These Professional Athletes Are Playing for Climate Wins

The nonprofit EcoAthletes is working to inspire a #ClimateComeback.

Napheesa Collier, forward for the Minnesota Lynx
Napheesa Collier, forward for the WNBA's Minnesota Lynx.

Via Getty Images

Napheesa Collier is a forward for the Minnesota Lynx and the 2019 Rookie of the Year. Before joining the WNBA, she won a national championship as a key player during the University of Connecticut’s undefeated 2016 season. 

Collier is also on another team: She’s an EcoAthletes Champion. EcoAthletes is a nonprofit that launched just over a year ago, with the mission to inspire and coach athletes to lead climate action. In its first year, 34 current and retired professional athletes have joined the team, from a wide range of sports and countries. That’s despite the challenges of starting a new organization in midst of a global pandemic.

“My teammates and I talk about a lot of issues, but we haven’t gotten into it on climate yet,” Collier tells Treehugger. “Two things my teammates do talk about are racial injustice and economic injustice. I know that climate change makes these issues much more difficult to deal with, especially for marginalized people and those who are least able to adjust. I hope EcoAthletes can help me bring this intersectionality to light and to act on positive solutions.”

Although there’s a long history of athletes taking a stand on social justice issues, they have been more hesitant to speak out about climate change for a number of reasons, explains Lewis Blaustein, the founder of EcoAthletes. 

Blaustein has a background in the overlap of sports and sustainability and is also the creator of Over the course of his career, he’s had the opportunity to work with and interview a wide range of athletes, climate experts, and facilities managers, gaining a unique perspective on the issue. 

“Three obstacles kept coming up as to why athletes would not engage on climate, including those who were engaged on other environmental off-field issues like plastic ocean waste, e-waste recycling, and hurricane relief,” he says. 

First, some athletes prefer to not publicly engage in politics, which is common to a range of advocacy work. Second, when it comes to climate, athletes worried about communicating the science poorly. Finally, fears of being labeled a “climate hypocrite” also stood in the way. 

To overcome these challenges, EcoAthletes was formed. The organization offers athletes access to a resource hub and organizes events for athletes to learn from climate scientists and other climate experts.

“I look forward to learning more about climate change from EcoAthletes so I can become more confident when I speak about it, including with my teammates on the Lynx,” says Collier. “That way, I’ll be able to educate my community about the problem and its solutions.”

In turn, athletes can share their passion for the environment with their fans, get involved in more direct action, and even advocate for policy change. 

Among the players who have joined, most know first-hand how climate change is already impacting their sports. Alena Olsen, who is a member of the U.S. Women's Rugby 7s team, offered an example:

“Many of the World Series tournaments are played in excruciating heat which make playing conditions increasingly unsafe,” she says. “We often fantasize about night tournaments just so we can maintain high levels of energy throughout the tournament. California, where we train, is ravaged with wildfires in the summer that jeopardize the air quality for weeks at a time.”

Olsen is working to get her fans involved with climate action. For Earth Day, Olsen and the U.S. Rugby Players Association led a “Going for Green” event, which planted a tree for every workout a fan or player logged in a special app. “We did 'Going for Green' together, as a team and as a community, the only way that climate change can be approached,” she says. 

EcoAthlete Champions are involved in a range of different kinds of environmental action. One of the first athletes to join the organization was Brent Suter, a pitcher for the Milwaukee Brewers. Suter has been a vocal advocate for policy solutions, including endorsing a bipartisan carbon pricing bill in Congress.

Other athletes want to make personal changes in their lives and then share how they do it with their fans. To this end, the EcoAthletes uses the hashtag #ClimateComeback, turning athletes into eco-influencers. “We’re behind in the climate game. We need to make a comeback,” says Blaustein. "Athletes move the needle."

“A lot of it is trying to educate our followers and talk about climate change,” says Olsen. “Caring about the Earth shouldn't be a hobby or an identity, but a responsibility that everyone recognizes as their own. Once that happens, sustainability will become a value in everyday decision making and all those actions will add up.”