Biggest Green-Sports Story of 2023

Two Steps Forward, One BIG Step Back on Climate Progress in College Sports


GreenSportsBlog has, since 2014, named the Best Green-Sports Story of the Year. The choices have always been obvious for us. In 2021, ‘Big Media Discovering Green-Sports’ represented a significant advance for the movement. The outsized and meaningful contributions of Australia’s climate-active athletes, including rugby legend-turned-senate climate-leader David Pocock, certainly warranted the 2022 award.

This year is different.

GSB reviewed the past 12 months and saw a world that was far more muddled than in prior years. Impressive, worthwhile progress within the Green-Sports ecosystem was often negated by greenwashing and/or willful ignorance from the broader sports world. And the agents of negation were often much more powerful, at least in the short term, than the forces for positive action.

Nowhere was this more pronounced than in the massively popular religion that is American college sports. Powerful positive steps authored by climate-active student-athletes and forward-leaning athletics departments were, it says here, more than offset by the seeming lack of attention given to climate impacts by college presidents and athletic directors when they backed the transformation of the heretofore regionally-based Big Ten and ACC into coast-to-coast, carbon-guzzling leagues.

Now, uneven progress is a feature of most if not all aspects of human endeavor. That said, the implied message emanating from the back-steps in college sports — that the climate crisis is not worthy of consideration when potential for football glory and the mega-dollars that go with it is noteworthy. Given the scale and the urgency of the climate crisis, humanity cannot afford this particular progress-backsliding cha cha.

That is why the Biggest Green Sports Story of 2023 is…

Two Steps Forward, One BIG Step Back on Climate Progress in College Sports.



Climate education and demand for climate action have become staples of American college and university life over the last generation. Institutes, incubators, and innovative class offerings are driving advances across the climate spectrum. Some athletics departments have played leading roles in the Green-Sports movement, but they have been the exception rather than the rule.

The Universities of Florida and Colorado, Boulder — thanks in large part in both cases to the efforts of Dave Newport — were early pioneers. The Pac-12 was the leader among the Power Five conferences (leagues) with its Pac-12 Green initiative and its annual sports-sustainability conference. The Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) also hosted similar get togethers.

A small but growing group of student-athletes have advocated for climate action and helped organize Green Games. The University of Virginia’s Green Athletics group, co-founded by recent alums and EcoAthletes Champions Zoe Morse (soccer) and Sadey Rodriguez (discus), was an early leader. Sports sustainability research has become a growing arena of academic endeavor thanks to the efforts of the Sport Ecology Group with NC State, Texas A&M, and the University of Cincinnati leading the way.

Sadey Rodriguez (Photo credit: University of Virginia Athletics)

(More Than) Two Steps Forward in 2023…

Sustainability and athletic department executives, academics, and student-athletes helped to accelerate climate action on campuses across the country in 2023, taking the college sports #ClimateComeback to another level.

Here are four powerful examples.

  • ESPN and the Billie Jean King Foundation recognized Clemson junior rower Ana Klenke with a Youth Leadership Award for leading her school to the win in the inaugural EcoAthletes Collegiate Cup Powered by Climategames. She and her fellow EcoAthletes Champions on 14 campuses encouraged their friends and family members to exercise. Those running steps and cycling pedal strokes were converted into an environmental currency that funded a methane capture project in Brazil and peatland restoration Indonesia. More exercise meant more carbon reduction. Klenke and friends exercised the most to give Clemson the Cup. But in reality it was the environment that won as all of the exercise was converted into 2.55 tonnes of carbon reduction.
  • Rutgers University, which hosted the first college football game in 1869¹, was responsible for another landmark college sports first 154 years later as five of its student-athletes² took part in the first ever green-themed NIL program. The two-year-old system allows student-athletes to get paid for use of their name, image, and likeness. In this partnership between EcoAthletes and Knights of the Raritan, a leading Rutgers NIL Collective, the five student-athletes advocated for #ClimateComeback in podcasts, blogs, and panel discussions, with an unofficial reach of more than 100,000. Knights of the Raritan paid them for their work.
  • Texas A&M University’s athletics department became the first to publish a comprehensive, substantive Climate Action Plan.
  • The Duke athletics department and a group of student-athletes led by EcoAthletes Champions Alayna Burns and Brandon Hersh partnered to host the Durham, North Carolina school’s first green field hockey game and its first Climate Commitment football game.

Duke players celebrate the Blue Devils’ last second 24-21 win over Wake Forest at the Climate Commitment Game on November 2 (Photo credit: Duke Athletics)

All of these ‘Two Steps Forward’ examples — and many more like them — helped advance Green-College Sports. They can become building blocks of more audacious, impactful programs in 2024 and beyond. The problem is that, absent coverage from big sports media, awareness of this progress is likely to be relatively low.

…But One BIG Step Back

The shift from regionally-based leagues to coast-to-coast conferences, seemingly without consideration given to massive increases in carbon emissions.

College sports has become a unique and essential part of the American sporting fabric over the past 150 years. Strong local rivalries that flourished in regional leagues like the west coast-centric Pac-12, the midwest-based Big Ten, and the eastern seaboard-based ACC fueled this powerful example of American Exceptionalism.

Schools have changed their league/conference affiliations here and there over the decades but a tsunami of school moves that shook college sports to its core was set off on June 22, 2022.

On that day, UCLA and USC, two of college sports’ crown jewels, announced they were leaving the Pac-12 conference for the Big Ten. Instead of playing traditional regional rivals like Stanford and Cal-Berkeley, the two LA schools will now be in a transcontinental league with midwestern powers like Michigan, Ohio State, and Wisconsin, along with east coast schools Maryland, Penn State, and Rutgers (New Jersey). Why? For a football-fueled windfall funded by Fox Sports, CBS Sports, and NBC Sports, each of which are banking on the sport continuing to deliver ratings gold. It is important to note that a significant portion of this new revenue will help fund ‘non-revenue sports’ like tennis, track and field, and more, which were under serious threat due to COVID-era financial losses.

This made the Big Ten the first ever coast-to-coast college sports conference. But 2023 showed that it wouldn’t be the last.

Bay Area rivals Cal-Berkeley and Stanford exited the cratering Pac-12 this year, landing in the ACC. Student-athletes and fans of the two Northern California schools now can look forward to long road trips to the University of Miami, Duke, North Carolina, Boston College, as well as other far-flung nouveau opponents.

2023 also saw Oregon and Washington fly the Pac-12 coop for the Big Ten. Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah ran off to the Big 12, a league that already stretched from Utah to Florida. In the space of 48 hours, the 100-year-old Pac-12 was on life support.

Reaction to the coast-to-coast leagues, which kickoff next fall, was largely positive:

  • Sports media offered mostly breathless coverage of these new super conferences and the new matchups that would ensue.
  • Likewise, alumni and other fans from some schools in the newly nationalized conferences are excitedly looking forward to cross-country trips.
  • Business media focused on what the massive new rights fee deals would mean for the Big Ten, Big 12, and the football powerhouse SEC (Alabama, Georgia, etc.), which added Texas and Oklahoma from the Big 12 (that league gaveth and taketh away)

To be sure some retired college sports legends publicly lamented the demise of the Pac-12, or what legendary UCLA basketball icon-turned-broadcaster Bill Walton calls ‘the Conference of Champions.’ And more than a few student-athletes and their advocates expressed concern about the toll the increased travel would impose on their physical and mental well being, as well as their grade point averages.

Bill Walton (Photo credit: Bruins Nation)

What about the climate and environmental impacts of college sports transitioning from a regional to national league model, you ask?

Crickets from the universities and the sports media that covers them.

An in-depth June 30, 2022 LA Times story announcing the departure of UCLA and USC to the Big Ten did not mention climate or the environment. Nor did an August 4, 2023 Op-Ed in the Seattle Times after the University of Washington’s Big Ten move. Each paper did publish one ‘What About Climate’-themed Letter to the Editor in response — click here and here. The thing is, the readership of Letters to the Editor is much smaller than the stories that provoked them. We were unable to find any subsequent articles about this topic in any major newspaper or magazine. Environmental-impact mentions on the behemoth sports networks that will broadcast the newly expanded conference’s games — ESPN is also in the mix with its new SEC mega-contract — are also nowhere to be found.

GreenSportsBlog called athletic and sustainability department personnel at UCLA and USC soon after the announcement of the shifts to the Big Ten to ascertain:

  1. If the carbon and climate impacts were discussed when the moves were considered and if so, what those impacts would be.
  2. What message(s) the shift to a coast-to-coast league sends to fans, students, faculty, and other stakeholders when it comes to their school’s climate commitments and leadership.

I couldn’t find anyone at the two schools to go on the record despite repeated calls that continued throughout 2023. Their counterparts at Cal-Berkeley and Stanford also have said “no comment” or didn’t respond at all.

GSB’s Take: Fighting climate change is small potatoes when compared to big money and potential gridiron glory.

That is the subliminal message sent this year by university presidents and athletic directors when they green lit coast-to-coast college sports leagues.

It says here that this is a bigger problem than the actual emissions increases that will result from the expansion.

While disappointing, 2023 isn’t the end of the story.

2024 needs to be the year when the same leaders who gave us the coast-to-coast leagues begin to leverage the power of college sports to jumpstart a real #ClimateComeback. What could that look like? For a start, the leagues and their member schools should: 

  • Measure the carbon emissions impacts of going coast-to-coast and publish the results
  • Engage all corners of the university to ideate and innovate on ways athletics can significantly reduce emissions
  • Commit to an athletics department emissions budget per school that gets smaller year-over-year
  • Schools that exceed the budget — as measured by independent auditors — will forfeit games and/or media rights fee revenues.

Sound impossible? Maybe. But, as Captain Jean-Luc Picard (played by Patrick Stewart) said on Star Trek: The Next Generation, ‘things are impossible until they’re not.’

Photo at top: USC (white) will join Ohio State in the Big Ten starting this fall (Photo credit: Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

¹ Rutgers beat Princeton 6-4 on November 4, 1869 in a game that would be completely unrecognizable from modern football.

² The five RU student-athletes who participated in the NIL program were gymnast Kaitlyn Bertola, middle distance runner Alex Carlson, lacrosse player Kelsey Klein, and swimmers Halé Oal and Natalie Schick

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