SBJ/Oct. 7-13, 2013/In Depth

Athletes leverage influence for the cause

In 2008, tennis icon Billie Jean King set up a meeting between the U.S. Tennis Association and the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmentalist action group. King had launched GreenSlam, an initiative to use tennis to promote efforts to protect the environment, the previous year.

King and GreenSlam urged the USTA to meet with the NRDC to see what green initiatives could be put into place to reduce the environmental impact of hosting the U.S. Open.

“I went to them, and I said, ‘We’ve got to do this,’” King recalled. “I said, ‘Let’s have a meeting.’ They said, ‘Oh, OK.’ But if someone doesn’t make the meeting happen … well, you know how that goes.”

Cincinnati Reds outfielder Jay Bruce carries unwanted computer equipment as part of a Players for the Planet recycling drive in April.
Photo by: Cincinnati Reds
But the meeting did happen, and the U.S. Open went green by collaborating with the NRDC, employing such initiatives as recycling and renewable energy measures at the event. By 2013, the sixth year of the environmental program, the U.S. Open had diverted more than 870 tons of waste from landfills, recycled about 1 million plastic bottles, and brought more than 2 million visitors to the event through mass transit.

King was one of a handful of athletes at that time who were speaking out for the environment or working on environmental causes, said Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist at the NRDC and the director of its Sports Greening Project. NBA players Steve Nash and Elton Brand were other athlete pioneers for environmental causes early on, he said.

The NRDC has targeted sports specifically, Hershkowitz said, because perhaps more than any other industry, sports has the potential to influence average Americans to become more environmentally conscious.

“Outside of the family, the most influential role models are athletes and entertainers,” Hershkowitz said.

But, although athletes are young, they have been behind older team and league executives when it comes to speaking out and doing things for the environment, Hershkowitz said.

“Bud Selig is the greatest environmentalist in professional sports,” Hershkowitz said of the retiring MLB
commissioner. In 2005, Selig brought environmentally conscious efforts to baseball, which among other things, increased the league’s recycling rate from 10 percent to 40 percent, Hershkowitz said.

But a growing number of athletes have, in recent years, stepped up with their own programs. Some examples:

Edmonton Oilers defenseman Andrew Ference helped the NHL Players’ Association create the Carbon Neutral Challenge in which NHL players bought carbon credits to offset the carbon emissions caused by their frequent travel.

Snowboarder Kimmy Fasani is part of the group Protect our Winters and speaks out on small things people can do to help the environment, such as using energy-conserving light bulbs and buying local and organic produce.

Snowboarder Hannah Teter started the charity Hannah’s Gold, which raises money by selling maple syrup to provide clean water to a poor village in Africa.

Baltimore Orioles outfielder Chris Dickerson and former major league pitcher Jack Cassel now have 60 former or current professional athletes signed up for their group Players for the Planet, a nonprofit organization dedicated to using athletes to educate people on how to use best environmental practices in sports and in life.

Players for the Planet started out as a conversation between Cassel and Dickerson, who both grew up in Southern California and were concerned about the environment. They realized, Cassel said, that as professional athletes, they used about six plastic bottles of water a day to hydrate themselves. Doing the math, Cassel said, they calculated that MLB players, as a group, were using about 729,000 bottles a season.

Andrew Ference worked on an effort to offset carbon emissions caused by the frequent travel among NHL players.
Photo by: Getty Images
Players for the Planet started out with making sure baseball teams were recycling or using reusable bottles and expanded into electronic waste recycling. In the past four years, Players for the Planet, in partnership with the Cincinnati Reds and Kansas City Royals, has recycled 95 tons of “e-waste,” including televisions and computers, that otherwise would have been dumped into landfills.

Now the organization is focused on getting more athletes to speak out about what people can do for the environment, Dickerson said. “It’s a celebrity-based society now and people look to celebrities and athletes. We have such a tremendous platform now.”

But Dickerson isn’t just looking for any athlete. “I am looking for guys who are just conscious about it and who don’t drive enormous SUVs and cut down on the amount of waste they use,” Dickerson said.

Most of the 60 members of Players for the Planet are baseball players, but Dickerson said he wants to expand into different sports.

Teams, leagues and sports associations have the ability to institute environmental change on a larger scale than athletes, but athletes may have the ability to cause people to change just by speaking out, Hershkowitz said. It will take millions of people making changes in their behavior to begin to tackle the problem, Hershkowitz said, and when a superstar athlete speaks, people listen.

Earlier this year, he noted, New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter expressed concern at the Davos World Economic Forum about climate change, saying he was in New York during Hurricane Sandy. “That went around the world,” Hershkowitz said.

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