By Dave Newport
“What's more important than who's going to be the first black coach [in the NBA] is who's going to be the first black sports editor of the New York Times.”
–NBA Legend Bill Russell
Sustainability could learn from The Great Ones.
Wayne Gretzky became the greatest hockey player ever because: “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.”
Basketball legend Bill Russell took it even further. On the occasion of being named the NBA’s first African American coach, he remarked: “What's more important than who's going to be the first black coach [in the NBA] is who's going to be the first black sports editor of the New York Times.”
Gretzky saw the future of his game. Russell saw the future of society. So, what might these Great Ones see for the future of campus sustainability?
Answer: sports provides campus sustainability with its biggest stage.
Consider Scott Jenkins.
Scott started out as an athlete--a very good one. He was a four-time All-American track star at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He was a member of two NCAA Championship cross country teams and a Big Ten champion at 10,000 meters.
Now Scott is the Vice President for Operations with the Seattle Mariners, a Major League Baseball (MLB) team. And like Gretzky and Russell, Scott Jenkins has vision.
“The exciting thing for sports businesses is that we’re very visible, public serving facilities,” Jenkins said recently. “We touch a lot of people through the team brand and the building brand. If we can use that facet of our influence to promote sustainability and efficiency to the greater public, we’re able to make great impact just by the sheer number of people we touch.”
So Scott has infused sustainability into every facet of the Mariners ball park; zero waste, renewable energy, efficiencies, public transportation, etc. Before that, he did the same thing for the Phillidelphia Eagles (professional football) and the Milwaukee Brewers (MLB).
Not content with those accomplishments, Scott worked to found the non-profit Green Sports Alliance. The GSA has grown from nil to representing over 90 professional and a few collegiate teams and venues spread over 13 leagues in just over two years.
Combined, these teams expose millions of fans to this thing called sustainability—many of them for the first time. Millions.
Scott’s vision not only provides sustainability with its biggest stage—but a powerful vehicle for social change.
Sadly, while there are some notable bright spots (UC-Davis, Ohio State, etc), collegiate sports have largely lagged behind the pros, as reported in recent surveys by Pro Green Sports.
Campus sustainability needs to get on the team; we’re missing an enourmous opportunity.
Campus sustainablity people can find new friends and stakeholders in their sports fans. Sports fans want to feel good about their campus and sustainability makes it so. In the many games where we have conducted zero waste (ZW) operations (CU started four years ago), I have never heard a fan complain. The only comments we receive besides “thank you” are, “you aren’t going to stop doing this are you? This isn’t just one and done greenwash?” Or, as one Florida alum chided me years ago when we piloted ZW there: “This is good. Why haven’t we been doing this right along?” Now, Florida has a major sustainability commitment in athletics that goes deep into social equity. Go Gators!
Combining with campus athletics brings new legitimacy and credibility to sustainability advocates too; they are seen as having standing that reaches past traditional “green” stakeholders. And on the days when our teams falter, we always win.
Some campuses have won the endorsements and inclusion of their athletes as spokespersons for sustainability. I love that UCLA—the nation’s most storied colligate basketball program (11 national titles!)—rolled out several videos featuring their players and coaches touting their approach to sustainability. These reach audiences that are difficult to integrate into traditional sustainability efforts.
And when athletes get it, they run with it. Scott Jenkins is one example.
Another is an All-Pro fullback for the St. Louis Rams: Ovie Mughelli. He headlined a presentation at the White House in July talking about his approach to sustainability: it’s about health, environment, and empowerment. It’s everything he does. Like many athletes, Ovie runs a summer camp for low-income kids in Atlanta. So after they run through tires, they sort recycling. After they catch some balls, they turn off lights. After he’s done for the day, he speaks about it at Boys Clubs and in the ‘hood. He makes videos. He blogs. He runs a green foundation. He addresses the players association. Ovie is on it. He sees where this is going. He is doing what fullbacks do: create a path.
That path is a game changer.
The power of messages launched from the world’s biggest stages is huge. Check out the Olympics. The Beijing games had the largest global TV viewership of any event (4.7 billion, 70% of the plant’s population).
This year’s London Olympics could top that--and are on track to be the most sustainable ever—by a margin, according to World Wildlife Fund. That’s a lot of folks getting the sustainability message.
“For the teams, it is about saving money, sure. But it is also about that concept of social change, which is nothing new when it comes to sports.
Big cultural issues have long been reflected on the playing fields of our favorite teams. Look at Jackie Robinson breaking down racial barriers. Title IX and Billie Jean King breaking down gender barriers. Muhammad Ali taking a stand against the Vietnam War. Going green is different from the social equality movements of the last century, but tackling climate change and our addiction to foreign oil requires a mobilization to change that recalls those earlier efforts.”
Where sustainability is weak in social justice and diversity—sports is strong. The Olympics brings together all nations and all cultures. It’s the peaceful melting pot we yearn for. On most campuses, diversity numbers are disproportionately buoyed by student-athletes’ presence in the student body. Including athletes in sustainability opens doors to campus populations traditionally under-represented. Smart campus sustainability approaches also include social justice initiatives with tentacles into sports like anti-sweat shop programs for athletic garb that also play well with the students that support athletics—and get STARS points.
We talk a lot in the campus sustainability business about “norming” and creating a “culture of sustainability” as central to our work. Indeed, that’s the end game. To do that, by definition, we need all campus communities on the team.
Yet, some of us, well, I will say it, have an foul point of view about football and other major sports. And yes there is plenty to disdain in college and professional athletics, no arguments. Just as campus sustainability is weak on social justice and diversity, sports is weak on economic equity. The profligate amounts of money sports commands is simply obscene, no question. We all have war stories about how legitimate campus priorities have been skewed by athletics’ corpulent money machine. Indeed.
But the immense impact that comes with changing such a mainstream institution as sports cannot be overstated. It works, reaches billions—and it is fun. Working the games we are touching impressionable kids and influential adults from all walks of life, every race, every culture, every income, everybody. We are creating a new ethic—and new jobs—in sports and new expectations everywhere. We are looking deep, pulling for the fence, draining it from downtown, and all the other sports clichés you can think of.
We are skating to where the puck is going to be.
And, like the Great Ones, we are playing on the planet’s biggest stage.