Iron Bowl? The 2019 edition will be played at Jordan-Hare on November 30 so there is time to make it happen.

“Auburn University has a Sustainability Policy which states, in part, that sustainability is a core institutional value to be integrated in to all aspects of the University,” Kensler said. “It is important and gratifying that Auburn Athletics, so much the public face of the University, is making tangible and visible progress toward sustainability – doing its part and setting an example for the Auburn family. Adding Green to an always Orange and Blue Iron Bowl would certainly be noticed! War Eagle!”

 

GSB’s Take: Auburn Athletics has demonstrated they are walking-the-green-walk. Now it’s time for the Athletics Department needs to push the Green-Sports envelope further by talking-the-green-talk directly with its fans, including on climate change. It says here that Tigers’ fan reactions will be more positive than expected — if not quite as positive as their reactions to Clemson 44 Alabama 16.

 

¹ The 14 SEC member schools are Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Missouri, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt
* Auburn’s sports teams are known as both the Tigers and War Eagles
^ Auburn is one of the few Division I schools in the U.S. to have an equestrian program — others include SEC rivals Georiga, South Carolina, and Texas A&M as well as Baylor.
# The Yale Center on Climate Communications study used “global warming” in its questions rather than “climate change”

 


 

 

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Mascots of NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship Teams are Threatened By Climate Change: Report

Unless you’ve been under a rock, you know that Villanova won its second men’s NCAA basketball championship in three years on Monday, taking out the University of Michigan 79-62. According to a report by the National Wildlife Foundation, highlighted in a recent story in Yale Climate Connections, the Wildcats of Villanova and Michigan’s Wolverines are just two of a number of college sports’ iconic mascots to be under threat from the effects of climate change.

 

Mascots are integral to the color and pageantry that is college sports.

While some mascots take human form (like the Scarlet Knights of my alma mater, Rutgers), some are colors (like the Violets of NYU, where I went to grad school), and some are quirky (what, exactly is an Eph, the mascot of Williams College# in the Berkshire hills of Western Massachusetts?), many are animals and many of those animal mascots are facing climate change-related threats to their existence.

Samantha Harrington delved into that topic in “These March Madness Mascots are in Danger from Climate Change,” which ran in the March 13 issue of Yale Climate Connectionsthe newsletter of the terrific Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

Harrington quoted Tara Losoff of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), which issued a Mascot Madness report, as saying that “Many of the animals that inspired [college] team names, these mascots, are at risk of being impacted by climate change.”

While Villanova’s Wildcats were dominant during this year’s run to the NCAA championship — they won all six of their games by 12 points or more — the report points out that wildcats are enduring existential challenges due to climate change:

“North America is home to wildcats like the Canada lynx, ocelot, and Florida panther (the mascot of Pitt, Northern Iowa and Florida International — not to mention the NHL’s team in South Florida)…Climate change is causing a decrease in lynx and could lead to disappearance from the lower 48 states in the next 50 years. The lynx depends on deep snow cover and as the climate warms, it could be unable to field a full roster. As sea levels continue to rise, the Florida panther may be run out of bounds. Just three feet of sea level rise, expected by the end of the century, would flood 30 percent of panther habitat. Droughts driven by climate change are already threatening the reproductive health of ocelots and sea level rise is expected to wipe out some of [their] coastal habitat.”

 

Villanova Wildcat

Villanova’s wildcat. According to a National Wildlife Foundation report, wildcats are one of many mascot species under threat from the effects of climate change (Photo credit: Mark Konezny, USA TODAY sports)

 

On the court in San Antonio Monday night, Michigan’s Wolverines did not fare well against Villanova’s relentless rebounding, championship level defense, and the three point shooting of Final Four Most Outstanding Player Donte DiVincenzo. In the wild, per the NWF report, the wolverine is having a much tougher time:

“The cold-weather wolverine is rapidly vanishing from continental America as climate change continues to warm the planet. The deep snowpack, so essential for denning and raising their young, is harder and harder to find. The wolverine population in the lower 48 states is struggling to hold on and now numbers only 250 to 300. Unless we act soon, climate change could turn this losing battle into a blowout. The rapidly disappearing wolverine may soon be declared a threatened species as the climate warms even more.”

 

 

Wolverine Daniel J. Cox

A wolverine in the Bridger Mountains north of Bozeman, MT (Photo credit: Daniel J. Cox, naturalexposures.com)

 

Other mascot species under threat from climate change go beyond the Wizard of Oz trio of Lions (Columbia, Loyola Marymount), Tigers (Clemson, LSU, Memphis, Missouri) and Bears (Baylor, Cal-Berkeley) to include Bison/Buffaloes (Bucknell, Colorado, North Dakota State), Rams (Colorado State, Fordham, VCU), Ducks (Oregon), Falcons (Air Force Academy, Bowling Green) and Turtles (Maryland Terrapins).

 

clemson tiger

The Clemson Tiger (Photo credit: Dawson Powers)

 

The NWF report makes clear that the harmful effects of climate change go beyond animal mascots to include crops like Buckeyes (Ohio State), Corn (Nebraska Cornhuskers), and Oranges (Syracuse Orangemen). These impacts include more intense bouts of extreme weather like Cyclones (Iowa State), Hurricanes (Miami) and Storms (St. John’s Red Storm).

Losoff told Harrington that making a connection between mascots and climate change can help get people thinking and talking about global warming: “Talking about a beloved animal mascot being impacted by climate change could be a way to engage friends and family members who might not otherwise be interested or engaged in talking about climate.”

I agree and would go even further.

It seems to me that the “Mascots Being Threatened by Climate Change” story angle provides a big marketing opportunity — and a chance to do some real good — to two key players in the college sports ecosystem: Colleges and university athletics departments and the corporations that sponsor and/or advertise on them. Especially those corporations and brands that promote their greenness.

Think about it.

Some companies and brands embracing (the very neutral-sounding) sustainability still don’t want to deal with climate change — seen by many as too controversial and political — head on in their marketing messages.

This is a faulty strategy, in my humble opinion. Corporations, as well as sports teams — pro and college alike — are falling all over themselves to figure out how to appeal to millennials and Generation Z. These cohorts, far more than their predecessors, see climate change not as an if, but rather as a what are we going to do about it question.

Gun violence is a much more immediate, high profile issue than climate change, but the reaction of many Generation Zers and millennials since the Parkland High School tragedy is instructive. It shows that a significant cadre of these young people seem to run towards controversies and politics. Brands, it says here, will start to take note. Which means that the climate is likely safer than it’s ever been for corporations/brands — including college sports advertisers like General Motors and Nike — to promote their climate change fighting efforts, like generating renewable energy at and/or purchasing renewable energy for their factories.

But if companies — concerned about being called out by climate change skeptics and deniers on the one hand or for greenwashing, for not being perfect on the other — are still not ready to make the jump into the climate change waters, the NWF report provides the perfect way to wade in.

You see, almost everyone loves animals and animal conservation. And almost every college sports fan loves their team’s mascot. Corporations/brands and their college sports partners can wrap themselves in mascot preservation as a way to engage on climate change.

Watch this space.

 

# The Williams College Ephs (pronounced “Eephs”) are named for the school’s founder, Ephraim Williams

 

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