Earth Day 2021: Athletes say climate change should be a hot topic in sports

At least some athletes recognize sports could be in the drink due to climate change.
Illustration: (Shutterstock)

The world of sports is not hermetically sealed. Societal issues, economic concerns, political disputes, and, yes, the climate, all permeate the games we watch and play.

Fires raged near the 2020 Australian Open, snow sites at Winter Olympic Games are in jeopardy, and sea level rise could — perhaps — impact your team’s ballpark in the decades to come.

Yet, environmentalism in sports is not a super hot topic. But there are some folks who have pushed the climate discussion into the mainstream. In 2019, students at Harvard and Yale led an on field sit-in to demand fossil fuel divestment during the Harvard-Yale football game. Athletes, too, have used their platform to advocate for greener policies and practices among leagues, athletes, fans, and outdoor enthusiasts.

This morning, I joined a Zoom call with some of those sports stars from around the world, fighting for a better future. The virtual conference was put together by EcoAthletes — a year-old group that encourages pros to speak out about the climate crisis in their respective leagues and countries.

In the meeting, folks shared their personal climate commitments like investing in solar energy, eating vegan, reusing rainwater for ice rinks, shopping locally, reducing plastic bottle waste in dugouts, and more.

Brent Suter, a pitcher for the Milwaukee Brewers and an environmental science grad from Harvard, spoke about his new tradition of “meatless Mondays” and how to encourage teams, like his, to offset carbon emissions produced by air travel.

“Athletes have a platform to create change in our communities,” former NFL offensive lineman, Garry Gilliam, wrote in an email to Deadspin after the virtual event. “A common denominator of all of our issues is Earth, and its finite… We MUST protect Earth at all costs, we’re at the point of no return and that needs to be taken seriously to prevent cascading events.”

And to protect the earth, some athletes believe they can help spread solution oriented messages to their followers and fans.

“I believe the power of sports lies in its passionate community,” Zoe Morse, defender for the NWSL’s Chicago Red Stars, told me. “Some members of our community are already experiencing the impacts of the climate crisis in threats to their playing season,” like ice melts, poor air quality, “heat-related illness,” and other climate related effects.

But Morse also notes that the climate discussion is one that should be centered in our common humanity. “We have a responsibility as athletes and as humans to take action and use our platforms to spread these messages.”

Unlike Morse, Gilliam’s playing days are over. But he still wants to use his voice for environmental change. Growing up, he said he always wanted to be an astronaut to obtain a “worldly perspective on Earth and how we are all connected.” He’s no space traveler, but the climate movement has shaped his perception of the world.

“No matter the borders we try to create, we are in this together.”