Here’s a secret that may be a little too well kept: For years, Major League Baseball clubs have gone to bat for the environment.
In January, the New York Yankees announced they would be the first team in any U.S. professional sport to add a full-time environmental science adviser. Allen Hershkowitz , a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council for 26 years, will focus on energy use, waste management, water conservation and sustainability in food services.
While the Yankees are going further than their competition on that front, they aren’t the only big-league team taking green issues seriously.
In 2007, the Cleveland Indians installed solar panels at what is now called Progressive Field. Since then, they’ve instituted a broad range of programs, from recycling to using wind energy. In the National League, the San Francisco Giants have been a leader. Along with implementing solar power in 2007, the organization boasts projects in water conservation, sustainable concessions (it features an on-site garden at the team’s newly named Oracle Park) and a program that diverts as much as 95 percent of its waste annually from landfills to recycling and composting. In 2018, the San Diego Padres built Major League Baseball’s biggest solar power system. The 336,520-watt setup is larger than all the other big-league stadiums’ solar efforts combined.
Every MLB team has committed to some form of environmental action. For example, beginning with the Seattle Mariners in 2015, 18 teams have shifted to using LED lighting, which cuts energy use dramatically. Elsewhere, 12 Major League ballparks now operate their own gardens or farms to deliver more sustainable stadium eats. In 2018, eight teams were using solar power.
“The last 10 years, it’s grown from what it started as — a few clubs — to what it is today, where all 30 teams are participating in some fashion,” MLB’s Senior Director of Ballpark Operations and Sustainability Paul Hanlon told MLB.com last month.
With more than 69 million spectators attending games last year, these tangible conservation efforts do make a difference in reducing carbon footprints. Of course, more could be done across the board. Take the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox. The club has green programming in place, but would make a far greater impact by embracing pleas from Environment Massachusetts and others to transition to 100 percent renewable energy.
That’s not to say people shouldn’t cheer the positive. But there’s a problem: MLB and its teams haven’t hit a home run in communicating what they’re doing.
As someone who previously worked for Major League Baseball and later represented professional players, I wasn’t aware of all these initiatives. If you do a little research, it’s pretty easy to find information on this work. But if a person with a little insider knowledge didn’t know what was going on, how can the league and teams effectively serve as a beacon for improving environmental practices elsewhere?
Athletes and sports teams have certainly cast light on vital issues in the past. Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 played a seminal role in the civil rights movement. Boxer Muhammad Ali’s pacifist stance during the Vietnam War was a big boost to the anti-war movement. Billie Jean King’s 1973 tennis victory over Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” significantly impacted the national dialogue on gender equality.
The United Nations believes sports figures, teams and leagues can play a similar role for the environment. In December, the U.N. established a Sports for Climate Action framework with the hope of “using sports as a unifying tool to federate and create solidarity among global citizens for climate action.”
And yet, the environmental movement hasn’t experienced a Jackie Robinson moment. There are a few potential explanations for this puzzling situation:
- While leagues and teams are walking the walk to various degrees, they could do better at talking the talk. Sustainability is not a messaging cornerstone. That lack of self-promotion limits their influence on public discourse.
- Bolder action is necessary. Teams may be on the right path, but a comprehensive commitment to 100 percent renewable energy and other important environmental enterprises would surely help clubs amplify attention for their worthwhile programs. Going big grabs attention.
- In the past, cultural change via sports was often led by individual athletes and not teams. Former MLB manager Dusty Baker has thrown himself into the solar power business, and Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Brent Suter, who describes himself as a “wannabe environmentalist”, is campaigning to eliminate plastic waste. Green causes could not only use more star power, they could also benefit from athletes who are willing to bravely step out for the environment like John Carlos and Tommy Smith did for civil rights when they raised black gloves on the medal winners’ podium at the 1968 Olympics.
Some combination of all three factors has likely blunted the value of these environmental endeavors. As a result, action is required. Teams need to both increase and better highlight their environmental activities and message. And while soccer megastar Cristiano Ronaldo has shown some support for green causes, a greater number of high-profile athletes must make the environment a priority. If all of that happens, it will be a win-win for everyone.