A bold vision for club activism

club activism blog bw

Allen Herschowitz, founder and president of the Green Sports Alliance, was early in identifying the potential of sport to play a leading role in addressing climate change. The ambition conjures up the image of fans across the world adopting more sustainable behaviours with the encouragement and support of their heroes.

But is fan action the right lens?

When Warriors’ coach Steve Kerr spoke out on gun control back in April this year, it was applauded. Beside a couple of comments regarding a small measure of NBA complicity in the Uyghur genocide, media, commentators and the public welcomed his use of his pre-match media platform to share his feelings and confront the inaction of politicians. 

Within a month, over 500 CEOs of companies with over 500 employees had signed a letter to the US Senate, calling for action – to no immediate effect, but still a notable consequence.

Research has long shown that the public has greater trust in business leaders than in politicians and this is just the latest iteration. Indeed, HBR research suggests that CEOs are more effective than politicians in actually influencing public opinion. Business leaders are assumed to have the right to comment on societal issues, presumably because they carry a burden of leadership – far less so, sportspeople. While administrators may be permitted to stray into the public space, in respect of issues such as crowd safety, obesity and occasionally access, the individual athlete has no such prerogative.

Of course, this is changing. Colin Kaepernick kicked open the door to a whole new generation of athletes, beyond Mohammed Ali and Billie Jean King to bring, if not politics, then social justice into sport. In the UK, Marcus Rashford carved out a unique role in his successful battle for free school lunches, managing to overcome the scepticism and prejudice which could have silenced him. But the price of activism for many athlete activists has often been their sporting career.

So far, no athletes have stood up for the environment to the same extent. Perhaps because there are few environmental ‘victims’ – yet. Although Australian netball player Amy Steel earned ample entitlement to speak out on climate change after extreme heat brought her career to a premature end

Athletes are certainly growing into advocacy. Given the continuing rise of dedicated media and the crossover of successful athletes into popular culture, some athletes are aware of the tremendous platform they can command. But others feel disempowered or unable to speak. Fear of attack, of apparent hypocrisy – as though only the perfect, or survivors, are allowed to speak. Athletes – like the rest of us – can easily feel cowed by the weight of our own ignorance in issues relating to the climate, or social issues, for that matter. It’s understandable to feel intimidated by an undertaking as huge as combating climate change because individual action often seems inconsequential when there is so much to do, and when nothing seems to produce immediate and tangible results.

Organisations such as EcoAthletes are  equipping climate-active athletes to lead climate action. Similarly, Front Runners  established by the former Australian rugby union captain David Pocock and his wife Emma is a movement for athletes working for the future of sport in a changing world. Meanwhile in the UK, David Hampton and Etienne Stott co-founded Champions for Earth, a coalition of current and former athletes and environmental activists, using their collective platform to get their voices heard – eloquent advocates for advocacy.

But clubs…?

One particular episode of the excellent Sustainability Report, hosted by Matthew Campelli, takes a very different look at this challenge. Episode #82  looks at Climate Justice, referring to the fact that the impact of climate change is in general likely to impact already disadvantaged populations disproportionately.

The podcast featured Seán McCabe and Jessica Murfree.  Seán is a climate change and sustainable development specialist. In 2021, he joined Dublin’s Bohemian Football Club as the (world’s first) Climate Justice Officer, to enable the club to take environmental action and empower the fans and community around the club to realise their environmental rights. Jessica is a Visiting Assistant Professor and ACES Fellow at Texas A&M University, and researches the relationships between sport, climate change, and events of extreme weather. 

It was fascinating. Between them, Jessica and Seán made a strong argument for club leadership in climate action, believing that their relationship with local fans positions clubs to fill a leadership vacuum in communities, giving voice to and representing the local fans – on the basis that local communities will be most affected by failures in political leadership.

Although clubs in the last two decades have nurtured far broader links with local communities than ever before, I’ve rarely seen the broader role of clubs in communities discussed beyond traditional community engagement.

In Seán’s words, their role is far more fundamental: ‘In the past, community fabric was held together by things like trade unions or churches. And oftentimes we find that it’s football clubs and sports clubs that people are now a member of cradle to grave.’

As a result, the collective strength, the ability to mobilise, to advocate that used to be held by the unions and church now sit with the club. And given the absence of leadership in politics or business or anywhere else to provide sustainability solutions at suitable scale, there’s an opportunity for clubs to take that lead, to represent their communities, and work to give them a platform to tackle the injustices that they face.

Even though clubs have no intrinsic entitlement to take the lead in climate action, they can legitimately claim greater allegiance and a stronger mandate than most politicians and greater visibility and relevance than local business leaders. And a strong values connection.

English football has commercialism of US sports without their egalitarianism

Ironically the US model of sport for many years stood for crass over-commercialisation but despite this increasingly stands in contrast to the UK sports landscape for its commitment to community, in the same way that it stands for more equitable commercial structures, as presented here by Aaron Timms in the Guardian.

On the issue of entitlement and the nature of individual responsibility for the climate crisis, the optic is upended. The argument is that, although important, personal accountability for climate action is a distraction. 

In Seán’s words again: ‘The concept of the carbon footprint was invented by fossil fuels so they could continue doing what they’re doing. You’ve got individuals who can’t clearly afford to see it through to the end of the week being told that they’re responsible for their carbon footprint. It’s laughable.’

In Seán’s mind, our focus should be much less about individual responsibility and more about standing up for what’s right, with clubs taking a lead in advocating for systemic change, explaining to fans that they’re not responsible and giving them a voice to call on those who have the power to make the radical change.’

Jessica and Seán go further, arguing that clubs should embrace commercial investment in the many new sustainability-driven businesses and industries that are developing, so their value can be owned by communities, and bring tangible benefits. ‘Now, that may seem far beyond the remit of the football club. But why not have it under a football club? Why not have it under an institution that’s trusted by the communities, why not embed these real empowering opportunities?’

Sean's club, Bohemians, recently ran their inaugural Bohemians Environmental Justice Film Festival - not exactly the stereotypical club activity, but hugely successful.

All three of these are radical thoughts that are perhaps difficult to imagine happening under the dominant models of ownership or commercial operation of the bigger clubs. They also  assume, I would say quite correctly – that the environment is a transcendental challenge and that the burning platform we now inhabit requires new thinking and courage. And in that context, more clubs could perhaps rise to the challenge?