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Volume 22 No. 3
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Green movement must tap into power of athletes

The green sports “movement” continues its momentum, but sitting in on a day at the 2016 Green Sports Alliance Summit in Houston last month, there was a clear theme of who’s missing from this progress: today’s athletes.

There seems to be buy-in among many C-level sports executives, and everyone agreed that any successful environmental program comes from the top down. But athletes are a powerful constituency who are largely sitting on the sideline when it comes to supporting environmental and sustainability causes.

There are certainly exceptions: Edmonton Oilers defenseman Andrew Ference has been a leader in this space for years and was honored at the summit with the GSA’s Environmental Leadership Award. He is an impressive young man. Former NBA MVP Steve Nash is another athlete frequently cited for his efforts.

But in moderating two panels — one with team executives, one with current/former athletes and advocates — I was struck by a consistency of message. Environmental and sustainable programs are working on the team level; fans want and appreciate them; and they are good business. Most importantly, CEOs and ownership largely believe it is the right thing to do. But it was said time and again that to increase effectiveness of these efforts, players must become more involved.

As one team executive told me, “We’re doing some great things, but we just can’t get the players engaged.”

There were a number of reasons cited: the difficulty of understanding complex issues while focusing to be the best on the field; lack of financial opportunities tied to environmental causes; and the political and passionate nature surrounding such causes. There also was frustration among athletes for being called out by environmental advocates if they didn’t fully understand the issues or lead a dedicated “green life.” One remarked, “You get criticized for what you drive or the house you have, but you still need to live your life.” Polarization around the issues was cited, as well. One player said he tried to get teammates involved in a green-friendly “tailgate” event, but they hesitated, wanting first to check with their marketing managers in fear of upsetting any segment of their fan bases.

55 South skipper Charlie Enright says athletes aren’t being asked to support environmental causes.
Former Pro Bowl fullback Ovie Mughelli, who is an advocate of clean air efforts, echoed frustration over the controversy around environmental causes. “Everyone breathes air! How is that a political issue?” he said. “We strive to give our kids the best food and shelter. Why not provide the best environment?”

I asked Charlie Enright, co-founder and skipper of 55 South, who completed in the Volvo Ocean Race and is an advocate for cleaner oceans with his sponsor 11th Hour Racing, about the reluctance of athletes to go public. “I don’t think it is mainstream enough; nobody is really asked to support these causes,” Enright said. “It’s not on enough people’s radar right now. There seems to be a sense that these issues are still too big to conquer.” He said outdoor/adventure athletes are far more likely to lead on these issues because they experience them. He, for example, has witnessed large amount of debris in the ocean during competition. “All I have to do is look at the water,” he said. “Until you see it, you don’t understand the magnitude of the problem.”

“You can use your voice for good, but if you don’t really care about the cause or believe in it, it’s not worth trying to force it.”

Adventure skier

Adventure skier Brody Leven, who had just flown in from a month of ski mountaineering in Kazakhstan and captivated the audience with amazing stories, talked about attending the United Nations’ Paris climate talks in 2015 and his role as an advocate for Protect Our Winters. But he noted athlete support has to be informed and real. “You can use your voice for good,” he said, “but if you don’t really care about the cause or believe in it, it’s not worth trying to force it.”

Seeing a void, the Green Sports Alliance held an athlete-only workshop during the summit to develop a platform to get athletes engaged in more causes. This is a step in the right direction, but attendees afterward still questioned the best way to get today’s athletes engaged and educated. Most leagues don’t incorporate environmental offerings among their philanthropic options, as addressing environmental issues is still new and there is a lack of expertise to guide athletes. Nearly all were suspicious of going through agents, fearing a money conversation. Asked about this concern, outgoing GSA President Allen Hershkowitz agreed. “The goal of the agent is to maximize the athlete’s revenue during their career,” he said. “Environmental advocacy doesn’t help maximize short-term financial gain. There are not many lucrative environmentally oriented marketing opportunities.”

After the summit, I asked two agents to respond to this overriding theme, and they agreed it’s a challenging space. “I am sure many athletes would support sustainability initiatives, but it’s imperative that teams understand that oftentimes if they encounter skepticism, it’s because the teams may have sown it,” agent Don Yee wrote me. “If the initiative is tied only to a team sponsor, for example, and isn’t undertaken simply for the merit of the idea, then teams may get pushback from athletes. Athletes are very supportive by nature, but it depends on the approach.”

Octagon’s Phil de Picciotto said it can be a numbers game. “Athletes are approached from every conceivable angle and by every conceivable cause, and they tend to support areas of familiarity or connection,” he emailed me. “The longer-standing, more-recognizable, closer-to-home causes are often focused on health, education and children, where an athlete can feel an immediate and personal effect. That connection is more authentic for them.”

The cool, charismatic, 27-year-old Leven is optimistic that things are changing. “If the industry is willing to look, it’ll find that there isn’t a shortage of athletes concerned with the environment and willing to speak out on its behalf,” he told me.

I understand the challenges facing athletes in becoming public advocates on these issues — from a political, monetary and general knowledge perspective. But there is a real opportunity for the next generation of athletes to be leaders in advocating for environmental causes they care about. Perhaps as sports goes through a generational shift, the younger athletes that are better educated and more aware of green initiatives than any prior generation will be influencers and leaders in driving broader social conversations.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at