Sports and Sustainability

Environmental initiatives are a top priority for many colleges, but they are an afterthought -- or a distraction -- for most sports programs, new survey finds.
July 30, 2009

College athletics departments already have a lot on their plates: they are responsible not only for the success of their teams, but also for urging their athletes to perform well in the classroom, too. A new study suggests that many should make room for one more priority: environmental sustainability.

Today, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) released a survey of 97 of the 119 institutions in the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Along with a set of questions about what concrete environmental initiatives are already in place, the survey aims to determine just how important sustainability is to college athletics departments, relative to the commitments of the universities they are a part of.

For example, the study finds that even though nearly 72 percent of the athletics departments reported that sustainability initiatives were either a “high” or “very high” priority for their institutions as a whole, only 44 percent reported that it was a “high” or “very high” priority within their own departments.

Mark McSherry, a Harvard University graduate student who has worked for a number of environmentally minded companies, hopes to conduct this survey annually to track any trends in the field. The year’s survey, however, primarily serves as a foil to a similar survey he conducted last year to gauge the sustainability practices of of 79 professional sports teams.

Almost three-fourths of all the professional sports teams McSherry surveyed reported that they were either developing or “actively planning to develop a strategic sustainability plan,” while only a quarter of the college athletics departments reported that they were doing the same.

Julian Dautremont-Smith, associate director of AASHE, said he suspects this gap exists primarily because of structural differences between the two types of athletic entities. Professional sports teams, he noted, are typically stand-alone ventures that can pursue environmental efforts without bureaucratic interference. By contrast, he said, many college athletics departments are often beholden to higher authorities, or their officials believe the larger sustainability initiatives of their institutions cover their commitments.

The latter rationale, however, might not be an excuse. Nearly 80 percent of the athletics department respondents did not know whether the president of their university had signed the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment. Similarly, on their own, only 7 percent of athletics departments reported that they had “formed a departmental green team.”

Despite this, Dautremont-Smith said AASHE is not suggesting that athletics departments, for example, make their own sustainability commitments or hire dedicated environmental staff independent of their institution’s commitments and coordinators. He did, however, argue that they should, like their academic department counterparts, consider ways to change their behaviors to fit into their institutions' larger plans.

To name a few specific possibilities, the survey notes that “energy efficiency/conservation” and “recycling” are receiving the most attention within athletics departments that have environmental initiatives, while purchasing “natural/local food” is receiving the least attention. Also, more than half of all athletics departments noted that they are not “measuring the greenhouse gas emissions associated with any aspect of their operations.”

Though no specific program examples were lauded in the report, Dautremont-Smith did cite a few athletic department-headed projects that he thought were successful. Last year, the University of Colorado at Boulder announced that it planned to “recycle or compost at least 90 percent of the waste generated at Folsom Field,” its football stadium. Also, programs such as the University of Florida, the University of Georgia, the University of Notre Dame and the University of Wisconsin at Madison hosted “carbon neutral” football games last season. Some of these athletic departments, for instance, planted trees and plants nearby to “offset” the average carbon emissions of game-day activities and team travel.

The future of these “green” initiatives in college athletics departments, however, appears unclear. Nearly three-fourths of the respondents reported that they “expect the emphasis on environmental programs” in their departments “to increase in the future.” On the other hand, more than 43 percent of the athletic departments responded that they were either “slightly concerned” or “very concerned” that such programs would “distract” them from their “main goals.”

“I don’t think it’s surprising,” Dautremont-Smith said of the athletics departments’ low prioritization of sustainability. “I certainly understand that there are other things on their agenda and that it’s not the only thing that they have to consider. But, it should be an important thing. For example, institutions as a whole have to juggle various things and so do all the other departments. Sustainability should be something else on that list. And for a growing number of athletics departments, like institutions, it’ll be expected to be on that list.”


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