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“We’re the generation that can lessen the crisis”: Why these athletes are taking the climate fight into their own hands

The threat of climate change is inspiring athletes to become climate activists. SportsPro speaks with WNBA All-Star Napheesa Collier, ultrarunner Damian Hall and ice hockey player Jacquie Pierri about the steps they are taking to champion sustainability, and why sport needs to act before it is too late.

20 February 2023 Sam Carp

Still only 26, Napheesa Collier has already achieved more than most professional basketball players accomplish over their entire career.

A national champion in 2016 with the UConn Huskies, Collier was drafted sixth overall by the Minnesota Lynx in the 2019 Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) Draft. Fast forward two years and she had already made a pair of All-Star Game appearances and won a gold medal at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

Then, in 2022, came a major life event: Collier gave birth to a baby girl called Mila. It was at this point that a fledgling interest in climate change became a creeping curiosity.

“It’s not something that I was always interested in,” Collier admits, speaking to SportsPro from the locker room after a Team USA training camp. “As I got older, you’d hear these scary stats. I’ve always wanted to have kids really early, so I was thinking about what the world was going to look like when I do.

“The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to learn about it. It was really after I graduated college that I started looking into it more. I don’t know why; I just got the bug.”

The problem is, for a lot of businesses, it’s about the bottom dollar. That’s where the power lies with the players. We need to push them to think about the bigger picture.

Napheesa Collier, Olympic gold medallist and two-time WNBA All-Star

Collier’s climate curiosity is shared by Damian Hall, one of the world’s top ultrarunners who recently won the Montane Winter Spine, a 268-mile race along the Pennine Way that is widely considered to be among the most brutal endurance events in the UK. Still, even he would admit that the immense challenges thrown up by his sport are nothing when compared to the one currently facing the planet.

“In 2019, I remember seeing Extinction Rebellion protests in London,” he notes. “That was really striking and when I looked into it a bit further they were backed up by science in how urgent everything was. I started joining Extinction Rebellion protests in London. I’ve got kids and was just really concerned and alarmed for the future.”

While the motives that led them here may be slightly different, there is at least one thing that unites Collier and Hall. The pair are part of a generation of eco-conscious athletes who are taking it upon themselves to raise awareness about the climate emergency, encourage their followers to live more sustainably, and hold the industry to account for the impact it is having on the environment.

“Overall, I would not rate [sport’s sustainability efforts as] very good,” says Collier. “The problem is, for a lot of businesses, it’s about the bottom dollar. And sometimes being sustainable costs a little bit more, or not partnering with brands that are going to pay so much money is not great for the team.

“That’s where the power lies with the players. We need to push them to think about the bigger picture.”

WNBA star Napheesa Collier has become increasingly concerned about climate change – especially since becoming a mother

“We’re being pushed out of the natural world”

The reasons that athletes are choosing to take up the climate fight are nuanced and varied. But for Jacquie Pierri, sport and sustainability have always been intertwined. Her four years at Brown University were mostly spent playing for the Ivy League school’s Division I ice hockey team and focusing on green energy as part of a major in mechanical engineering. More recently, the Italian-American was in Barcelona completing a master’s in sustainable energy systems.

Now plying her trade for the Bolzano Eagles ice hockey side in Northern Italy, where she is hoping to qualify for Italy’s 2026 Winter Olympics team, Pierri has been watching on as global warming gradually starts to impact the sport she grew up playing at rinks in New Jersey.

Perhaps the most high-profile example came in 2021, when a National Hockey League (NHL) game played outdoors at Lake Tahoe had to be delayed because of melting ice caused by unseasonable weather. It was an incident that demonstrated that what was once considered somebody else’s problem to solve has the potential to directly impact many sports, something that isn’t going unnoticed by those that play them.

Indeed, climate change will not only affect the staging of elite leagues and competitions, but could have even more enduring consequences for the natural playgrounds where the stars of the future discover their talent.

“Ponds and lakes are freezing less, so you have less entry into the sport,” notes Pierri. “So the sport becomes more expensive; only people who can afford to play inside are playing.

“Then we also have to consider that, as ice hockey players, our carbon footprint is quite high. It’s energy intensive to refrigerate the ice. It’s a lot of travel. So on one end we’re being very much impacted, but we’re also being pushed out of the natural world into a higher impact version of the sport.

“For myself, growing up in New Jersey, I didn’t get the opportunity to play on a natural body of water until I went to college. We were already seeing the effects of warming in New Jersey when I was younger, and 30 years later it’s much, much worse.”

The 2021 NHL Outdoors game at Lake Tahoe was delayed because of poor ice conditions caused by unseasonable weather

Hall has also seen how more incidents of extreme weather are impacting running. He recalls being on his way to the 2021 edition of the Cheviot Goat in Northumberland, only for the race to be cancelled when the UK was hit by Storm Arwen. At Tokyo 2020, the marathon events had to be moved from the host city to Sapporo and started earlier in the day to reduce the risk of runners competing in dangerously high temperatures. In a more devastating case, 21 competitors died from hypothermia in 2021 during a 100-kilometre trail running race held in China’s Yellow River Stone Forest in Gansu.

“When you put all these examples together, you can see that a huge amount is happening,” says Hall. “Because it’s such a big global problem, and you think of polar bears in the Arctic struggling, it’s hard to relate that back to your own life. But when you see these examples, I think it really brings it home how urgent this is. It’s not something that’s going to happen in a few years, it’s happening already.”

As well as bearing witness to the impact of climate change on ultrarunning, Hall has been monitoring the damage his sport is doing to the environment. Waste, he says, is a big issue, just as it is for athletes in other sports which churn through more uniforms, sponsored gear and equipment than they know what to do with.

We were already seeing the effects of warming in New Jersey when I was younger, and 30 years later it’s much, much worse.

Jacquie Pierri, ice hockey player for the Bolzano Eagles and sustainable energy engineer

Single-use plastic bottles, T-shirts and goodie bags are often handed out at both professional and amateur mass participation races, while regular runners typically change their shoes after every 300 miles covered. Competitors will also accumulate a sizeable individual carbon footprint flying to and from international events.

As a result, Hall has tried to make some personal changes to cut down on his own emissions. The 47-year-old is now fully vegan and hasn’t flown to an event since 2019, even opting to take the train to the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc in Chamonix, the world’s largest gathering of trail runners, rather than a short flight. He has also made record attempts without any plastic waste in his nutrition, which he describes as being “really hard”.

Hall isn’t the only sportsperson making personal sacrifices, but no two athletes are the same; the level at which they choose to engage with the climate fight will differ from one individual to another.

In some cases, it simply means taking a public stance on the issue. Collier recognises the platform athletes have and describes it as a “responsibility” to spread awareness about “what we think is important”. Hall, who co-founded The Green Runners, a community of runners making lifestyle changes to help protect the planet, in 2022, regularly attends protests and has authored a book, titled ‘We can’t run away from this’, that examines the impact of running on the climate. There are also a growing number of ‘ecopreneurs’, such as Formula One legend Lewis Hamilton, who is an investor in sustainability-focused businesses like plant-based restaurant chain Neat Burger and vertical farming startup Bowery.

Then you have someone like Pierri, who has been advocating for progress at a systemic level. In 2021, during a sub-event at the Cop26 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, she co-presented the Sports Community Manifesto, a document signed by more than 300 athletes, teams and sponsors calling for real action on climate change. Pierri has also taken part in a documentary exploring the threat global warming poses to outdoor ice hockey and has met with individuals at the World Meteorological Organisation, as well as glaciologists and members of local government.

“Some athletes are very glory driven,” Pierri says, “and I’m more like a stay-at-home defenseman, I wind up in the background, just part of the win. But I feel like this is important enough for me to stick my neck out for.”

“It’s a less lonely and vulnerable place”

How comfortable athletes ultimately feel talking about climate change will largely be influenced by education. And as more and more sportspeople show an interest in sustainability, organisations are being established specifically to help them amplify their voice.

Collier, Hall and Pierri are all members of EcoAthletes, a New York-based non-profit formed in April 2020 with the belief that “athletes are the most influential people on the planet”. Those are the words of its founder, Lewis Blaustein, who says the organisation now counts 108 active or retired sportsmen and women on its global roster, including Olympians, major league players and college athletes.

Blaustein adds that EcoAthletes engages with its “champions” on a daily basis and provides them with “the tools” to move from being “climate curious, to climate aware, to climate active, to climate leader”. That support spans mentorship and coaching through webinars, thought leadership opportunities in the media, and community chats with other members of the network that are held every two months.

“There needed to be an organisation that took the athletes who are already environmentally minded and active, and climate-minded but not active, and got them off the sidelines,” Blaustein tells SportsPro. “Another way to say it is we need to find and deploy the Muhammad Alis, the Billie Jean Kings, the Marcus Rashfords, the entire WNBA of climate.

“The opportunity is huge. Because with all due respect to rappers, and actors, and whatever the Kardashians are, athletes are way more influential than any of those people.”

According to Blaustein, one of the “main obstacles” that prevents athletes from speaking out about climate change is the response they fear receiving on social media. While platforms like Instagram, Twitter and TikTok are often celebrated as mediums through which sportspeople can influence vast amounts of people, taking a stance on polarising issues like global warming also exposes them to criticism and, in some instances, abuse.

Indeed, hypocrisy is one of the more common accusations levelled at athletes who choose to champion sustainability, given that most professional sports leagues require their competitors to travel both nationally and overseas.

While her followers will disagree with her on other subjects that WNBA players stand up for, Collier says she hasn’t had “any pushback” on her posts about climate change. Others have found that it helps to have facts to draw upon if and when the criticism does come.

“I was a bit naïve when I started,” Hall admits. “I still remember my first political post. I did think all my followers would love the ideas, were aware that climate breakdown is happening, and would therefore agree. And yes, not everyone agreed. At the time, I didn’t necessarily have the knowledge to back up certain arguments. It was maybe more emotional arguments.

“But now, I’ve got a lot more confidence in the science. I feel very fortunate that I’ve got a network of people and organisations who are both emotionally supportive and can also provide me with the science and the research.

“So it’s a lot less lonely and vulnerable place than it felt at the beginning.”

As well as joining protests and making political statements at events, Hall has taken to social media to raise awareness of climate change

“If they’re not going to say it, no one is”

In addition to the actions they are taking themselves, today’s generation of eco-conscious sportsmen and women are increasingly looking at what steps brands are taking to be more sustainable before deciding if they want to endorse them.

To that end, another way that EcoAthletes seeks to support its members is by connecting them with climate active brands to discuss potential endorsement deals. The organisation will first vet those companies wanting to use sports partnerships to showcase their eco credentials, which is a particularly important service at a time when more businesses are exploiting sponsorship deals to greenwash their environmental impact.

Turning down sponsorships for sustainability reasons is not a straightforward decision, particularly for athletes competing in sports where wages and prize pots are lower, meaning they are more reliant on their brand partners for the financial support that allows them to travel to competitions, as well as other essentials like gear and equipment.

Hall says Inov-8, a running shoe brand which is his primary sponsor, has been “really understanding” and has accepted that he is only going to promote the footwear the company sends him if he believes in its durability. However, he also points out that he stopped working with three sponsors last year, one of which provided funding, either because he “didn’t think they were doing enough” or “were a bit too contradictory”. He also knows of three fellow elite runners who have eschewed commercial support altogether.

“As an ambassador, I’ve really modified what I’ll do,” he adds. “I want to be less a part of the problem, because so much of this comes down to overconsumption, whether it’s sportswear or almost anything.”

Collier has also been bringing sustainability into both existing and new commercial conversations.

“It’s something that I’ve talked to my agent about, just being more aware of that,” she says. “Then since I’ve already signed to some brands, maybe bringing that eco [focus] to them and educating them on different things that we can do. I’m actually talking to my Nike rep about that. That’s really the only main sponsorship I have, but the one-off things, I’m making sure that their values align with what mine are.”

As well as taking greater ownership of their own commercial relationships, there’s a growing trend of athletes holding their bosses to account over who they are accepting sponsorship dollars from. Last year, reports suggested that Cricket Australia’s (CA) decision not to renew its AUS$40 million primary partnership with Alinta Energy was partly influenced by men’s national team captain Pat Cummins’ climate advocacy. Similarly, in October, mining company Hancock Prospecting withdrew its AUS$15 million backing of Netball Australia after players opposed the deal.

Netball Australia lost its sponsorship deal with mining company Hancock Prospecting following opposition from players

Many federations still rely on sponsorship deals to function, so clearly there is a balance to be struck between purpose and profit. But athletes are at least feeling empowered to challenge their sport’s decision makers, which might make rights holders think twice about who they do business with.

“When you look at the demographics of who owns the teams and who’s playing, the younger generation understand this issue a lot more, they understand the urgency, so if they’re not going to say it, no one is,” Pierri states.

“But it’s challenging, right? As an athlete, if you’re not performing well, you’re expendable. If you’re not a top performer, you maybe don’t feel like you have the right to say those kinds of things. So it’s challenging to find when the right place is to use your voice and when the right place is to be an invisible part of the team.

“I really do hope more athletes feel empowered to speak up on this and I hope more of the stars feel empowered to speak up on this.”

“It’s not like it only affects one person”

Pierri’s hopes are unsurprisingly shared by Blaustein, who says that EcoAthletes is now being contacted by athletes who are beginning to see climate conversations as a “safer space”, rather than having to make the approaches itself.

There is a case to be made that sustainability is already closely linked to a number of the societal issues that have proved to be important to athletes engaging in activism in recent years, including social justice. Indeed, as the climate crisis worsens, it is likely to be those who are disadvantaged and living in underserved communities who are going to be impacted the most. So as long as the threat of climate change exists, the more athletes are going to become alert to the issue, meaning their voices are only going to grow in number and volume.

With all due respect to rappers, and actors, and whatever the Kardashians are, athletes are way more influential than any of those people.

Lewis Blaustein, Founder, EcoAthletes

Precisely how far that goes remains to be seen. The 2020s have shown that athletes have the power to influence everything from individual behaviours to government policy. While the contributors to this article are less certain about exactly how much impact their climate action will have, they are all clear on one thing: why they are doing it and why sustainability matters to them.

“I recognise that my voice is quite small relative to some of the other big names in sport,” Pierri acknowledges. “But I just hope that I can be an example to other athletes to feel a bit more empowered to talk about this issue and to be a resource for those athletes who want a bit more information and to understand where their impact is. We need everybody onboard. I can’t stress that enough, so what I hope to do is just bring people into the conversation that might not see this as their issue.”

“If you can convert one person, you’ve made a difference, because then they can convert other people and then it spreads,” adds Collier. “It’s like it’s a domino effect. The more you talk about it, the more you have a chance to make someone else be aware like you are and make them realise that this is important for all of us. It’s not like it only affects one person, it affects the entire planet.”

“We’re the generation now that can lessen the future crisis, we’re the people who could do that,” Hall states, his voice straining as he does so. “My fear is that my children’s generation will look back at us in 20, 30, 40 years and go: ‘They were the ones who could have stopped it, why didn’t they stop it?’ And I suppose that terrifies me.

“That’s my personal motivation, it’s for my kids. Or at the very least for my kids to look back and say: ‘Well, at least my mum and dad tried.’”

This feature forms part of SportsPro’s Sustainability Week, a week of coverage exploring how the sports industry is trying to balance people, planet and profit. Click here to access more exclusive content and sign up to the SportsPro Daily newsletter here to receive daily insights direct to your inbox.

To find out more about SportsPro’s future themed weeks, click here.

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