The Sports World Needs To Acknowledge Climate Change

With USC and UCLA joining the big ten, the sports world and the NCAA need to acknowledge climate change and evolve accordingly.

UCLA and USC are planning on joining the Big Ten, according to a timeline-busting report yesterday. That news obviously has a huge ripple effect — namely, the disintegration of one of college sports’ oldest and most powerful conferences and a complete reshaping of the college sports landscape. As The Athletic’s Nicole Auerbach reported, it’s looking likely that this is just another early step (along with Oklahoma and Texas going to the SEC) in moving the most lucrative college athletics departments into two “megaconferences:” the Big Ten and the SEC. 

At the most superficial level, this doesn’t really matter much. Yes, something about tradition and history is worth noting, but as anyone who pays even a little attention can tell you, college athletics are about nothing but money at this point — especially when it comes to the big cash cow, football. Conference realignment, which is at this point an ongoing process for extracting profits with a “no gods, no masters” mentality, is an easy means to that end. People will keep watching and rooting — and the college stadiums will remain full — even as rivalries evolve or die.

Within the logistics of this massive shift, though, the consequences of that greed start to become clear. As ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel pointed out, now college athletes will have to fly further and more often for ostensibly conference games — moving regularly from Los Angeles to New Jersey and back, for example. Those are the kinds of trips that professional teams complain about, and — as ever — college athletes still aren’t getting a paycheck for the wear and tear on their bodies.

usc coliseum
With increased travel demands, the NCAA needs to acknowledge climate change concerns.

It’s important to note that on top college teams, rigorous travel schedules are already the norm — especially for non-conference games. But the sheer volume of movement is about to become much higher. The Big Ten already has 14 member schools. With the addition of USC and UCLA, the conference will have nearly 500 teams (there are 32 Division I sports currently, and my assumption is that almost all schools in the Big Ten field teams in almost all of those sports) shuttling around the country. Not only is that rough for the student athletes, further impacting the bodies that they already put through so much for zero pay, but it reflects a galling disregard for an even broader, equally urgent concern: how big sports affect climate change.

The environmental impact of air travel is outsized, coupling massive carbon dioxide emissions with a variety of other gasses and substances that make those carbon dioxide emissions even more harmful. It’s not the largest polluter in the U.S. by a long shot (stop driving), but for something that was not long ago an unheard of luxury, its growth is unsustainable at best and extremely detrimental to the climate at worst. Unsurprisingly, the U.S. jet fuel consumption per capita is six times the global average, outpacing even Europe as governments there work to divert people to rail, a more sustainable option.

Our government, per usual, is busily working in the opposite direction, leaving the massive organizations that have the most power to slow climate change to their own devices — which of course means shedding responsibility in order to make more money. The universities making these changes house plenty of scientists who could elucidate for them quite clearly why organizing sports so more athletes have to fly further and more often is incredibly wasteful and runs counter to all of their research — could explain why no one will force them to make the decent choice because no one has enough power to do that, so it’s up to them. 

With USC and UCLA joining the big ten, the sports world and the NCAA need to acknowledge climate change and evolve accordingly.

But those schools only care about those scientists insofar as they can show them in lab coats in ads that they air during College GameDay to try to prove that they’re more than just exploitative money laundering operations. The over-the-top waste will expand until there’s nothing left, until university and TV network coffers are full of cash that’s meaningless on a burning planet.

Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.