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Why Aren’t There More Pro-Environment Sports Stars?

Winter sports, especially, are fundamentally threatened by climate change. Why don’t you hear more pro athletes speaking out?

Why Aren’t There More Pro-Environment Sports Stars?
[Image: Flickr user Victoria Welch]

Winter sports like ice hockey, skiing, and snowboarding are among the leisure activities most endangered by climate change, but you don’t hear much environmental outcry from dedicated athletes in these communities, let alone the wider world of professional sports world.

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Even those who do speak out know they are treading tricky territory, with fans, sponsors, and sometimes their teams.

“The thing about athletes, and the reason they are playing sports professionally, is that we’re really good at being selfish and very single-minded about what we want to accomplish. The vast majority of athletes have blinders on,” says Edmonton Oilers defenseman Andrew Ference, a 15-year NHL veteran and Stanley Cup winner, while speaking at a conference of the Green Sports Alliance in New York City.

Ference, an Alberta, Canada native, can say that because he is among those who defy the mold. A lifelong environmentalist, he led the creation of a carbon neutral program for the NHL. It allows players and teams to purchase carbon offsets to counteract their traveling footprint. National Geographic did a series on the “eco-warrior” last year.

Advocacy groups for a wide range of issues often seek celebrities to be the public face (and be directly involved) in their campaigns because of the sway they hold with fans and the media. And athletes themselves can make change within their sports, as Ference’s story illustrates. And the good news is that Ference has only needed a few fellow NHL players who “get it” to make significant changes within his league.

But unlike, say raising money for cancer, environmental issues–especially climate change–can be politically divisive and even directly contrary to the very notion of what sports is about.

“Sports are about consumption. People consume a lot. It’s a method of getting products to market,” says Ference. “You don’t want to go out there and say hey, everybody walk here and don’t buy anything.”

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Kimmy Fasani, a professional snowboarder who works with the Riders Alliance to Protect Our Winters, has had to make sure her sponsors are supportive of and aligned with her cause–which has meant changing her sponsors. “There’s definitely a gray line in how much you can say. I try to walk that balance very finely.”

This project tracks climate change by noting which skating rinks and ponds aren’t frozen during the winter.

More than in most sports, the alliance’s climate change mission is more directly related to the sport itself. Skiers and snowboarders rely on precise temperature and snow conditions to make for a good ride and a productive season. Today, scientists project that in 25 years, the average Northeast ski season will be less than 100 days long, and the probability of the slopes being open for Christmas will be less than 75%. “I’m always chasing winter. And so I see it. I see it happening. There’s less snow pack. More drastic snowstorms and dry periods. That’s scary to me.”

Athletes who do speak out, says Ference, need to be sure in what they are saying, with people’s “bullshit meters” so high these days. “You better know what they hell you’re talking about, and you better live it.”

He says he’s not worried about what other people think and has a strategy of avoiding people calling him “geeky,” too: “That’s just why you have to fight once in awhile.”

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.

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